#179 THE G|O BRIEFING, MAY 9, 2024

On Student Protests: Will Demonstrations Help Trump? | The Privilege of Protest | Criticism of Israel is Not Anti-Semitic

Today in The Geneva Observer, on this holiday, a shorter Briefing than usual with a single theme: student protests. We address it with three opinion pieces, all freely accessible on The Geneva Observer’s website.

Demonstrations on American campuses are profoundly rooted in US history, and thus have their own origins and dynamics. Notions of academic freedom and freedom of speech more broadly are different in America than in many countries where US-inspired demonstrations have spread—including Switzerland—each in turn challenging academic institutions and dividing politicians and society at large, in different political and historical contexts. 

A few months before the US presidential elections, Daniel Warner, who in 1968 demonstrated against the Vietnam War, wonders if demonstrators should think about the possible unintended consequences of their actions. Did the demonstrations he was part of help to elect Richard Nixon? Could today’s protests, he wonders and fears, help Trump? A month short of the European elections, should demonstrators in France, Germany and the UK—where a general election is due this year—stop protesting because it might bolster support for far-right parties? Or, on the other hand, is the possibility of such an outcome really a poor justification for not rallying in defense of your beliefs?

Essayist Ian Buruma, in his own op-ed, takes a critical look at the ideological underpinnings of the protests on campuses and the US: “The problem is that the ‘anti-Zionist’ cause gaining ground on college campuses is often incoherent. Its ideological underpinnings tend to see everything as interconnected: police brutality against African-Americans, global warming, US imperialism, white supremacy, the history of American slavery, European colonialism, trans- and homophobia (‘Queers for Palestine’), and now the Israel-Hamas war,” he writes. Buruma’s argument, too, is largely rooted in an American context, as he highlights the “privilege” of protesting students “at some of the most exclusive American universities.” True, access to higher education in France, Switzerland, and even the UK, where protests have spread, is more democratic than in the US; however, the conflation of many different issues highlighted by Buruma has echoes on this side of the Atlantic.

Ethicist Peter Singer addresses the broader issue, and brings the discussion squarely round to the Israel-Hamas conflict in his essay, our final piece this week: “Undoubtedly, some anti-Semites have used student protests as cover for stirring up hatred of anyone Jewish, irrespective of their views on what is happening in Gaza. But to characterize the protests as comparable to Nazi anti-Semitism, as Binyamin Netanyahu has done, is grotesque,” he writes.

It is all below. As always, thank you for reading us. We will be back next week with our regular Briefing.


The Politics of Student Protests and Their Unintended Consequences

The current pro-Palestinian student protests may influence President Biden’s policies towards Israel, but they may also be used by Republicans as part of their law-and-order platform. If Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, a first law of protest may be that for every protest there is an equal and opposite backlash. If the protests continue up to and at the August Democratic Convention in Chicago, a possible repeat of the chaotic 1968 Convention is likely to help Republicans and Donald Trump, just as protests helped Republicans and Richard Nixon win the Presidency in 1968.

Should protesters think about how voters will view them, and how politicians will use them?

Republicans and Donald Trump will certainly use current student protests on campuses to appeal to voters wary of “woke” and “critical theory.” As Louis Menand observed in The New Yorker after the 1968 election: “To liberals who believed in the righteousness of the civil-rights demonstrations and the antiwar protests, the disruption and violence that accompanied them was caused by the overreaction of the authorities. For most voters, though, the disruption and violence were the fault of the demonstrators. Most people don’t like righteousness in others.”  So while the current pro-Palestinian protests may have short-term benefits, previous experience shows that they may have unintended negative long-term consequences.

There are indications of a relationship between violent protests and shifts to the Right. Scientifically, Omar Wasow, currently an assistant professor of politics at UC Berkeley, observed that following the violent protests after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968, one can claim “a causal relationship between violent protests and the shift away from the Democratic coalition” in the November election.

The relationship between the current student protests and the upcoming November election may not be as causal, but there could be a correlation. The massive 1968 protests certainly influenced US policy, but they also led to an unintended consequence: Richard Nixon was elected president in November.

