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All University Protests Must Stop, Period

((Ted Eytan/Creative Commons))

Holding myself to this standard, I am comfortable in saying that in each and every one of those scenarios, my view would be unchanged: The protests, all the university protests, must be stopped.”

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” – Bertrand Russell

Much of the crosstalk concerning the contemporary university protests centers on the substance of the protesters’ slogans, views, and demands. Conservatives are concerned by the protesters’ support for terrorism, anti-American invective and opposition to Israel, a longtime American ally and the only true democracy in the Middle East. Many Jews, including traditionally liberal Jews rapidly fleeing rightward due to the lack of love they are encountering among former allies, see the protests as troubling due both to many Jews’ support for Israel and also to the disturbing frequency with which plain-old anti-Semitic sentiments keep bubbling up to the surface. Many Palestinians and other Muslims, along with progressives and socialists on the Left, see the protests as a popular outcry against oppression and European colonialism. 

For all the know-it-alls who claim truth is on their side, what should be obvious to anyone who cares to think a moment past the inflammatory headlines is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated and no simplistic narrative fits the bill. Historically, the Jewish diaspora has not had an easy time of it over the centuries and was, of course, victimized by one of the worst acts of genocide in human history during World War II. Due to these happenings in Europe and the historical and Biblical links between the Jewish people and the Holy Land, many Jews migrated to—or, in the view of some, back to—Israel after the War, joining those who had initiated that immigration movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and a smaller number who had been living in the region even before, including some from time immemorial, since before the days of the Ottoman Empire. 

The historical connection of many of those new migrants to that land was clearly tenuous, “Jewishness” (like most ethnic, racial, and national identities) itself being largely a convenient fiction perpetuated, for their own distinct ideological reasons, by Jews and anti-Semites alike. Although the Biblical Israelites of old certainly lived in land to which many contemporary Israelis now lay claim, once they had been displaced or exiled from that land and throughout the ensuing centuries, nomadic populations of single Jewish men, perhaps traders, often migrated from one nation to the next, intermarrying with local women who converted to Judaism, significantly diluting over the course of many generations any “blood” tie to the original Biblical tribe (such that there is 30-60% European non-Jewish genetic admixture in the genomes of individuals who identify as European Jews) and, by that same token, to the Biblical land of Israel. At the same time, other distinct populations of Jews—who largely do not look especially similar to Eastern European Jews—had lived in the Iberian peninsula, North Africa, and in the Middle East, showing genetic mixing with the local populations in those regions as well. What bonded these genetically diverse individuals and populations together across the ages was, in the end, not so much genetic as religious, not Jewish genes but Jewish religious beliefs. 

When many Jews, like many Christians and others, lost their religious identities over the course of recent centuries and decades, what was left for them of the Jewishness of old was uncertain, a “cultural” Jewish identity rooted in a murky mishmash of weak blood ties, an ancestral history, and pale vestiges of the religious Jewish tradition of ages past. (In a move the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak callsstrategic essentialism”—but one I find baffling because it permits one’s persecutors to define and dictate one’s identity—many such Jews who no longer practice the religion of Judaism, still eager to preserve some connection to their heritage, have reappropriated for themselves, notwithstanding the dubious nature of any genetic definitions of “Jewishness,” Hitler’s obsession with “Jewish blood” in a manner similar to how many black Americans will sometimes lean into the “thug” stereotype of the racist imagination.) 

But when these Jews joined others, religious Jews included, in the new post-World War II nation of Israel, a new kind of fictional identity, the kind that is constituted in Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community”—the nation—could be forged. Israel and loyalty to and support for Israel (58% of American Jews felt emotionally attached to Israel as of May, 2021) became a third factor in the equation that tied many members of the Jewish diaspora together, a factor that was more rooted in the real world and, therefore, seemed more concrete than the other fading facets of Jewish identity. Like the “Back to Africa” movement for descendants of black American slaves, Israel represented a quixotic, desperate attempt to recapture something that had been irretrievably stripped away by others ages ago. At best, however, all Israel could do for those Jews who chose to make a home there or to orient their identity around their loyalty to this reconstituted “homeland” is not to give them back something they had lost but, rather, to create something new, a new nation, a new banner to hoist up the long-bare flagpole.

