Weaponizing Antisemitism: The Battle at Indiana University

Purnima Bose

Posted December 20, 2023

Rabbis for Ceasefire in Washington, DC. Instagram

[The broadside attacks launched in Congress against pro-Palestinian activism exploded into the headlines with demands for the resignations of the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania who has already been forced out. The following account details a struggle unfolding at a major Midwestern public campus — ed.]

ON NOVEMBER 15, 2023 Representative Jim Banks (IN-03) sent Indiana University President Pamela Whitten a letter demanding information about antisemitic incidents at IU that had occurred following the horrifying October 7 Hamas attacks in Israel.

Banks also inquired about the status of the IU Antisemitism Advisory Board. His letter cites concerns about several campus demonstrations organized by what he calls the “Palestinian Solidarity Committee” — he means the Palestine Solidarity Committee — and the resignation of two IU Student Government [IUSG] representatives claiming that the IUSG president is “blatantly antisemitic” and unwilling “to work with Jewish students.”(1)

Flimsy on evidence that these incidents are antisemitic, Banks’ letter expresses zero concern about Islamophobia or racism on campus. Banks further reminds President Whitten that “If IU administrators condone or tolerate antisemitism, the university could lose access to federal funding” under provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

His letter is part of a larger partisan trend, in Indiana and nationally, to erode academic freedom through legislative incursions in college curricula, the wielding of threats to defund academic units that do not conform to narrow belief systems, criminalizing K-12 teachers for showing compassion to their LGBTQ+ students, and prosecuting librarians who do not censure materials deemed “harmful to minors.”(2)

Responding to Banks’ letter, IU faculty member Jeffrey C. Isaac wrote an “Open Letter on Academic Freedom at Indiana University, Bloomington,” signed by an additional 221 IU faculty colleagues, that expresses alarm at “the threatening tone of [Banks’] letter, the way in which it injects ideology into the proper governance of the university” and “conflates academic leadership with the policing of controversial ideas.” (Full disclosure: I am one of the original signatories.)

Denouncing antisemitism and Islamophobia as forms of hate speech, the Open Letter emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between “real anti-Jewish conduct” and “pro-Palestinian advocacy.”

Conflict Over Academic Freedom

The Open Letter also acknowledges tensions on campus among students in the wake of the unfolding tragedy in the Middle East.

“A campus is a place where young people come to learn, to expand their horizons, and to test out ideas and political convictions within the bounds of the law. It is not uncommon for college students to assume strong political positions and sometimes to speak in ways that offend others or strain the limits of academic freedom,” the letter reads.

While urging the IU administration to guarantee the safety of everyone on campus, the Open Letter explains that faculty “do not believe that any administration should be pressured to treat controversial political speech as a security threat, or to use legitimate safety concerns as a pretext to stifle academic freedom.”(3)

In a subsequent article published in The Nation, Isaac describes Representative Banks’ cynical opportunism.(4) A declared candidate for the U.S. Senate, Banks is an acolyte of Donald Trump and was one of the 147 Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. He characterizes the January 6 insurrectionists as quintessentially American. According to Banks, “coming to the Capitol and protesting, speaking out, marching around the Capitol mall holding signs” bespeaks civic engagement.

As Banks had never been outspoken about antisemitism before, his current outrage looks suspiciously like an attempt to broaden his electoral base beyond MAGA voters.

Banks’ response to the faculty’s Open Letter was predictable given his dubious distinction as the founder and leader of the “Anti-Woke Caucus,” a group of 26 House Republicans which has vowed, in Banks’ words, “to root out all all [sic] far-left political programs from the federal government.”(5)

In practice, this goal takes aim at public health measures and rejects science by introducing a handful of amendments to appropriation bills, targeting the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

Amendments include prohibiting masking and vaccination mandates for civilian and military DoD employees, and defunding DHS’s climate literacy strategy.  The caucus also passed a ridiculous proposal to reduce DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ salary to $1.(6)

Banks claims to have a “very specific” definition of “wokeness,” which, in actuality, is quite expansive and presupposes a broad leftist conspiracy. For him, “wokeness” means those who believe:

“(A)ll the so-called oppressor groups must be punished for their past and present alleged sins. There are many steps to punishing them: inducing self-hatred through indoctrination, stripping away their rights by not enforcing the laws on their behalf, public humiliation, hatred, expropriation and ultimately violence. That’s what the Left has done so far. It’s not exactly clear yet how far this can go.”(7)

Indeed, charges of wokeness are often leveled at people who champion universal dignity, including civil liberties and the right to safety for all, regardless of religion, race, nationality, gender and sexual identity. Banks’ disparagement of wokeness signals his opposition to the innate dignity of all people, a value that one would hope is shared by our elected leaders.

