Professor receives backlash for post supporting protest of pro-Israel organization

| Junior News Editor

After making a social media post in support of a protest opposing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Bret Gustafson, Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, has received significant community backlash centering around accusations of antisemitism. 

Gustafson posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Nov. 25 in response to a post with video of a protest outside the Los Angeles home of the president of the AIPAC, Michael Tuchin. AIPAC is a lobbying group that is self-defined as an organization representing pro-Israel Americans with a mission to “strengthen bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The incident, currently being investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department as a possible hate crime, involved protestors splattering fake blood on cars and igniting smoke devices.

In response to a post by political commentator Peter Beinart, which included an NBC article with video of the protest, Gustafson wrote: “I agree with pretty much everything you write but not sure you are right here. Nobody was harmed. It’s an escrache tactic. (Look it up) Pretty cool I’d say. Let those who enable mass murder not live in peace.” 

An escrache tactic refers to a type of political demonstration wherein individuals protest public figures, often at their homes.

Gustafson has since made his X account private. 

Shortly after Gustafson made the post, an account called @StopAntisemites reposted it with the caption: “Bret Gustafson, Associate Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, says setting off gas canisters outside the homes of Jews is ‘pretty cool.’ LAPD are investigating it as a possible hate crime. Are Jewish students safe in his classroom @WUSTL @WashUChancellor?” 

In an interview, Gustafson said that the phrase “pretty cool” in his post was in reference to protesting AIPAC specifically, rather than Judaism as a whole.

“AIPAC’s main purpose is to generate or maintain uncritical support for Israel in the US Congress and it does so by funneling money…to try to unseat politicians who are opposed to US policy in Israel,” Gustafson said. “That was the context in which I thought, they’re protesting the head of AIPAC’s house, that’s cool.”

Gustafson said that the protest of the AIPAC president was for his involvement in the organization, not because of his Jewish identity. 

“People who conflate AIPAC with Judaism or all Jews, are themselves making an antisemitic assertion, which assumes that all Jews share the same political position,” Gustafson said. “That’s certainly not what I think.”

Gustafson also said that the Stop Antisemites post had multiple distortions in it, including the fact that it used the phrase “gas canisters,” while the protest actually used smoke devices. 

“You will find no endorsement of ‘gassing Jews’ in my [post], but that’s what they said I said. They intentionally used the word gas to try to evoke gas chambers,” he said. “The other thing that was distorted was they said that LAPD was investigating it as a hate crime. That’s not true, it says they are investigating it as a possible hate crime.”

Gustafson said that if the investigation determines that there was antisemitic content that he did not see which classifies it as a hate crime, he will retract his statement and denounce the protest. 

“Had this taken place in front of a synagogue, that would be a hate crime and I would denounce it,” he said. “It did not.”

After the post was published, Gustafson received criticism on X as well as Instagram, Facebook, and Rate My Professor.

“As a double Wash U alum, I find this unacceptable.  I am working to contact the school immediately about this,” one post read

Jonathan Kipnis, a professor of pathology and immunology at the WashU School of Medicine, wrote on X to say: “Our chancellor @WashUChancellor has been dealing exemplarily with antisemitism and Islamophobia on our campus. I am sure he will do the right thing in this case as well.” 

Another post provided all of Chancellor Andrew Martin’s contact information and urged people to contact him about Gustafson. 

Similarly, on Instagram, some WashU students have been circulating a link to a pre-filled email for Chancellor Martin along with four other members of WashU’s administration, created through the advocacy organization End Jew Hatred.

The email explains the situation, describing the protest outside Tuchin’s house as a “firebombing” and points to the fact that it is being investigated as a hate crime. It goes on to say that Gustafson’s actions have troubling implications for WashU’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“Condoning violence, especially in the form of a firebombing, goes beyond the boundaries of acceptable discourse. Such actions not only undermine the fundamental principles of a democratic society but also jeopardize the safety and well-being of students, individuals and communities,” the email reads. 

It ends by asking that the administration take swift action, including firing Gustafson, in order to promote a safe environment on campus. 

Stop Antisemites added another post with an Instagram story purported to be from a student of Gustafson’s that includes a photograph from a Canvas quiz about Palestine and a map with writing about Palestine. The student writes that both of them were used by Gustafson in his curriculum and both feature the phrase “Jewish settlers.”

The Instagram story from the student says that people like Gustafson are the “reason why antisemitism is on the rise.” 

“Rhetoric such as this blends criticism of the Israeli government and pure antisemitism,” the post reads. 

Since Gustafson’s post began receiving online attention, he has had members of his department sitting in on all of his classes in order to ensure student safety. 

“They’re accusing me of being somehow unsafe to students when I’m the one that’s receiving the [death] threats,” Gustafson said. “That’s another tactic, the weaponization of safety, that by talking about students tactically saying they feel unsafe, they’re able to silence folks they don’t agree with.”

He also said he has received “at least 50 death threats” in the past week, not including messages on X. As a result of one threat, he contacted the WashU Police Department. 

“I got one threat saying someone was going to come to my office hours so I called the police and they sent two officers to sit outside my office door. They also escorted me to class on the first day it started breaking and they are looking into these emails,” Gustafson said.

In direct response to the discourse on Gustafson’s statement, Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications, Julie Flory said the opinions he expressed do not represent the University’s position.

“We do not condone intimidation and we will not tolerate discrimination, harassment or threatening behavior,” Flory wrote in an email. 

Additionally, four days after Gustafson made the post, Chancellor Martin made a public statement on  “Free speech and responsibility.”

In it, Martin specifically addressed faculty members who have made or wish to make statements about the most recent Israel-Hamas war. 

He wrote that faculty members are entitled to their opinions and should express them freely but that they ought to do so responsibly. 

“At the same time, as educators, we hope you will consider the lessons you are teaching through your actions,” Chancellor Martin wrote. “You have an opportunity to express your views and a linked responsibility to do so in a manner that does not inflame members of our community — particularly students, who you are here to teach.”

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