How did Nixon do that? He used the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests as the basis of his law-and-order campaign. “Nixon […] relied on television, crafting an ad campaign which offered soothing hope that [he] would end the riots and disorder,” Jeremy D. Mayer wrote in The Historian. “The most memorable Nixon ad featured a middle-aged white woman walking alone down a dark urban street, while the announcer recited bleak statistics on the frequency of violent crime.” Mayer noted; “Nixon privately praised one of his law and order because ‘this hits it right on the nose […] it’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.’” Substitute Trump for Nixon. Substitute students, lefties, woke and critical theorists and here we go again.

What does this mean for the actual protesters? Should they change their protests because of possible future consequences about how the protests will be used? Should one stop protesting Biden’s continuing to send arms and money to Israel because Trump and his followers will use the protests negatively in November?

There are three levels here. The first is the reason for the protests. The second is how politicians react to the protests. And the third is how voters react to the way politicians use the protests.

To go back to 1968; did any of the violent protesters at the Chicago Convention see the relationship between their actions and Nixon’s election? Did they regret what they did?

At the end of the film of the trial of the legendary leaders of the Convention protesters, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Judge Hoffman says to Tom Hayden before sentencing; “If you make your statement brief, if you make it respectful, if you make it remorseful and to the point, I will look favorably upon that when administering my sentence.”

Hayden replies, “We have no choice. We had no choice in Chicago. We had no choice in this trial,” somehow echoing Martin Luther’s 1521 response “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise,” when Luther was questioned about his heretical views before the emperor and the princes of the Church at the Diet of Worms.

(Columbia University President Nemat Shafik recently used similar language. In a statement justifying calling in the police, she said: “After the university learned overnight that Hamilton Hall had been occupied, vandalized and blockaded, we were left with no choice.”)

Did the leaders of the 1968 Convention protests have no choice? At a reunion of the remaining survivors of the 1969 Chicago conspiracy trial, Tom Hayden was reported to have said; “It’s not over.” Lee Weiner, when asked if he would do it all again, didn’t hesitate; “I’d do it better.” No remorse from either. No feelings of guilt that they were responsible for Nixon’s election.

On the level of the Convention protesters, they believed their protests were justified. “We had no choice.” They felt they had no responsibility for Nixon’s election, we surmise, because they had no control over how the protests would be used by politicians. And, they had no responsibility for how voters would be influenced by how politicians used their actions.

Grumpy seniors will certainly echo George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it,” as a warning to students that today’s protests will help Trump get elected in November. Today’s protesters will undoubtedly echo Tom Hayden; “We have no choice.” Some religiously-oriented protesters resisting the police may even use Luther’s defiant; “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”

The same grumpy Baby Boomers will also wonder how the excitement of the 1960s, levitating the Pentagon, Woodstock and all, has gotten us to where we are today with Trump’s MAGA, Barbie, riot police on campuses, and all that. Watching the current protests is more than merely observing polarization and generational conflict. It’s about wondering how momentary protests in a good cause have had and could have negative long-term unintended consequences.


Daniel Warner's piece was first published in CounterPunch.

When is Criticism of Israel Anti-Semitic?

By Peter Singer*

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu condemned the protests on US campuses against his country’s attacks on Gaza, saying that they were “reminiscent of what happened in German universities in the 1930s.” He was, apparently, comparing the protesters to the Nazi student groups that beat up Jewish students and faculty.

That comparison dilutes the horror of Nazism by overlooking both the extent of the violence that Nazi students inflicted on anyone who was Jewish and their avowedly racist goal of purging the universities of all Jewish students and professors. They achieved that goal after the Nazis came to power, and we can now see that it was a step toward their ultimate objective: a world without Jews.

I know what Nazi anti-Semitism in the 1930s was like. My parents, Viennese Jews, became refugees. My grandparents did not leave in time, and three of them were murdered in the Holocaust. When I was a child, my father would rise early on Sunday mornings and take out photos of his extended family, weeping over the loss, not only of his parents, but of aunts, uncles, and cousins.