And now we turn to the Palestinians, another people who, historically, has been more sinned against than has sinned. While many mistakenly identify the Palestinians with Arabs who arrived in the Levant in the 7th century, the reality is somewhat more complicated. These Arabs and later arrivals unquestionably left their mark, but genetically—for whatever such genetic traces are worth—the Palestinians, like the Jews, can trace their origins to the peoples of Biblical Canaan and are, thus, genetically quite similar to European Jews, though the latter, as noted above, have a far higher admixture of European gene variants. The Roman conquest of Judea in the 1st century A.D. and the subsequent Christianization of the area after the Emperor Constantine started the process of making Christianity the state religion brought about both conversion and immigration of peoples in and out. Islam came to the land with the Arabs in the 7th century, and Islamic rule over the region was consolidated in the succeeding centuries. Waves of European Crusaders and Ottoman invaders later made their own genetic and cultural contributions to the population. The result, as for the Jews, is that contemporary Palestinians are a mélange of peoples, cultures, and traditions. Yet they retain some tenuous link to the ancient occupants of the land, that link bolstered, in their case, by having stayed on that land in some capacity rather than, like most Jews, having wandered throughout the diaspora.

But, like “Jewishness,” any notion of a concrete “Palestinian” identity involves an extensive foray into fiction and ideology. While the Jewish ethnic identity had largely gone hand-in-hand with the religious practice of Judaism and pertained to a “people” that was geographically dispersed for much of its history, the Palestinian identity lacked a single religious anchor but, conversely, was more tightly tethered to a chunk of land, viz., Palestine (by its various names over the ages). The identity, in other words, was more of a regional designation so that, historically speaking, there were, among a majority of Palestinian Muslims, minorities of Palestinian Christians and even Palestinian Jews—the members of that last category now largely thinking of themselves as Israeli rather than Palestinian. If the Jews, for much of their history, were a people without a land, then the Palestinians, for much of theirs, were occupants of a land—but not a people. 

Scholars disagree on the origin of the more coherent national identity Palestinians have today, whether it came to be as one among the more widespread rise of nationhood discourses throughout Europe and the Middle East in the 19th century, as a response to Jewish Zionism that emerged between the two world wars or even later, with the formation of the PLO and in opposition to the various encroachments of Israeli nationhood. A 2015 article in Foreign Affairs by the historian Zachary J. Foster traces the origins of the term “Palestinian” itself to a 1909 book by a Beirut-based Orthodox Christian, whereupon the term was picked up and disseminated by a variety of Christian and Muslim publications in succeeding years. 

What the Palestinians share in common with the Jews is that their destiny has been controlled by other peoples more often than not. For a long time, the land in which they lived was ruled over by others—the Romans, the Arabs, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and then the British—and, as above, the “they” that lived in the territory changed over time as those native to the land intermingled and interbred to varying extents with successions of invaders, even while retaining some trace of their original Canaanite lineage. When, however, after the Holocaust, the United Nations executed the plan to partition the land between a Jewish state and a Palestinian (or “Arab”) state in 1947, Palestinian opposition to the new Jewish nation resulted in the inception of military conflict. And then all hell broke loose—more or less, 70+ years of hell. 

I will deliberately not so much as attempt to describe the events of that 70+-year period—the wars, the incursions and annexations, the destruction of homes and settlements, the blockages and restrictions, the terrorist attacks, rockets, bombings and military campaigns, the failed peace overtures, and self-sabotage by bad or opportunistic leaders on both sides. For one thing, there are others who know far more than I do about this tortured history. But, much more importantly, I am desisting because there would be no point. Like many other more-or-less neutral observers of the conflict, I have done my best to educate myself, to sort through competing claims and damning accusations, and with each successive bit of information, I have absorbed ever-more fully the Socratic teaching of humility in the face of ignorance. The only thing that has become glaringly obvious to me is the multi-faceted complexity of the story and, with it, bafflement at those black-and-white thinkers who are so certain that one side of the other has a monopoly on justice and truth. I have presented my necessarily brief sketches of who the actors in this passion play are precisely for this reason—to show that even this most basic matter of identifying the Israelis/Jews and Palestinians/Arabs to assess their claims to the land is no simple feat.

When it comes to the current eruption of the longstanding conflict, it is likewise hard for me to see it in black-and-white terms. Consider an analogy. Let us, for this purpose, leave the technical law of self-defense aside. If one gets punched hard in the face and is left with a big black eye, in the eyes of most fair-minded people, regardless of what the law has to say on the issue, he is entitled to his own free shot in retribution, so much so that if one does not take that shot, people may even question his character. The turn-the-other-cheek thing is for otherworldly saints, but, in the real world, we expect people to stand up for themselves. To teach the original wrongdoer a lesson, we might even expect that the receipts will be a bit more punitive than the harm for which they are exacting retribution. Two black eyes in exchange for one is fair game. 

