Controversies over protests and counterprotests about actions in the Mideast now rage in communities across the U.S. and particularly, it seems, on college campuses. For example, as of November 15th, The Institute for Public Accuracy reported that Columbia University suspended two pro-Palestinian student groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, from holding events on campus. Harvard University sent a letter to all students and faculty declaring that the slogan “from the river to the sea,” a widely-used call for freedom for Palestinians, whether they live in the Occupied Territories or in Israel, is antisemitic and its censorship is not a violation of free expression. Interestingly, Harvard—and this is not uncommon in these cases—lost at least $30m in donations from pro-Israeli funders who believed that the administration was failing to rein in its students. It also faced a demand from Bill Ackman, billionaire hedge-fund manager, and Harvard donor, to release the names of students who had signed a pro-Palestinian statement, so that companies could avoid hiring them. At New York University, law student Ryna Workman was removed as president of the school’s Student Bar Association and subsequently lost a job offer from the law firm Winston & Strawn after she wrote a newsletter expressing solidarity with Palestinians. At Cornell University, Russell Rickford, an associate professor of history, was suspended from teaching after he described the 7 October attack as “exhilarating.”
The Intercept reported: “The U.S. Senate passed a unanimous resolution condemning what it called ‘anti-Israel, pro-Hamas student groups’ across the country following a day of walkouts.” A letter from the Anti-Defamation League and the Brandeis Center for human rights under law to presidents of colleges and universities, called for the group Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP) to be considered a material supporter of terrorism. SJP is a non-violent student group. The ADL and the Brandeis Center are essentially calling for young people engaged in lawful protest activity to be criminalized under a federal anti-terrorism statute. The chancellor of the State University System of Florida, in consultation with Governor Ron DeSantis, has ordered that chapters of SJP be deactivated. Senator Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has demanded the Justice Department investigate “far-left student groups” which have been critical of Israel. There is much more, of course, as well. So what is one to make of all this even beyond the hopefully obvious free speech issues?
In the week after the Hamas attacks, there were many protests of Hamas’s action. Suppose such a protest near you called the violence against civilians abhorrent and even horrific. Suppose it expressed sympathy for the families of victims. How would you react? I would have thought the protest was a valid expression of the feelings of the participants. I would have also thought it didn’t have much purpose beyond that self expression since virtually everyone in media, government, and wherever else was saying the same thing. So I would have found it emotionally valid but tactically at best redundant and at worst questionable since it might be seen as calling for collective punishment.
Now imagine the Hamas attack had, instead, targeted only military bases, no civilians. Suppose that had occurred and had elicited protest, but now it was protest against a purely military attack. How would you react? I would have thought such a military-targets action was warranted by decades of horrible material and violent suppression. I would have, however, wondered about its tactical wisdom given the likely consequences. I would have also wondered about the process—albeit ignorant of details—of Hamas undertaking an action whose consequences would likely rain down on the heads of a whole population without the whole population having been involved in deciding to proceed.
The Israeli response to the actual Hamas attack has elicited protests of the bombardments, of the intensified blockade of food, water, and fuel, and of the invasion. Pro Palestinian protesters have claimed Israel’s actions are racist and Nazi-like. They have claimed the bombings of civilian shelters in schools and hospitals and the sought starvation of the whole population are morally repulsive and even genocidal. The supporters of Israel’s actions have replied that the IDF actions justifiably and wisely defend against the risk of further Hamas attacks. They praise Israel and urge the IDF to proceed as it has been proceeding. The Pro-Israel protesters claim Palestinian intents are antisemitic and Nazi-like. No Palestinians are innocent civilians. Or even Palestinians are not human. Each side wonders how the other can be so blind to reality.
In other countries, some who are pro Israel want Palestinians silenced on grounds that anti-Zionist rallies and demonstrations are antisemitic and make Jews feel unsafe. They want Palestinians publicly branded as antisemitic to forestall their employment or want them fired to end it. In contrast, pro Palestinians want the repression stopped because it is racist and inhumane. They justifiably protest genocide and seek peace. Some swastikas appear, it is true, a vile trend, but is that from Palestine’s supporters or from long time fascist gangs? Some people of diverse sorts start to take the ludicrous ubiquitous equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism propounded by all too many Israeli officials and Jewish Rabbis as gospel and, when those people do oppose Zionism, some begin to feel hostile to Jews per se. Who/what is causing that horrid result? What does/can one think reading that upon agreeing to let some fuel into Gaza an Israeli official says it is to forestall the probability of epidemics since an epidemic could endanger IDF soldiers and not just Palestinians? If the first victim of war is truth, not far behind human empathy dies as well, at least among those wielding the biggest weapons to defend the most vile colonialist policies.
How one reacts to all this tends to depend on what one wants to accomplish. If Israel and the IDF in particular want to eradicate or to at least remove not just Hamas but all Palestinian presence in Gaza (whether due to pursuit of off-coast natural gas resources, or revenge via collective punishment, or colonialist expansion), then their actions make a kind of devilish sense. Destroy the Strip to empty it. Bomb civilian shelters to kill civilian enemies. Bomb hospitals to get the new born too. Don’t outcomes reveal aims? Bomb homes and refugee camps to chase civilians from the North to the South and then from the South to wherever. To paraphrase a Vietnam-era master of such strategizing, “Anything that flies on everything that moves.” If the IDF’s supporters want to loyally celebrate Israeli policy despite law, morality, or any other human concern, then to rightly condemn the Hamas attack for targeting civilians along with military bases while simultaneously wrongly and crassly praising when Israel targets the entire Gaza civilian population and a few military officials also makes some kind of self contradictory sense. Or, to keep the praise coming but avoid self contradiction, leads to perverse assertions that all Palestinians even including children are combatants or that Palestinians aren’t in fact human, so, hey, we are rational, our values are consistent, and there is no contradiction. If pro Israel protesters were right to criticize pro Palestinians who didn’t express sympathy for Israeli civilians killed by the Hamas action and to excoriate Hamas for those actions—and they were right in that particular—then how could they not be wrong when they don’t express sympathy for Palestinians whose homes are bombed to rubble and who are exiled or dead, and when they don’t excoriate Israel for its actions but instead pledge allegiance to them? Are there pro-Israel protestors who agree? Sadly, I think so far not very many.
If Palestinians want to first survive, and second to gain enough international support and Jewish and Israeli dissent from IDF rampage to reduce and stop it, then it certainly makes sense for them to protest starvation and bombardment. But, while understandable, it certainly doesn’t make sense to rail at Jews per se. Indeed, for Palestinians to sympathize with families who seek release of their civilian relatives not least because of the experience Palestinians have of the entire population of Gaza being held hostage, and to feel some degree of understanding and reasoned sympathy, makes sense for Palestinians and pro-Palestinians. Would any pro-Palestinian protestor disagree? I think not very many.
The higher purpose in all this is not to correctly identify, trumpet, and punish criminality and immorality. The higher purpose is to stop it to gain a ceasefire and an end to occupation and attainment of full economic, social, civil, and human rights for Palestinians whether in one nation or two, and in any case, “from the river to the sea.” And to accomplish that, isn’t it clear that Israel’s support must be reduced, Palestinian support must enlarged, and antisemitism must be made no more. Only saying “hooray for our side” and damn your side won’t help accomplish any of that. But nor will denying the savage violence and self serving irrationality that is now rampant.
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