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The right to protest is sacrosanct but not all methods of doing so are legitimate

It's time for students, and rest of us, to join forces to support those who want peace, coexistence and reconciliation. (Reuters)
It's time for students, and rest of us, to join forces to support those who want peace, coexistence and reconciliation. (Reuters)
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12 May 2024 09:05:00 GMT9
12 May 2024 09:05:00 GMT9

During my considerable time in academia teaching politics at various universities, including American ones, I have had many wonderful students who cared deeply about their studies and the issues discussed in class.

However, I have also complained to them about their reluctance to become proactive in terms of political activity. Where previous generations took to the streets, they prefer to log on to social media to protest.

It might be the case that individualism has descended upon our societies, making the younger generation less enchanted by the prospect of mass gatherings. Or it may be a perception that politics is beyond repair, especially when true leadership is hard to come by these days. There is also the unbearable ease with which social media can give us an impression of engaging in political activism without leaving our armchairs.

However, the latest round of horrific hostilities between the Israelis and Palestinians has incentivized hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets and protest. On many college campuses, especially in the US, students have become political activists in large numbers, which is something to be welcomed.

Nevertheless, this development has also highlighted the binary nature of the message behind these protests, and in too many cases produced ugly manifestations of antisemitism and Islamophobia, which are utterly unacceptable.

In the US, these phenomena are even more accentuated due to the very loose interpretation of the First Amendment. Its almost illogical interpretation of absolute protection for the right of freedom of speech, one can argue, allows and encourages hate speech, and leaves no room for incitement and expressions of hate to be censored, punished or even restrained within the education system.

On the positive side, what we have seen emerge over the past seven months is the fact that young people are desperately looking for a cause to rally around, and this is something society especially needs because the challenges that lie ahead, whether they arise from climate change, wars and conflicts, or the growing inequalities in our societies, are endangering not only our security but also our humanity.

Criticism of Israel for the killings and devastation it is inflicting on Gaza with little care for civilians, from the very young to the elderly, is understandable, because it is impossible to watch the horrific images from the Strip and remain indifferent to them, regardless of the terrible atrocities committed by Hamas on Oct. 7.

Who among us has the moral right to question the legitimacy of the calls for an immediate ceasefire and the release of hostages, and the demand for sufficient humanitarian aid to reach more than 2 million Gazans, who have been literally trapped for years in the crossfire between an occupying and blockading force and a fundamentalist regime, both of which have deprived them of their most basic needs, rights and dignity?

Israeli authorities, through their self-defeating policies, have “earned” the wrath of ordinary people and states around the world. Moreover, support for the Palestinian cause and calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state is not an antisemitic act, but a call for a solution that would enable both Israelis and Palestinians to live peacefully, side by side.

The White House description of the call for an intifada as “hate speech” was misplaced, because to rise up against an occupation is not necessarily to call for suicide bombings, as was claimed; this was certainly not the case during the First Intifada.

Israeli authorities, through their self-defeating policies, have “earned” the wrath of ordinary people and states around the world.

Yossi Mekelberg

Yet, among some of the protesters there are also clear manifestations of antisemitism, the misrepresentation of Zionism, and a questioning of the right of Israel to exist, as well as incitements against Jews more generally. And this is where a line should be drawn.

There are recorded incidents of antisemitic slurs directed at Jewish students and academic staff, and many of them report that they are afraid, for example, to wear a Star of David necklace for fear of being attacked by pro-Palestinian protesters.

Extremely disturbing has been the support expressed, albeit by a small minority of the protestors, not only for Hamas as a political movement but for the crimes it committed on Oct. 7.

There have also been several cases of physical attacks, although it has been reported that at UCLA it was pro-Israel activists who resorted to violence against pro-Palestinian protesters. This is a worrying trend that jeopardizes the pursuit of common ground and peaceful dialogue that would be much more helpful to both Israelis and Palestinians than exporting this bitter conflict around the world.

What has become apparent in the anti-Israel protests is that they have “empowered” those who never believed in a two-state solution, or never believed that Israel should exist in the first place (and equally those pro-Israelis who have always opposed a Palestinian state).

Much of the influence on the protesters stems from academics who subscribe to the theory-ideology of the moment of “decolonization.” This views the Zionist movement as a whole as a colonial project, and the Jewish people, including those living within the international recognized Green Line and not only the settlers in the occupied West Bank, as committing “settler-colonialism,” hence delegitimizing the very right of Israel to exist.

While the Zionist movement has always been diverse in its ideology, and tragically the current Israeli government represents the most extreme right-wing and expansionist version of this, the attempts to tar the entire movement and those who support it with the same brush of illegitimacy, while claiming that so-called Jewish money and power is ensuring US and international support for Israel, is nothing short of incitement.

Universities and academics have the difficult task of providing their students with critical-thinking skills in the face of complex situations and events, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict presents its fair share of complexities.

What is required is to avoid the type of approach that is more applicable to sporting contests, in which one supports the “either-or,” “zero-sum” outcome. Not only is this unsuitable for dealing with war and conflicts, in which the various causes and outcomes are often opaque and entangled, but it causes obvious harm to the discourse surrounding a conflict and its ability to overcome differences on the path to resolving it.

There can be only one silver lining to what has taken place since Oct. 7, and that is the opportunity to internalize the fact that there is an urgent need for a completely new discourse over Israel and Palestine, one that discards prejudices, biases, hatred and, in the case of universities, avoids the artificial paradigms that are at best only partially relevant, and at worst highly damaging.

Instead, it is time for students, and the rest of us, to join forces and support those who want peace, coexistence and reconciliation, and marginalize the haters and those for whom a historical compromise for peace is a curse and not a blessing.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg
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