My family’s history led me, when I was an undergraduate, to study the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1930s. I read some of the primary sources, like the virulently anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer (The Stormtrooper), and although I eventually took up philosophy rather than history, the visceral hatred of Jews that came through these writings made a lasting impression on me.

Undoubtedly, some anti-Semites have used today’s student protests as cover for stirring up hatred of anyone Jewish, irrespective of their views on what is happening in Gaza. But to characterize the protests in general as comparable to Nazi anti-Semitism is grotesque.

Netanyahu stands in a long line of defenders of Israel who seek to brand critics as anti-Semites. Now the US House of Representatives has – perhaps unwittingly – lent its support to blurring the crucial distinction between anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel. By a 320-91 vote, the House approved a resolution that combines a condemnation of anti-Semitism with the stipulation that the US Department of Education should use the definition of anti-Semitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

The way the IHRA initially defines anti-Semitism is simple and unobjectionable: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” The problem is that this definition is followed by examples of anti-Semitism, one of which is: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

In 1896, when Theodor Herzl published “The Jewish State,” a pamphlet that is widely regarded as the founding text of Zionism, there were very few Jews living in what is now Israel. Jews everywhere felt a historical connection to the Israel of the Hebrew bible, and each year, at Passover, they would say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” But that was a ritual, not the expression of a desire to move there. For my parents, in the years before the Nazis came to power, the idea of leaving buzzing, sophisticated, multicultural Vienna for Palestine was laughable.

The early Zionist movement popularized the slogan: “A land without a people for a people without a land.” It was true that Jews at that time were a minority everywhere, so there was no land, or country, that was predominantly Jewish. But it was also obviously false that Palestine was without people.

If we assert that Jews, or Roma, or any other people who are everywhere a minority have a right to self-determination, we should surely acknowledge that any such right must be constrained by the rights of others to determine the kind of state that will govern the land in which they live. For those groups that are everywhere a minority, that may mean that there is no country in which they can exercise a national or collective right to self-determination.

What about the claim that the state of Israel is a racist endeavor? Israel’s Law of Return gives me the right to become a citizen of Israel, even though I am an atheist, have never observed Jewish religious laws, learned Hebrew, or had a bar mitzvah. But the fact that my maternal grandmother was Jewish is enough for me to have the right to “return” to Israel. That does seem uncomfortably close to a racist criterion for deciding who has the right to become a citizen of Israel.

In 2010, as part of a group of Australian Jews, I publicly renounced my right of return. We did so because we do not believe that we should have that right when Palestinians who can document that their ancestors had homes in what is now Israel, and at least some of whose ancestors were driven out by hostile Jewish military or paramilitary action, do not.

Despite my objections to the IHRA definition, I acknowledge that it does, to its credit, include the important statement that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” That’s sufficient to show that Netanyahu is wrong to describe what is happening on US campuses as anti-Semitism.

Strong criticism would be leveled against any country that subjected a civilian population to the widespread bombardment that Israel has launched against Gaza, even if the country were responding to horrific attacks like those committed by Hamas on October 7, 2023. That is why today’s protests, taken as a whole, cannot be labeled anti-Semitic.

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, is Founder of the organization The Life You Can Save and a founding co-editor of the Journal of Controversial Ideas. He is the author of Practical EthicsThe Life You Can Save, and Animal Liberation Now, and a co-author (with Shih Chao-Hwei) of The Buddhist and the Ethicist(Shambhala Publications, 2023).

The Privileged Gaza Protesters

By Ian Buruma*

It is easy to ridicule the college protesters in the United States calling for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea.” Students at some of the country’s most expensive and prestigious universities don Palestinian keffiyehs, “liberate” campus buildings, as though they were freedom fighters, and, in the case of at least one young protester, demand food and water from the college authorities as “basic humanitarian aid.”