Opposition to wokeness is clearly a priority for Banks. On the social media platform X, he posted his response to the faculty Open Letter: “Woke liberal professors justifying their anti-semitic and anti-American activity brainwashing our kids to hate America and Israel…”(8)

Charging the signatories of the Open Letter — a significant number of whom are Jewish, and who believe that universal dignity is entirely consistent with core Jewish beliefs — with antisemitism is absurd.

Banks’ tweet should concern everyone who abhors antisemitism. By accusing liberal professors of antisemitism, he deflects attention from the real perpetrators of violence against Jews and people of color on campus and in the community. Hint: they are not the liberals or the progressives.

Antisemitism and Racism for Real

Representative Banks is right to worry about antisemitism and, one would hope, other forms of hatred in Bloomington. In 1983, Beth Shalom Jewish Religious and Community Center was firebombed by the white supremist group the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord. Thankfully, there were no injuries in this attack.(9)

Tragically, that was not the case in 1999 when IU graduate student Won-Joon Yoon was gunned down by a member of the World Church of the Creator, another white supremacist group. The gunman had earlier embarked on a shooting spree in the Chicago area, murdering former Northwestern coach Ricky Byrdsong, who was African American, and injuring other African Americans, Asian Americans and Orthodox Jews.(10)

Since then Bloomington has been periodically papered with neo-Nazi flyers posted by outside groups such as the Patriot Front and KKK.(11) According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, as of this 2023, 29 white supremacist organizations are active in Indiana, an increase of 10 since 2020.(12)

Everyone is endangered by actual antisemitism, which triggers and becomes a model for all kinds of violent hate crimes. When Banks and other politicians point the finger of antisemitism at liberal professors and nonviolent student protestors critical of Israeli state policies, in practice they abet white supremacist perpetrators of violent hate crimes by directing attention away from them.

Following the publication of Isaac’s Nation article, Banks posted a message on X, red-baiting and evoking the ugly specter of McCarthyism and Nazism. Calling Isaac a “Radical Marxist professor,” he urged: “if you’re also a communist buy his latest book on Amazon!,” a reference to an edition of the Communist Manifesto that Isaac edited and for which he wrote an introduction.(13)

Banks’ tweet follows earlier patterns of authoritarian righteousness. During the McCarthy era, the redbaiting of nuanced thinkers because they did not conform to rigid partisan beliefs resulted in people losing jobs, having their careers ruined and families destroyed; some people were forced to leave the country and others even committed suicide.

In his verbal attack on a liberal Jewish professor for being a Marxist and a “communist” (Isaac is neither), let’s hope that Banks did not consciously intend to echo Hitler’s hatred of Jews and communists, whom the Nazi leader often denounced together with the terms “Jewish Bolshevism” or “Judeo-Bolshevism.”(14)

If Banks were serious about combatting antisemitism, he would support, or at least not attack, liberal professors like Isaac, who have been on the frontline of campaigns against antisemitism and hate speech of all kinds for decades.

If we are to stop the terrible violence that continues to wrack the Middle East, we need diplomacy and not name calling. Representative Banks’ rhetoric is entirely consistent with Trump’s hate-mongering and can only clutter the path towards peace. But maybe that is his goal: to sow endless division and perpetual discord among us.


  1. Jim Banks’s letter to Whitten can be accessed here.
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  2. Jenny Porter Tilley and Cate Charron. “School Librarians Could Face Prison for Sharing Content Under this New Indiana Law.” IndyStar. April 28, 2023.
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  3. “IUB faculty respond to Congressman Jim Banks,” Indiana Conference of the American Association of University Professors, November 30, 2023.
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  4. Jeffrey C. Isaac, “Congressman Jim Banks’s Pressure on Indiana University to Police Antisemitism is Duplicitous and Dangerous,” Nation, November 29, 2023.
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  5. Henry Rodgers, “In the News.” The Daily Caller, April 6, 2023.
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  6. Micaela Burrow, “Exclusive: Anti-Woke Caucus Notches Wins in Gov’t Spending Bills,” Daily Caller, September 28, 2023.
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  7. Steve Benen, “Why a House Republican Created an ‘Anti-Woke Caucus,” Maddow Blog, MSNBC, February 14, 2023.
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  8. Jim Banks on X: ”“Woke liberal professors respond justifying their anti-semitic and anti-american activity brainwashing our kids to hate America and Israel … / X (twitter.com)
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  9. Global Terrorism Database.
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  10. Talya Zax, “A White Supremacist Murderer Devastated Chicago 20 Years Ago. Why Didn’t Anything change?” Forward. July 2, 2019.
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  11. Tim Evans, “Watchdog: Number of ‘hate groups’ dropped in Indiana and U.S. in 2020, but threat is High.” IndyStar. February 1,2021.
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  12. Evans cites the 2020 statistic of 19 hate groups in Indiana. For updated statistics, see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Map by State.”
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  13. Jim Banks, November 29, 2023.
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  14. Paul Hanebrink, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, (Boston: Harvard UP, 2018).
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January-February 2024, ATC 228


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