Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 8 May 2024

 A Thank-You Note to the Campus Protesters

A backlit protester speaks into a microphone while Palestinian flags wave.
Credit... Sophie Park for The New York Times
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Dear anti-Israel campus protesters:

Though it may take a few years before you realize it, supporters of Israel like me have reasons to give thanks to militant anti-Zionists like you.

Recently, a friend asked what I would have made of your protests if they had been less fervently one-sided. If, for instance, pro-Palestinian student groups at Harvard and Columbia hadn’t castigated Israel immediately following the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. Or if Jewish students and professors hadn’t faced violence, harassment and antisemitic imagery from you or your allies from Harvard to Columbia to Berkeley to Stanford. Or if you had made a point of acknowledging the reality of the Oct. 7 rapes or the suffering of Israel’s hostages and their families while demanding their safe return. Or if you consistently condemned and distanced yourselves from Hamas. Or if all of you had simply followed rules that gave you every right to free expression without trampling on the rights of others to a safe and open campus.

In short, what if your protests had focused on Israel’s policies, whether in Gaza or the West Bank, rather than demanding the complete elimination of Israel as a Jewish state? What if you had avoided demonizing anyone who supports Israel’s right to exist — which includes a vast majority of Jews — as modern-day Nazis?

In that case, I told my friend, I would have disagreed with your views but I wouldn’t have despised them. Nor would a broad plurality of Americans, including many to my left. The result could have been a movement that would have had stronger arguments and greater impact. You would have been able to win over undecideds to your cause. And I would have had to fight harder to make my case that Israel must get rid of Hamas.

I realize this isn’t how some of you see it. The most hard-line among you want to “sharpen the contradictions,” as the Marxists say. Your real goal was not to shape U.S. government policy, at least in the near term. What you really want to do is normalize anti-Zionism, particularly on elite college campuses, while hoping that the bigger payoff will come in 20 or 30 years, when those you’ve converted to your cause become senators and governors and university presidents.

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But the problem with sharpening the contradictions is that the contradictions being sharpened are your own. For every student who became ardently pro-Palestinian during the protests, another one, perhaps a Jewish student with previously indifferent feelings about Israel, finally saw the connection between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. For every professor who’s shown up to your encampment to lend support, you’ve lost a fair-minded liberal with your Maoist-style sloganeering and your arrogant disdain for the genuine fears of some of your Jewish peers.

And for every commencement ceremony whose cancellation you’ve effectively forced, or which you intend to spoil, thousands of apolitical students — who didn’t get to have a proper high school graduation thanks to Covid — have taken an intense and permanent distaste to you and everything you stand for.

In short, if sharpening the contradictions is the game you’re playing, it’s paying bigger dividends for my side than it is for yours. It’s also nothing new. Those 1968 protests you’re trying to emulate? What they mainly helped achieve was the election of Richard Nixon followed by nearly 40 straight years of right-of-center governance in the United States.

Nor is this the only help you’re giving my side.

I am a Zionist not only because I support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state — an abstract point about another country. I am also a Zionist for the most personal of reasons: because I see Israel as an insurance policy for every Jewish family, including mine, which has endured persecution and exile in the past and understands that we may not be safe forever in our host countries. For anyone with a historical memory of France until Dreyfus, Germany until Hitler or Iran until Khomeini, that kind of insurance is one Jews can’t afford to lose.

What happened on Oct. 7 shook my faith in the quality of that insurance: What else does the Israeli state exist for, after all, if not to protect its people from the kind of butchery they endured that day? But what happened on Oct. 8 — the moment your protests began — renewed that faith, because it gave me a glimpse into what America might yet become for Jews, at least if people like you were to gain real power.

I get that many if not most of you see yourselves as dedicated idealists who want to end suffering for Palestinians, champion equality and oppose all forms of bigotry. There are ways you could do that without making common cause with people who hate Jews, want to kill us and often do. Supporting a two-state solution would be one such way. Insisting that Palestinians deserve better leaders than Hamas is another. Building bridges with Israelis is a third.

Instead, without knowing it, you are my daily reminder of what my Zionism is for, about and against. For that, if nothing else, thank you.

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