Opinion: Have we learned nothing? The protester's taunt, 'Go back to Poland,' is grotesque

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 30: A protester flies a Palestinian flag from on top of Hamilton Hall as part of a pro-Palestinian encampment on Columbia University campus on April 30, 2024 in New York City. Police arrested nearly 100 people as they cleared the university of demonstrators who were issued a notice to disband their encampment after negotiations failed to come to a resolution. University President Minouche Shafik has requested the NYPD maintain a presence on campus through at least May 17.(Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
A protester flies a Palestinian flag from the top of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in New York on April 30. (Stephanie Keith / Getty Images)

When it was reported that a demonstrator near Columbia University had loudly suggested that Jews should go back to Poland, I was already there. My wife, son and daughter and I were visiting Holocaust sites in Eastern Europe. My father’s family is from Poland and Ukraine, and many of our relatives perished in the Holocaust.

I don’t know if any of my ancestors were Zionists although I suspect some of them must have been. The definition of “Zionist” that I’ve always used is a person who believes the Jews deserve a state where they can be safe. That is something I believe. I also believe the Palestinians deserve a state where they can be safe, the Israeli occupation has been a disaster and Benjamin Netanyahu needs to be replaced.

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As for the suggestion that Jews, or more precisely Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis — those of European heritage — should book a one-way ticket to Warsaw, I realize it’s not a point of view representative of the whole of the protesters on U.S. campuses. Yet it is undeniably a reflection of the “settler colonialist” position on Israel, a narrative that has gained traction despite more than half of Israeli Jews being Mizrahi — that is, from the Middle East. Palestinians and Israelis are two Indigenous peoples occupying the land that is being fought over.

And what about Poland? Almost 3 million Jews lived in Poland before World War II. Now the population that self-identifies as Jewish is less than 5,000. It’s instructive to remember that most of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, perhaps 300,000 , were taken to Treblinka where they were murdered alongside another 500,000 or so Jews.

Treblinka is now a vast field covered with a massive memorial consisting of hundreds of stones laid side by side, pointing heavenward. I wandered among them and thought about the catastrophe that led to this place and what was now unfolding at universities across America — the anti-Israel chants, Jewish students’ fear of being on campus, the protests and counterprotests creating a climate of menace.

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The same day my family visited Treblinka, another Columbia student, described as a leader of the protests there, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” He apologized, and I don’t want to compare him to Nazis. He and his compatriots are young and with youth comes the right to let your heart dominate your brain. His words, however, wore a swastika.

Of course, what has happened to the Palestinian people since 1948 has been its own catastrophe, of which the war in Gaza is the latest iteration. The number of civilian deaths is appalling, the suffering of the families profound and seemingly endless. It is not hard to understand the anger and heartbreak animating pro-Palestinian encampments, although one wishes more protesters would acknowledge that the Israeli onslaught did not occur in a vacuum, and that Hamas itself has an affinity for dead Palestinians.

“Go back to Poland” taunts are grotesque and willfully misinformed. To read about them while in Poland, where a ghost country of murder victims exists alongside the current population, is deeply disorienting. Where a synagogue used to be is now a delicatessen; a ritual bathhouse is a police station; a cemetery a derelict patch of ground or a verdant grove in the woods bereft of gravestones because they were stolen to be used to pave roads. So many Jews died in Poland that you could say that the entire country is a Jewish cemetery. In Poland, Jews are like the Native Americans in America. They are celebrated, sometimes sincerely, but mostly they are erased.

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We visited a town that was nearly 100% Jewish before the war; now not one Jew lives there and there is virtually no indication that Jews ever made it their home. I am by inclination sympathetic to the protesters. I am even inclined to forgive their ahistorical point of view, although it is ironic given that so many of them are being educated at elite institutions. But they must know: Jewish collective trauma, like that of the Palestinians, is undeniable. One shouldn’t have to go to places like Treblinka to be reminded of this. Have we learned nothing?

That the protesters are not all antisemitic is a given. Some will happily take a break from chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” to inform you that they count Jews among their number. And yet, from their encampments in privileged Los Angeles and Manhattan, they envision a progressive paradise where everyone’s wounds are salved and racism a dim memory, but there is no place for Zionists, which for many (once again: not all!) is simply a dog whistle meaning Jews.

Go back to Poland? It is impossible. And the maximalist daydreams of American protesters will not help Palestinians.

Seth Greenland is the Los Angeles-based author of six novels and a memoir. His most recent book, "Plan Américain," was published in France last year.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.