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Not Your Parents’ Protests

Immigration-driven demographic changes and the advent of “wokeness” have radically changed the dynamics of campus politics.


The most salient elements of the anti-Israel student protests are their radicalness and timing. Timing first: There has been opposition to Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians—“the occupation”—for decades, becoming more pronounced as the hopes of the Oslo era two-state solution faded after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. I have participated in some. The liberal antiwar group Code Pink once organized demos outside the annual AIPAC gathering; they were often creative, with mock ups of the Israeli checkpoints which rob Palestinians of hours every day when traveling from one part of Israeli controlled territory to another. Medea Benjamin gave spirited speeches to delegates walking from their hotels after breakfast to the AIPAC main event. “Palestinians didn’t do the Holocaust” she cajoled them, seeking to sever the link—an ubiquitous trope of Israeli propaganda—between opposition to whatever Israel does and the greatest crimes of the past century. 

Those demos were held during a critical moment in the Israel–Palestine conflict, the first years of Barack Obama’s presidency. The popular new president was making a sustained effort to reign in Israel’s West Bank settlement building and reignite diplomacy towards a two state solution. AIPAC opposed him vigorously. So did leading senators from his own party. Code Pink’s actions never drew more than eight or ten dozen people, and their political impact bordered on zero. Obama eventually concluded this battle with the Israel lobby was not worth the political cost and gave up. 


Fast forward a dozen or so years, and we are in a different world. Obviously the levels of energy and power on the campus and street had changed. Within days of the Hamas attack, boisterously aggressive demos broke out on many campuses and on the streets of major cities. They were not about checkpoints or occupation; the slogans directly challenged Israel’s right to exist. “From the River to the Sea” implies eliminating Israel entirely, although one can find counterparts in Zionist or Israeli rhetoric dating back to before Israel’s founding. “There is only one solution, intifada revolution,” another common chant, celebrates the intifada (the first was relatively non-violent, the second extremely bloody) with an evocation of eliminationist Nazi rhetoric. 

These stirrings of pro-Palestinian sentiment on campus and in the streets, hardly visible in previous decades, erupted before Israeli troops entered Gaza, before Israel had decided how it would deal with its Hamas malefactors. What sparked them was not horror at Israeli brutality—though there would be much of that in the weeks to come—but excitement about Israeli death. It took a massive number of Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza to turn these demonstrations into mass events, engaging thousands of American students. But the initial pro-Palestine protests, the dissemination of memes glorifying the Hamas attack, revealed how much had changed, temperamentally and rhetorically, in America’s pro-Palestine universe since Obama’s time.   

There was, notably, a new ethnic composition to the protests. I haven’t seen a detailed demographic breakdown of protestors or their leaders, but it seemed that in almost every instance the campus leaders quoted in press reports were of Arabic origin—meaning they were foreign students or descended from families of recent immigrants. Mass immigration has changed the American political culture since the time of Clinton and Obama presidencies, probably nowhere moreso than regarding the Mideast. According to the Arab American Institute, there are over 3 million people of Arab origin in the U.S.; if one surmises that one percent of these are young people ready to participate in militant anti-Israel demonstrations, that would explain how quite a few major American cities now have a large cadre of people available to shut down highways, bully “Zionist-owned” businesses, and shout menacing slogans. The non-Arab Muslim population, which hardly existed forty years ago, is at least that size. 

Twenty years ago, there was on Capitol Hill a Bernie Sanders, willing to persistently criticize Israel and make conditional American support for it, but no Ilhan Omar, whose daughter was a recent Columbia demonstrator, ready to opine to the media about “pro-genocide Jews.” The success of pro-Israel neoconservatives in purging immigration restrictionists from their positions of influence in the mainstream American right in the mid-1990s, during a moment when even the Clinton administration (through its appointment of the Barbara Jordan–led immigration commission) supported stricter immigration regulations and national polls clearly favored a slowing of immigration, can be counted as one of the most spectacularly Pyrrhic victories in the history of American politics. 

