Politics & Media
May 13, 2024, 06:27AM

Campus Gaza Protests Remarkably Successful

That's why the Biden administration is rethinking its unquestioning support of Israel.

Columbia protest gaza gettyimages 2151810870.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Many have asserted that the campus protests against the war in Gaza are counter-productive. They'll take almost any approach to supporting that claim, sometimes going on a historical excursus about Vietnam protests in the 1960s. Then, they claim, protests prolonged the war. The commentary might make you afraid to advocate any position at any time on any issue, because you might cause a backlash. The most effective approach to advocating for peace, David Brooks and Michael Smerconish urge, is silence. If you don't say anything, you’ll still piss people off. But you'll seem more like an innocent victim, which sells.

Furthermore, as many of these same people have also pointed out, or claimed, the protesters are woefully ignorant about the history of the Middle East and the current situation there. They don't realize that their college endowments are not significantly funding Israeli weapons. They don't realize that saying "from the river to the sea" makes you a "brownshirt." They don't even understand that it's not American troops over there, unlike in Vietnam. For some reason they are protesting a war we’re not even fighting! Oy the naivete! But naive people do harm, as responsible commentators like to point out.

This “counter-productivity” argument is very strange at this moment, in that the protests are achieving remarkable success.

Last week, as colleges headed into commencement season and protests crested, the Biden administration signaled a dramatic change in policy, suspending shipments of the most destructive bombs that Israel has used to level Gaza and threatening to withhold other military aid on humanitarian grounds. It was a rapid and stunning reversal of policy. And it came, plausibly, directly as a response to protesters, as Biden and the Democratic Party were threatened with losing a generation of voters, and a generation of privileged young Americans, including their own children. Even as Biden condemned the protests, with the immortal words "dissent must never lead to disorder," he capitulated to them, thus causing Bret Stephens and others to escalate their anti-protest recriminations.

Protest-haters like Stephens can turn from attacking the protesters for being ineffective to attacking them for being effective. This makes sense, because the people attacking the protesters only want one thing, it seems: for Gaza to be leveled and every person who lives there to be erased.

"In truth, there is very little at stake on any side of the struggles at Columbia University," wrote Musa al-Gharbi in a widely-discussed article at Compact about what he calls the Ivy intifada, "and ultimately everyone will be just fine. Sooner or later, most of the students will proceed to their well-remunerated jobs – protesters, counter-protesters, and neutral parties alike." He compares their privileged lives, even in campus encampments, to the fate of Palestinian students in Gaza. He characterizes the whole thing, if not as "counter-productive," then as trivial.

But as in Vietnam, "the establishment" won’t be able to watch the next generation of itself get led away in zip ties. Police have arrested the children of members of Congress and the like. The encampments, it's true, aren’t refugee camps, though a couple of them looked like war zones last week after staged, violent counter-demonstrations or the deployment of chemical munitions. But the sacrifices the kids are making are real, I believe, and are having a remarkable effect.

There’s nothing, really nothing, that the students of Gaza or for that matter of Israel could’ve done to change American policy, or begin to create a separation between the governments of the US and Israel. But there was something that American college students could do, and they’ve been doing a lot of it. The tone of the Biden administration shifted as soon as the demonstrations began; the administration became much more critical of Israel immediately. That, as many of the demonstrators admitted or insisted, didn't itself mean very much. But now the threats are becoming real, and some of the weapons most implicated in killing civilians, tens of thousands, are being withheld.

The sort of leverage that the demonstrators wield is particularly effective in this election year. The Biden campaign suddenly saw a possible sag in turnout, or a significant shift of young voters to third-party candidates—particularly Jill Stein and Cornel West, both of whom have visited campus encampments—as one of the clearest threats to Biden's re-election. Their rhetoric changed, becoming more and more critical of Israel even as the flow of arms continued. When the rhetorical shift didn't do the trick, they started to re-think their policies.

That, for a protest movement, is success. The protests registered and shaped public opinion; in the classic manner of resistance movements, they’ve gained momentum as they’ve been repressed; and they’re changing the course of the war. The protests won't achieve everything the protesters want, and they can't save lives already lost. They won't prevent the Israeli incursion into Rafah, but they have, plausibly, prevented Rafah, and all its inhabitants, from simply being leveled. Even amidst all the death, the protests have saved lives. 

Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell

  • I attacked the protesters today in this publication, but I don't want Gaza leveled, and the only people there I want erased are Hamas members, who are dedicated to killing every Jew in Israel. I just want to go on the record so I'm not lumped in with those you're referring to, who I really don't think exist in any significant number.

    Responses to this comment
  • It's possible that Biden shifted on Israel in response to the protestors, but I don't think we know that cause-and-effect. From the fragmentary info coming out, it sounds like there have been growing differences between the US and Israeli governments for months, and that Biden finds Netanyahu's positions untenable from the point of view of forming some kind of political settlement with Arab countries that have an interest in working with Israel in mutual defense against Iran, but that can't do so while their own public opinion is inflamed by what's happening in Gaza. I also gather that Biden's been pushing Israel to do other military options against Hamas instead of Rafah, so I very much doubt the campus protestors would be happy if they knew everything going on in the negotiations.

    Responses to this comment
  • I'd say the protesters had little or no effect.

    Responses to this comment
  • The protestors don't seem to have much influenced this: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2024/05/14/biden-israel-weapons-gaza-rafah/

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment