Why Campus Protests Will Not Help End the Israeli-Palestinian Tragedy

May 6, 2024 Topic: Politics Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: IsraelCampus ProtestsPalestineJoe BidenDonald Trump

Why Campus Protests Will Not Help End the Israeli-Palestinian Tragedy

By adopting infeasible and vague objectives and creating a general sense of intra-party chaos, university students may be contributing to a Democratic defeat in November. 


The spread of protests against policies that have generated the current humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip has been remarkable. Initially centered at Columbia University in New York, the protest movement quickly lit up other college campuses in the United States and has now inspired similar actions around the world. The immediate stimulation for the protests has been the mass suffering of Gazans amid an Israeli assault and blockade. But the expressions of outrage over what has been happening in Gaza over the past half year must and do include broader opposition to the policies that deny political rights to a population under occupation by a militarily superior foe. 

The protests constitute one of the largest and most salient open expressions of opposition to Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians and to U.S. policies that, for many years under administrations of both parties, have, in effect, condoned Israeli actions. As such, the protests raise hopes of moving the needle of politics and diplomacy on this subject and maybe, just maybe, generating real action toward resolving the destructive Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 


Thus, Peter Beinart, one of the most astute observers of issues involving Israel and the Palestinians, comments with good reason about the protest movement. Whatever its features that  deserve criticism, the movement is also a “tremendous opportunity” that “holds the possibility in a way that no movement in America has” in his lifetime “to end American institutional complicity with the oppression of the Palestinian people.”

The opportunity and possibility are certainly there, but unfortunately, the way the protests have been shaping up, along with some countervailing political realities, means the opportunity may be lost. The demonstrations may hurt the cause of ending oppression at least as much as they help it.

The protests themselves have, in many respects, become a bigger part of the story, as covered by the press, than the issues about which the people involved are protesting. That does not augur well for gaining sympathy and support for the message the protesters are trying to send.

This negative dynamic especially prevails to the extent that protests go beyond a strictly peaceful expression of views and begin to involve physical force and disruption. At Columbia, this occurred when protestors were no longer just camping on a lawn and instead seized and occupied a major university building.

Some university presidents, at Columbia and elsewhere, deserve criticism for quickly calling in the cops even before protests took such a tack. However, no university president can or should tolerate actions that disrupt education and the other normal functions of their institution.

The protests also have suffered from a lack of either feasibility or clarity in declared objectives. On one hand, the most frequently heard demand is for universities to divest themselves from any investments that involve Israel. On the face of it, that sounds like a clearly defined and sharply focused demand. Yet, practical difficulties would impede any such divestiture, including the tendency of university endowments to invest in private equity and other managed funds, often making it hard to identify, much less extract any specifically identified with Israel.

Moreover, university leaders have good reasons, including sustaining the fiscal health of their institutions, to adhere strictly to a policy that, as Dartmouth College president Sian Leah Beilock said in justifying her action against protesters on that campus, “the endowment is not a political tool.” In addition, there is a question surrounding divestiture demands on any subject, which is how much difference marketable security changing hands—with the buyer being less concerned than the seller about the issue at hand—can be expected to have on policies of a company’s home country.

On the other hand, some of the protestors have voiced support for an assortment of causes that even go beyond Israel and the Palestinians. This reflects how the Gaza crisis, by mobilizing a diverse coalition on the political Left, naturally attracts activists who also have other issues on their minds. But anything that sounds like a general scattershot from the Left reduces focus on Israeli policies and can leave an impression of protestors who have 1960s-envy and are protesting partly for the sake of protesting.

Meanwhile, the opponents of any move toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and securing political and human rights for Palestinians are exploiting negative images of the protests. The National Republican Senatorial Committee wasted no time in producing an ad tying President Biden and his student loan forgiveness program to “antisemitic mobs” that are behaving “like terrorists” on college campuses. Factual details that might collide with such messaging—such as how violence at the UCLA campus was instigated by pro-Israel counter-protesters—get lost amid a general sense of liberal campuses spinning out of control. This helps sustain a plurality sentiment among U.S. voters that favors banning pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campuses.

Almost any protest movement, however noble the main cause may be, will pick up bits that are ugly and inexcusable. And, in this case, there will be just enough chants heard that can plausibly be viewed as antisemitic for opponents to smear unjustly the entire movement with the antisemitism label.

To the extent that protesters really do have 1960s envy, they would do well to reflect on the results of the anti-Vietnam War protests of that era. The protests did not shorten the war. By contributing to division and chaos within the Democratic Party, the protests hurt the election prospects of Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey in 1968. 

Humphrey had broken so much, in a pro-peace direction, with President Lyndon Johnson’s war policies that Johnson told supporters that Republican candidate Richard Nixon was “following my policies more closely than Humphrey.” Nixon won the election, and the war continued for four more years.

The catastrophe in the Gaza Strip was already a political liability for Joe Biden, due partly to his early reflexive deference to Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Now, the protests constitute a further political liability for Biden.

The most significant consequence of the protests may not be a change in the deeply entrenched anti-Palestinian policies of the right-wing Israeli government but instead to help put Donald Trump back in the White House. By the protestors’ own standards—and given Trump’s first-term record of handing the Israeli government whatever it wanted and shoving aside any thought of Palestinian self-determination—that would be a step backward.

Paul R. Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier, he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA, covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. His most recent book is Beyond the Water’s Edge: How Partisanship Corrupts U.S. Foreign Policy. He is also a contributing editor for this publication.

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