Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Mindless Chants Have Got to Go

Protests are messy affairs. They sprawl beyond the intentions of their organizers, attracting reformers and revolutionaries (and counterrevolutionaries); rebels with related and unrelated causes (I remember “Save the Whales” signs at Vietnam War protests); sowers and seekers of chaos; false friends intent on discrediting the protest through their excesses; and of course, “outside agitators.”

With so many constituents, the protest’s messages are inevitably garbled, allowing sympathizers to seize on the ones they feel most comfortable embracing, and opponents to seize on the ones they feel most comfortable repudiating.

Often, the opposing sides will interpret the same message in wildly divergent ways. Does “From the river to the sea/ Palestine will be free” threaten the existence of the state of Israel? Or does it benignly and vaguely call for some future configuration in which Arabs and Jews will have equal rights?

Is Zionism a belief in a Jewish homeland in Palestine or a belief in a Greater Israel that includes the West Bank and Gaza and exiles Arabs?

Depends on who you ask.

Are the protests antisemitic? Definitely not. Is there a whiff of antisemitism about them? Definitely. I can’t be a part of that.

Yet I’m thrilled American college students are protesting. I’m thrilled any time students pay attention to the wider world. It’s fundamentally what college is for: Children become adults by becoming aware that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in their social and familial relationships and their favorite apps.

I’m also thrilled that students believe they can effect change. It’s easy to feel powerless in a land where each of us is but one of 160 million voters, and where rich, old white guys still make the rules and hold the public purse strings. Protests make the authorities nervous (hence their overreaction). They apply pressure. Sometimes, they work.

As much as I defend the right to protest and believe in the power of protest, I dislike the form they take. Protests are where nuance goes to die. Instead of arguments, they offer slogans, which must be succinct enough to fit on a placard, and chants, which have to rhyme. (To what degree, I wonder, does the rhyme shape rather than convey the message? To what extent is being able to dance to it and drum to it more important than the words themselves?)

University presidents have been the targets of protesters’ wrath: 

Hey, [president’s name], you can’t hide/ we charge you with genocide.

A university president guilty of genocide? Really?

How about this one: 

Resistance is justified/ when Palestine is occupied.

That sounds like an endorsement of the Hamas rampage of Oct. 7 to me. Nice work, Bibi. You’ve turned terrorists into freedom fighters. 

What bugs me most about the Gaza protests is their one-sidedness. By all means condemn Netanyahu’s government and all who support it. Condemn the West Bank settlements. Condemn the daily humiliation and mistreatment Palestinians have long suffered at the hands of Israel’s police and military. But also condemn Hamas and all who call for ridding the Holy Land of Jews. 

There’s nothing complicated about this. Attacking innocents is wrong, whoever does it. Blaming ordinary citizens for the actions of their leaders is wrong, whoever does it. Why aren’t the protests peace marches? 

Given my all-around ambivalence, I’m not sure how I feel about the relative quiet at Penn State, either. There were a couple of demonstrations here, but nothing like the encampments and building takeovers we’ve seen at other campuses. 

When I asked my students why not, they noted that the biggest uproars were on urban campuses – Columbia in New York and UCLA in Los Angeles – places with large populations of both Muslims and Jews. OK, but you don’t have to be Muslim or Jewish to get worked up about what’s going on in Israel and Gaza.

I assumed timing was also a factor. With our early start/early finish academic calendar, the protests coincided with our last week of classes and finals week.

But then I read about the protests at Indiana. IU is in Bloomington, not exactly a booming metropolis, and it’s on the same schedule we are. Some grads chanted and walked out of IU’s commencement exercises on Saturday. Some unfurled Palestinian flags and chanted at the University of Michigan.

When I went to my college’s commencement ceremony, I thought I’d see at least one mortarboard or sign with a “Free Gaza” message. I didn’t. Colleagues at the College of the Liberal Arts and the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) exercises didn’t see anything either.

The only chant was the ubiquitous “We are…” And then, at the end, the new grads put their arms around each other’s shoulders, swayed and sang their alma mater, just like they would in any other year.

Good for them. This was the class that had high school graduation taken from them by COVID. Let them now have their tassel-turning and their anodyne speeches. 

But I have to admit, I was a little disappointed.