Two items from the last few days capture the dire situation now facing the West. The big one was the massive pro-Hamas demonstrations over the weekend in New York, London, and other major Western cities — crowds that rivaled the immense gathering Saturday in Istanbul, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told hundreds of thousands of his countrymen that “we will declare Israel a war criminal,” and threatened “to reignite the war between the crescent and the cross.”
In New York, pro-Hamas mobs took over Grand Central Station and shut down the Brooklyn Bridge, carrying banners declaring “honor the martyrs” and calling for the elimination of Israel “by any means.” In London, a crowd of a hundred thousand or more descended on Whitehall, where protesters attacked police, surrounded Westminster, and chanted “Allahu Akbar” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” In Hamburg, demonstrators waved Taliban and Al Qaeda flags.
These were larger versions of the aggressive demonstrations we saw on college campuses across the U.S. immediately following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Coming so soon after the mass slaughter of Israeli civilians — even before Israel was able to respond — it was clear that such demonstrations had nothing to do with concerns for the safety of civilians in Gaza and everything to do with a virulent antisemitic and anti-Western ideology that has taken root in our schools and cities.
The important thing to grasp about this ideology is that it’s incompatible with Western civilization and an open society. If it’s allowed to grow and fester as it has been for the past three decades (at least), it will destroy the societies that once tolerated it. That should have been obvious a long time ago, but it’s now an undeniable reality. The Hamas sympathizers taking over the streets of Western cities do not want to join the West, they want to conquer it. They belong to the global left, and like all leftists, they take advantage of uniquely Western principles like tolerance and free speech to work toward the creation of a society that will retain neither.
That presents the West with a serious problem. As Russ Roberts, a fellow of the Hoover Institute and president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, explained in a long Twitter thread last week, reasonable people can disagree about Israeli policy vis-a-vis Gaza and Hamas, but what does a free society do about Jew-hatred? “How does an open society like Australia’s deal with a crowd of hundreds if not thousands who chant not just ‘F**k the Jews’ but ‘Gas the Jews’ on the steps of the Sydney Opera House?” Hundreds of thousands of people chanting “from the river to the sea” in New York or London, adds Roberts, is not just a celebration of the murder of Jews, it’s a demand for ethnic cleansing.
What are societies committed to free expression and free assembly supposed to do about this? Tell Jews to hide or be less identifiably Jewish? Are Jews supposed to cancel classes or tell students not to wear their school uniforms, as they have already had to do in New York? And how are such societies supposed to make good citizens out of people who think the Hamas slaughter on Oct. 7 was justified? Will such people respect the free-speech rights and religious liberty of those with whom they disagree? No, of course not.
That brings us to the second item, which didn’t grab headlines the way the massive pro-Hamas demonstrations did. On Friday, a video went viral of a group of blue-collar New Yorkers confronting an Arab man who was ripping down posters of Israeli children kidnapped by Hamas (the new favorite pastime of terrorist sympathizers across the West).
One of the men gets in the Arab guy’s face. “This is New York City,” he says. “You don’t have a f-ckin’ right to touch that sh-t. This is a free country. You can wave your Palestine flag and say ‘death to the Jews’ or ‘America’ or whatever you want. But we can put up f-ckin’ signs.”
He tells the Arab guy to shut up and move on. He tells him some other things too, like that he’s going to litter the floor with him, that he’s dying to put him in the hospital. The Arab guy shuts up and moves on.
The clip went viral for how much it contrasted with the videos we saw all last week, of pro-Hamas college students self-righteously ripping down posters of missing and kidnapped Israeli children. In nearly every video, the person holding the camera tries to shame the Hamas supporters, plead with them, or persuade them that what they’re doing is wrong, offensive, and morally insane. All to no effect.
Not this anonymous blue-collar man in New York. He understands there’s no point shaming or pleading with such people, so he instead brings something to the table that’s been missing from these exchanges: a credible threat of violence. He understands the time for pleading or persuading has passed, and that people who rip down posters of missing Israeli children deserve no toleration, no dialogue. They must be stopped — by force if necessary.