To be sure, all political demonstrations are a kind of theater. Certainly not everyone protesting against the killing of large numbers of innocent civilians in Gaza is worthy of derision. Using violence against them, whether by the police, or, as happened at UCLA, by mobs, is unconscionable.

The problem is that the “anti-Zionist” cause gaining ground on college campuses is often incoherent. Its ideological underpinnings tend to see everything as interconnected: police brutality against African-Americans, global warming, US imperialism, white supremacy, the history of American slavery, European colonialism, trans- and homophobia (“Queers for Palestine”), and now the Israel-Hamas war. In the words of a Cornell University student, interviewed by the New York Times, “climate justice” is “rooted in the same struggles of imperialism, capitalism – things like that. I think that’s very true of this conflict, of the genocide in Palestine.”

Zionism, a disparate nineteenth-century Jewish nationalist movement that contained religious, secular, left-wing, and right-wing elements, has now become synonymous with colonialism, imperialism, and racism. To be a good, humane, and moral person, the thinking goes, one must be an “anti-Zionist.” 

Whether this is also anti-Semitic, as some people claim, is not always clear. Opposition to Zionism, or criticism of Israeli policies, is not necessarily anti-Semitic. Denying the right of Israel to exist is certainly hostile, as is the assumption that all Jews are Zionists.

Connecting all forms of oppression has its own academic jargon: “intersectionality.” Many students currently demonstrating for Palestine have adopted this line of thinking because they have been taught to do so, mostly by professors at the same institutions against which the protesters are now revolting.

In a sea of competing identity politics, there is one marker on which all well-educated members of the liberal left, especially in the US, agree: to be a right-thinking citizen of the post-slavery, post-colonial West, one must be actively anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonialist. That means applying such a lens to all global events, past and present, including complex conflicts from the US to the Middle East.

This worldview might explain why the pro-Palestine protests started at some of the most exclusive American universities: Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Stanford. Intersectionality is not the main preoccupation of working-class people, but instead a mark of the educated elite, whose members are used to thinking of themselves as the collective moral conscience of the Western world.

A certain degree of class guilt about attending the most expensive universities could be contributing to the swell of campus activism, especially in a society where the gap between rich and poor is growing. It is easier to live with privilege when class struggle is replaced by protests against colonialism and racism.

Class does, however, play its part. Rebellions often stem from a fear of privileges slipping. Former US President Donald Trump’s demagoguery appeals to relatively uneducated white people who resent that immigrants might be doing better than they are. Something similar is occurring in elite American institutions and other parts of the Western world.

Until recently, being a white man from a well-educated family was usually a ticket into the upper echelons of society. But now there is more competition from highly educated non-whites and women for the most sought-after jobs in academia, publishing, museums, journalism, and other fields that require a higher education. This is an entirely positive development. Anyone who believes in inclusivity, diversity, not to mention intersectionality, should applaud it.

But the liberal-left ideology that insists on active “decolonization” and ritual confessions of racial privilege can lead to defensive reactions. An increasing number of young white men in Europe and the US are drawn to far-right political parties and slick guru-like figures who promise to teach them how to reassert their masculinity and put women back in their place. That this can also play on prejudices against people of color is obvious.

The elite’s anxiety about maintaining its privilege can also go the other way, however. Students at the most expensive private universities may see it as being in their interest to demonstrate their intersectional bona fides as anti-racists, anti-imperialists, and anti-colonialists by outdoing minorities in their zeal. It is one way of clinging to leading positions in the intellectual and cultural spheres.

Perhaps that is why students and faculty at Columbia University showed the way in protesting Israel’s war in Gaza, and were swiftly followed by activists at other Ivy League schools. Whether this will really help Palestinians gain their own state, where they can lead better and more dignified lives under a freely chosen government, is unclear. But that may never have been the main point. As is often the case with protest movements in America, this one is really all about the US.

Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of Spinoza: Freedom’s Messiah (Yale University Press, 2024).

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Daniel Warner

Op-Ed: Peter Singer - Ian Buruma

Editorial assistance: David Jenny

Edited by: Dan Wheeler

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