How Protesters Can Actually Help Palestinians

Student protesters: I admire your empathy for Gazans, your concern for the world, your moral ambition to make a difference.

But I worry about how peaceful protests have tipped into occupations of buildings, risks to commencements and what I see as undue tolerance of antisemitism, chaos, vandalism and extremism. I’m afraid the more aggressive actions may be hurting the Gazans you are trying to help.

I’m shaped in my thinking by the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s. Students who protested then were right on the merits: The war was unwinnable and conducted in ways that were reckless and immoral.

Yet those students didn’t shorten that terrible war; instead, they probably prolonged it. Leftist activists in 1968 didn’t achieve their goal of electing the peace candidate Gene McCarthy; rather, the turmoil and more violent protests helped elect Richard Nixon, who pledged to restore order — and then dragged the war out and expanded it in Cambodia.

I think that history is worth remembering today. Good intentions are not enough. Empathy is not enough. I’m sure we all agree that it’s outcomes that matter. So the question I would ask you to ask yourselves is: Are your encampments and sacrifices — more than 1,000 protesters have been arrested so far, and unknown numbers have been suspended or expelled — actually helping Gazans?

I’ve been strongly criticizing Israel’s conduct in Gaza since last fall, and President Biden’s unconditional support for the war. So while my heart’s with the cause, it seems to me that the campus upheavals have distracted from the crisis in Gaza, rather than called attention to it.

After all, what are we talking about right now? It’s not hunger in Gaza. It’s not a potential invasion of Rafah, which the U.N. humanitarian chief said this week would be “a tragedy beyond words.”

Instead, we are discussing the student leader at Columbia who said in January, “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” He was exceptional and later apologized — but he badly discredited the cause. I fear that zealotry within the protester echo chamber can lead activists to make such appalling comments or make excuses for them, thus driving people away.

A thought: Humility is an essential tool in persuasion (not that I always get this right!). The challenge is to take an unflinching moral stance while acknowledging that one may eventually be proved wrong. Holding onto that contradiction curbs the tendency toward self-righteousness and the impulse to shout down others — both of which have persuaded exactly zero people ever.

Many students are peacefully calling attention to injustice in Gaza, combining passion with humility, and I believe that unnecessary violence from the police is also inexcusable and makes it harder to resolve this campus crisis.

Still. At Yale, protesters set up tents and blocked off a “liberated zone” in a public space that for a time people were allowed to enter only if they committed “to Palestinian liberation” and related principles, according to The Yale Daily News. It strikes me as ironic that one of those principles was zero tolerance for discrimination of any sort.

Let’s also acknowledge that Hamas is a misogynistic, homophobic, antisemitic terrorist organization that is now holding American and Israeli hostages. Hamas has been a catastrophe for Gazans, and it’s hard for me to see why anyone supporting Palestinians would condone it or violence.

Someone vandalized the district office of Representative John Carter, a Texas Republican, spilling fake blood and painting “Free Gaza.” That certainly didn’t help people in Gaza and probably diminished support for them — yet I was struck by the number of online commentators who sympathized with the vandalism. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely thrilled that such people exist.

Protesters have demands including divestment and cutting off ties with Israel. But ending relations with Israel doesn’t help Gazans, and, on the contrary, it’s useful for universities to have exchanges with a broad range of places, including those whose policies we disagree with.

Meanwhile, divestment won’t hurt Netanyahu or help Gazans — but it may mean lower returns for endowments. So do students favor higher tuition to cover this, or less student aid for marginalized students? And if universities divest all financial instruments linked to Israel, does that mean they must also sell all their United States Treasury bonds, since the U.S. government sends aid to Israel?

I don’t mean for this to sound as sour as it probably does. Please, protest!

Protest itself is a good thing: Students can write letters to the editor, circulate petitions, hold peaceful rallies and call their members of Congress (or flood the comments section of this column!). I’m all for demanding more humanitarian aid to Gaza and a suspension of transfers of offensive weapons to Israel until it adheres to humanitarian law, plus a major push for a Palestinian state.

Finally, let me offer two concrete suggestions for how we can meaningfully help Palestinians that don’t involve occupying campuses, getting kicked out of college and risking the prolongation of the war.

First, raise funds for organizations actively helping Gazans, like Save the Children, Gisha or International Rescue Committee. That may seem discouragingly modest but it will help real people in desperate need.

Second, this may sound zany, but how about raising money to send as many of your student leaders as possible this summer to live in the West Bank and learn from Palestinians there (while engaging with Israelis on the way in or out)? West Bank monitors say that a recent Israeli crackdown on foreigners helping Palestinians, by denying entry or deporting people, has made this more difficult but not impossible.

Student visitors must be prudent and cautious but could study Arabic, teach English and volunteer with human rights organizations on the ground. Palestinians in parts of the West Bank are under siege, periodically attacked by settlers and in need of observers and advocates.

Those students returning at the end of the summer would have a much deeper understanding of the issues and how to help. It would be life-changing, an education as rich as any you’re getting on campus.

It would also be activism that isn’t performative but that can actually help Palestinians live better and safer lives.

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