The changed nature of anti-Israel protest was well illustrated when Norman Finkelstein, an eloquent and radical critic of Israel whose academic career has been thwarted because of it, came uptown to address Columbia’s anti-Zionist encampment on the South Lawn. With deference and humility he explained that students should be careful in their choice of slogans, and to use those which were unambiguous and appealed to the broadest segment of the American population. He suggested as a variant to the most popular one “From the river to the sea, Palestinians will be free”—which implies that dramatic improvement in the actual lives of Palestinians might be sought in ways that didn’t involve outright elimination of Israel. The South Lawn campers listened politely to the still-handsome septuagenarian. The moment he finished they launched into their standard “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”. 


The great awokening further accounts for why demonstrations calling for the destruction of Israel attracted thousands in 2024, while efforts to move towards a two-state solution made by a popular president drew negligible backing 14 years earlier. The United States may be moving past peak wokeness in the zeitgeist if not institutionally. But the general hatred of “whiteness,” the colonial studies mentality which divides the world into virtuous and legitimate countries and “settler colonial states” retains its purchase on quite a few students, who welcome the opportunity to act out doctrines which saturate social science departments without having any particular knowledge or interest in Israel-Palestine. Though Israel may now have a majority population (Jewish and Arab) from the Middle East, in the eyes of campus neo-Fanonists, it is an undeniably Western country with advanced science, contested elections, a free press, and symphony orchestras and thus permanently guilty.  

Various pro-Palestine student statements reflect this perspective. Columbia University Apartheid Divest’s manifesto states that “all systems of oppression are interlinked” and called for the “liberation” of dozens of countries, including “Turtle Island,” a name for the territory of the United States in a native American language. Perhaps it was hope that awareness of intersectional oppression had permeated beyond the seminar room that prompted Columbia demonstrators to send a column of marchers into Harlem at the same time they occupied Hamilton Hall. If Harlem did back the students or veered even slightly into riot mode, it would have effectively made it impossible for the NYPD to mobilize at Columbia and clear the campus of campers and building-occupiers. 

Inevitably there was a reaction against the demonstrators. Incessant chanting and banging drums in favor of Hamas grew tiresome for many students. College presidents, under pressure from donors and politicians to “do more” to restore order to campus have generally moved to clear the encampments, provoking more relief than rage. Graduation ceremonies have been reconfigured, split up and moved to smaller venues to minimize opportunities of disruption. Saturday Night Live, probably a trustworthy bellwether of liberal elite opinion, did a cold open more mocking than respectful of the demonstrators. Sophisticated crowd-control techniques will ensure the streets around Democrats’ Chicago convention will be far quieter than they were in 1968.

Nevertheless, these anti-Israel demonstrations, which spread to some three dozen campuses, should not be dismissed as some kind of spring fling about which Israel and its supporters can soon forget. They were made possible by the changes in American demography and political culture alluded to earlier, some of which are permanent. They also were spurred by images of the massive destruction Israel has inflicted upon Gaza. Few can claim seriously to know how Israel could have struck effectively at Hamas (an entirely legitimate goal) while avoiding mass civilian casualties, or whether it could be done at all. In any case, the Gaza war is likely to end shortly one way or another, and Israel will still be occupying territory inhabited by millions of Palestinians, while denying them political or meaningful civil rights. America’s unconditional support for Israel is now open to serious challenge, and that support will become ever more tenuous if the occupation grinds on, and as the college protesters, or most of them, retain their views in softened form and rise to positions of power and influence. 

Despite the embarrassing displays of Israel fealty put on by leading Capitol Hill Republicans, this is true of the right as well. Recently I attended a right-wing event in New York, (shockingly) full of smart and hip young people. The host took the floor and spoke of a seeming “vibe-shift” in favor of greater free speech over the past year or two, concluding, “It’s possible to say it now. Israel is our greatest ally.” The crowd laughed, appreciative of irony. All the more reason why it is in Israel’s interests too to seek, as soon as possible, a solution which satisfies the legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.