He even concedes that the Arab man has a right to his repugnant opinions — that he can wave his Palestine flag and chant “death to the Jews” — but he has no right to silence the views of others. And clearly, the people cheering on Hamas in the streets are the sort of people who have no qualms about silencing the views of others if they have the numbers and force to do so.
Here in this one brief exchange, then, we can see a profound and potentially fatal dilemma facing the West. There are two important aspects to it. The first is the feminization of our institutions, which has allowed the people in charge of those institutions (especially the colleges and universities) to ignore objections from those in the minority without any fear of retaliation or consequences. In the past, this mostly took the form of left-wing student mobs, often egged on by faculty and administrators, shouting down conservative speakers with impunity, sometimes even attacking them.
But now it has taken a new and even more aggressive form. Students know they can don their keffiyehs and straightforwardly call for Jewish genocide — even threaten Jewish students and force them to barricade inside buildings, as they did at Cooper Union in New York last week and at Cornell this past weekend — without fear of censure from their deans and professors. (It was a Cornell professor, after all, who declared to a pro-Hamas rally on campus that the slaughter on Oct. 7 was “exhilarating” and “energizing.”) They deploy the global left’s language of victimization and decolonization in service of a nakedly antisemitic, anti-Western campaign of conquest.
The second aspect of the dilemma is that the West now has a great many people in it who reject the bedrock principles of Western civilization. These people are not interested in freedom of speech, individual liberty, religious freedom, and so on. Indeed they are actively trying to supplant Western civilization, either with a particular strain of global Marxism or with some version of Islam. Those might be distinct ideologies on their own terms, but in the context of the crisis facing the West, they are nearly indistinguishable forces — a Red-Green alliance, you might call it. And for now, at least, they are allied against Israel and the United States in particular and Western civilization in general.
Under these circumstances, the West will have to come to terms with the limits of tolerance if it’s going to survive. The animating ideology behind these pro-Hamas demonstrations is incompatible with a free society. So how much of it can a free society tolerate? Must Western countries simply allow the unchecked proliferation of terrorist or Marxist ideologies? Must they allow foreign nationals who espouse these ideologies into the country indefinitely?
Perhaps it seems paradoxical that in its own defense, a free society would have to place limits on tolerance or diversity of opinion and culture. But as Roberts said, it’s a question of life or death for the West, which will not survive if the Red-Green alliance prevails.
Americans have of course always placed some limits on freedom. In the past, those limits were arguably clearer than they are today, for better or worse. But the limits were minimal because American culture was cohesive and strong enough to tolerate elements that stood outside of it. Our founders knew an open society would only be possible if the mainstream of that society agreed about certain fundamental tenets and ideals — ultimately, about a certain view of God and man.
When George Washington told the Hebrew Congregation of Newport that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” and that Jews in the fledgling republic could rest assured that “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid,” he was speaking about a society that was nearly unanimous in its embrace of religious toleration and the principles of liberalism.
Such a society can tolerate a limited amount of anti-Western sentiment in its ranks, whether the Islamo-fascism of Hamas or the racist Marxism of BLM. But that kind of toleration is a luxury good that only a highly cohesive society can afford. Once the mainstream loses cohesion, once elite institutions embrace anti-Western ideologies, you end up with mobs calling for genocide and religious minorities hiding for fear of their safety. In what sense, at that point, do you have an open society?
Put another way, America can tolerate a few commie professors scattered among its universities, but it won’t survive the communist capture of every school. At some point, you have to limit the number of commies you let through the door, just as you have to limit the number of Islamic fascists you let into the country.
No one in the West wants to hear this. Liberals and libertarians will smear you as an authoritarian for saying it, but their open-ended tolerance for hostile ideologies and worldviews is what brought us to this point. The quaint slogan that “I hate what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” only works when most people in a society agree that decapitating babies and dismembering children is evil and that those who commit such crimes must be hunted down and killed.
But when you have as many people as we have now who don’t share those principles and don’t agree to live by them, the old toleration transforms from a source of strength to a dangerous liability. The West had better start grappling with this now before it’s too late. It might be too late already.