Viewpoint: College protests have ceased being about peace

Viewpoint: College protests have ceased being about peace
Karen Rubin, Columnist

Just had a Zoom reunion with members of my college newspaper staff, reminiscing and waxing nostalgic about our coverage of the anti-Vietnam protests.

I think the Columbia University students were also nostalgic for those glory days of campus protest.

2024 is not 1968. And amid this starkly divided black-and-white landscape, nuance or complexity just get in the way.

Think about what the early pro-Palestine protests were about – including the “protest” votes cast against Biden in the Democratic primaries.  They were calling for the Biden administration - which on Oct. 8, after the most savage, brutal, terror attack against Israel and Jews since the Holocaust, had declared its unequivocal support for Israel’s right to defend itself to pressure Israel for a ceasefire and increase humanitarian aid. And many American Jews, aghast at the scale of deprivation on Gaza, joined.

Biden, in fact, did change his tone and actions saying Netanyahi had overreached and demanding he use restraint and increase humanitarian aid (and that is only what we see in public). Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, the highest ranking elected Jewish official in the nation, even called for new elections to replace Netanyahu.

Biden is responsible for Netanyahu agreeing to the first ceasefires, in which 100 hostages were released. Biden is responsible for getting more humanitarian aid to Gazans. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been going back and forth, negotiating an extensive 40-day ceasefire and the release of thousands of jailed Palestinian terrorists in exchange for a mere 33 Israeli hostages.  “An exceedingly generous offer,” Blinken said. But Hamas, at this writing, has apparently “agreed” to terms that no one else has agreed to (that Israel would end the war and leave Gaza permanently), so they can once again win the public relations war.

There are even hints Biden, who has been firm that Netanyahu must not attack Rafah, will withhold sending offensive military weapons to Israel, just as the protesters (and many Congressional Democrats) have been urging.

Biden is the only thing standing between Netanyahu and a full-scale invasion of Rafah, while Netanyahu has stuck his middle finger at Biden, no doubt hoping Trump will be returned to office (as does Putin).

So if the Biden administration is doing much of what the protesters are demanding, what are the campus protests really about? They are no longer calling for a ceasefire or humanitarian aid. They are no longer even calling for a two-state solution, which the Biden administration is vigorously pursuing (administration officials reportedly are drafting options for formally recognizing an independent Palestinian state), that both sides have resisted up until now because there is no other choice.

The protesters are demanding that colleges completely divest from Israel and any company that invests in Israel or manufacturers the armaments that Israel uses, and even that they boycott Israel and Israelis (meaning not allow Israeli academics on campus). Their demands are not only unrealistic, but think about it: How would any of them improve the situation for the Gazans, the lives of whom they claim (or rather use, just as Hamas is using Gazans for human shields) they are trying to save?

But when campus protesters chant “Long live October 7” “By any means necessary” “Glory to the martyrs” “Go back to Poland” and “We are Hamas,” they are not calling for peace but the eradication of Israel and Jews. “From the river to the sea” picks up the anti-Zionist (antisemitic) crusade that has been nurtured and building within the Progressive movement and on college campuses since 2005.

A tell is that there is no mention of Hamas being held to account for its atrocities or a demand for Hamas to release the hostages in order to end the siege, and even language that suggests Israelis deserved what they got,  should get more of it, and that American Jews by extension also deserve to be reviled. “Final Solution” was written on one of the Columbia protester’s signs.

“Students and faculty have a right to protest; it’s a cornerstone of campus life and American society,” writes Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA Federation-NY, a Columbia University alum and father of a student. “We don’t attend universities to all agree with one another. We come to learn, to hear voices different from our own, to develop our own points of view. Criticism of Israeli leaders or government policies are of course legitimate expressions of dissent.”

But the line is crossed when protests run 24 hours a day, when encampments are intentionally set up near Jewish student dorms or in the entranceway to college classrooms, or when there is overt hostility and hate speech directed at Jewish students.

Jewish students today, he writes, are being forced to grapple with impossible choices. “Expressing support for Israel makes them targets for other students and faculty who accuse them of enabling ‘genocide.’ They are being harassed and intimidated because of their Zionism, which, in more cases than not, is a stand-in for their Jewishness.”

What has led to this distorted campus environment, he says is that “people are being categorized as either oppressor or oppressed, where Israel has somehow become proxy for every perceived societal ill.” In other words, the same venal, tribal perspective that has rendered government ineffectual and upended democracy itself.

As President Biden said on the morning when Los Angeles police broke up the encampment at UCLA, “There’s the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos...Dissent is essential to democracy. But dissent must never lead to disorder or to denying the rights of others so students can finish the semester and their college education.

“There should be no place on any campus, no place in America for antisemitism or threats of violence against Jewish students,” the president said.

Biden is restating these views in a keynote address at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Annual Days of Remembrance ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

It is widely believed that the anti-war protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 handed the presidency to Richard Nixon, who kept the Vietnam War going another five years, when the majority of the 56,000 American war dead were lost.

Now think about what voting against Biden would mean if Trump (or any Republican) takes the White House, compared to what the campus protesters say their goals are. It won’t be the campus protests that save Gaza, remove Netanyahu or free Palestine. It would be President Biden.

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