The Privileged Gaza Protesters

The Privileged Gaza Protesters

IAN BURUMA | The ideological underpinnings of the Pro-Palestine protests on American campuses connect Israel’s war in Gaza to all other forms of oppression. But are elite university students presenting themselves as anti-racists, anti-imperialists, and anti-colonialists to preserve their privilege?

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).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.