Claudine Gay testifies before Congress.Claudine Gay testifies before Congress alongside presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and MIT. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

By A.J. Bauer

Last month’s congressional hearing on “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism” drew comparisons to the Cold War-era House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) accused of channeling Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Parallels between contemporary Zionist policing of discourse around Israel/Palestine and the Second Red Scare are clear, relatively straight forward, and not terribly new.

Canary Mission has been building its blacklist of academics, professionals, and organizations who dare to criticize Israel or defend Palestine for a decade now. Since 2014, 38 states across the U.S. have passed laws or resolutions penalizing state employees who openly support the international effort to boycott, divest from, and sanction the state of Israel for its longstanding repression of Palestinians. Voicing support for Palestinians, or criticizing Israel’s apartheid regime, has cost several prominent left academics their respective posts.

What’s changed since October 7—other than more than 100 days of indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza and escalating settler violence in the West Bank—is the scale and intensity of the moral panic surrounding pro-Palestine and anti-Israel speech in the United States. A rush of student activism—among Zionists and anti-Zionists alike—has resulted in a tumultuous campus climate, particularly in the Northeast. Several universities have taken the extraordinary step of banning or suspending pro-Palestine student and faculty groups as a result.

Historically, college presidents have been more likely to enforce than succumb to anti-Palestine speech constraints. But, seeing an opening for their broader attack on so-called “woke” institutions, right-wing agitators like Christopher Rufo and Stefanik have leveraged the ongoing Palestine Scare to their advantage—securing the high-profile resignations of University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill and Harvard University president Claudine Gay. Rufo went so far as to call his shot—publicly announcing his plan to pressure more mainstream outlets to legitimate his smears against Gay. The New York Times, of course, gamely complied

Neither Gay nor Magill are antisemites, of course. Neither are particularly critical of Israel, nor do they openly support the plight of Palestinians, either. Both lost their jobs not only due to Stefanik’s congressional grandstanding, but due to extenuating circumstances. Gay was nabbed by exaggerated plagiarism charges, while Magill succumbed to longstanding donor pressure, in part related to the sin of having allowed a group of Palestinian writers to meet on campus in September.

While the Gay and Magill resignations don’t fit neatly into a “McCarthyism” frame, their targeting speaks to an under-emphasized aspect of the Second Red Scare that parallels the contemporary Palestine Scare. That is: the red scare was never really about communism—just like our contemporary Palestine Scare isn’t really about antisemitism. Both are singularly focused on policing the boundaries of liberalism—constraining the willingness and ability of liberals to follow their desires for equality and justice to their logical conclusion.

During the Second Red Scare, right anti-communists were terrified by the Popular Front—a liberal/left coalition on matters of labor and civil rights. The tactics of blacklisting (composing lists of political undesirables with the aim of depriving them of opportunities and employment) and redbaiting (accusing a group or person of communist sympathies, especially when not formally affiliated with the party) were designed to create real social and cultural consequences for liberals willing to side with communists on matters of domestic and foreign policy.

In his “Defense of Red-Baiting,” published in the liberal anti-communist periodical New Leader in December 1947, journalist (and future National Review editor) Eugene Lyons accused none other than Fortune magazine of engaging in “Stalinist propaganda” for positioning its own anti-communism against that of “professional Red-baiters.” Attempts to distinguish between respectable and extreme anti-communist efforts were prevalent in the late 1940s and early 1950s, prefiguring scholarly and journalistic debates over the distinction between the “far” and “mainstream” right in the decades to come.

Lyons saw redbaiting as a double-edged sword, one he advocated be used toward anti-communist advantage: “The story is told that Austrian Nazis, before the Anschluss, had a standard device for keeping police at bay when engaged in beating up adversaries. As soon as the police approached, the Nazis began to sing the national anthem. Automatically the policemen snapped to attention and stood rooted to the spot—long enough for the ringleaders to escape.”

Lyons continued, “In the same way, the cry of Red-baiting halts liberals in their tracks when they are tempted to go after Communism.”

By counteracting the stigma against redbaiting, Lyons believed he could help liberals better align with their presumably anti-communist values. In his view, the Popular Front was an example of liberal false consciousness—as though their alliance with the left in support of basic labor protections or against Jim Crow segregation and lynching in the south was rooted in a grand communist disinformation campaign, instead of truly shared political sensibilities.

This focus on Soviet disinformation and its putative effect on liberals continued in perhaps the most infamous document of the Second Red Scare: Red Channels, a radio and television blacklist masquerading as a “report of communist influence,” published in 1950.

In the rationale for their blacklist, American Business Consultants warned that the Soviet Union was attempting to recruit radio, television, and film stars with the express purpose of shifting mass culture leftward. They wrote, “No cause which seems calculated to arouse support among people in show business is ignored: the overthrow of the Franco dictatorship, the fight against anti-Semitism and Jimcrow, civil rights, world peace, the outlawing of the H-Bomb, are all used.”

They continued: “Around such pretend objectives, the hard core of Party organizers gather a swarm of ‘reliables’ and well-intentioned ‘liberals,’ to exploit their names and their energies.”

Note that there is little to no room in this right anti-communist narrative for earnest agreement or shared political goals between liberals and the left. Liberals are mere puppets, dupes of “pretend objectives” like ending Jim Crow segregation or combatting antisemitism.

In contemporary parlance, right anti-communists were accusing liberals of “virtue signaling” their way into communist complicity. You see a similar tendency among contemporary Zionists, including the Anti-Defamation League, who insist that all criticism of the state of Israel are tantamount to antisemitism. The underlying assumption is that supporting Palestine—or even simply recoiling at the utter brutality of Israel’s attacks on civilians in Gaza—are mere covers for a deeper anti-Jewish bias.

This right-wing conception of the “liberal dupe” was reinforced by the narratives that the accused used to get their names off the blacklist. Take, for instance, Lena Horne.

A singer and actress, Horne was among those blacklisted by Red Channels and whose career was briefly sidelined due to it. She was accused of having participated in several events hosted by the Communist Party and its many front groups—including the Civil Rights Congress. Why might a black woman—who had to lie about being married to her white husband because miscegenation was still illegal in California, and who was once (unsuccessfully) sued for eviction by segregationists who took issue with a black woman owning a home in Nichols Canyon—be interested in a group supporting the civil rights of African Americans?

The conventional narrative, one seemingly begrudgingly endorsed by Horne herself as she tried desperately to save her Hollywood career, is that she was tricked by Paul Robeson and Carlton Moss into unwittingly doing communism. It seems likelier, especially given Horne’s contributions to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, that she was not duped at all, but earnestly motivated by her experiences and values. She simply said what she needed to say in order to save her career—unwittingly contributing to a right-wing narrative about how liberals engage in common cause with the left.

Today, we see this narrative reemerging in recent handwringing about “left-wing antisemitism” and allegations that elite institutions like Harvard and UPenn have “gone woke” by allowing protests against Israel’s destruction of Gaza or, god forbid, hosting a Palestinian literature festival. Both negate the possibility of earnest and enthusiastic solidarity with the people of Palestine. Both see left values like equality and justice as mere cover for unspoken nefarious machinations.

The true lesson of the red scare, still applicable today, is that it’s okay to feel called toward building a more just and equitable world—feeling moved to speech and action when bearing witness to crimes against humanity is a good thing, actually. Those in power who oppose that more just and equitable world in favor of the status quo will do all in their power to muddle the conversation, and to create social and cultural headwinds against organizing toward that vision. The key, as Red Channels alum Pete Seeger (borrowing the words of Florence Reece) once sang, is to know which side you’re on.


A.J. Bauer is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. He holds a PhD in American Studies from New York University.