But, of course, all good things have their limits. A black eye does not give one license to do his best impression of Charles Bronson in Death Wish. One does not get to rough up the bad guy and his whole extended family, with the neighbors thrown in just to make his message clear. Nor can one continue to pummel the wrongdoer for months on end and claim he is merely engaging in an act of self-defense.   

The real-world situation is still more nuanced, of course. On the one hand, the initial attack, while utterly barbaric, did not come out of nowhere but was motivated by unaddressed grievances. On the other hand, this was no one-and-done punch, as Hamas is still holding hostages. As such, I am in no way suggesting that the analysis of how to allocate praise and blame in the real-world scenario is completely subsumed within my simplistic framework derived from our everyday experience. Rather, I am just further underscoring that I can see how our intuitions might be yanked in multiple directions…though chanting “I am Hamas” or calling for “death to Zionists” or for the destruction of Israel is surely a bridge too far. 

But here is my larger point: Legitimate concerns about crazed anti-Semitic extremists seeded among the protesters aside, I think we are making an error in focusing on the substance of the protests. Focusing unduly on the substance is precisely how we get lost in the hopeless back-and-forth of this or that particular cause or conflict and in accusations of “free speech for me but not for thee.” As soon as this dynamic begins, our base sympathies and antipathies get triggered, and we can no longer see the broader underlying issue. The key is to imagine that the protests are for any cause whatsoever, whether we consider it laudatory or vile. They could be for or against Israel or the Palestinians, for or against Russia or Ukraine, for or against white supremacy or #BLM. We might be far more disturbed by some of these viewpoints, yet we must be consistent in our ultimate decision as to whether or not university students should be permitted to protest in support of such causes. Holding myself to this standard, I am comfortable in saying that in each and every one of those scenarios, my view would be unchanged: The protests, all the university protests, must be stopped. Short of university employees, including faculty members, protesting working conditions, all would-be-protesters should be compelled to take their demonstrations elsewhere.  

The overriding, fundamental mission of a university is—or should be—educational. Hands-on practicums notwithstanding, education is pursued not through action but contemplation. This is why, for many centuries, learning was largely undertaken in monastic environments, and universities, when they came to exist, were modeled on monasteries: They were self-contained communities where denizens of the academic cloister could be insulated from the mundane and profane distractions of the everyday world.

The protest movement of the 1960s worked a radical shift in our norms and expectations. Steven Pinker has attributed this moment of “decivilization” to the rise of television, which allowed young people, for the first time, to develop rapidly an intragenerational mass consciousness as they watched news of each other’s doings in real time, resulting in the unprecedented proliferation of every social trend—protests included—at a dizzyingly rapid clip. The activist courts of those heady days enabled the change by abolishing the longstanding doctrine of in loco parentis, which had permitted universities—standing in the role of foster parents to the as-yet-incompletely formed beings that college students clearly are—to forbid student protests and other similar frolics inconsistent with a university’s educational mission. While, in the short term, that explosion of unrest led to the election of President Richard Nixon on a law-and-order platform, in the long-term, as those 1960s radicals aged into power, the counterculture got institutionalized, with the protest generation now preaching its tear-it-all-down gospel from within the halls of academe. By the 1990s, the ideological balance that had formerly prevailed in most university departments started to collapse, with near-complete domination by the left and far-left characterizing most departments today. And university administrators, whose ranks have exploded in recent decades, are still further left than the professoriate

In 2016, with bare-faced, race-based affirmative action quotas increasingly under attack, these left technocrats, led, as always, by the mandarins of the Ivy League, ever on the lookout for new ways to displace overachieving Asian applicants with underachieving black applicants (and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic ones), came up with a report portending a revision to their admissions standards to focus less on academics and more on the squishy category of “community engagement.” I registered my protest in Times Higher Education at the time these revised standards were set to go into effect, arguing that more superficial social justice warriors, rather than brilliant deep thinkers, is exactly what we did not need. But more social justice warriors is precisely what we got, with universities marketing themselves as protest factories hospitable to activists-in-the-making, as a recent article in The Atlantic observed. Today, they are reaping what they sowed, and it should not shock anyone to learn that the same administrators and faculty members that spearheaded the institutional collapse are ill-equipped to condemn or contain the unruly activists to whom they had swung open the campus gates.

Against this background, all talk of free speech is a distraction—because the protests themselves are a distraction from and a disruption of the ability of universities to fulfill their educational mission. Students are, by their nature, ignorant and are in college, ideally, to remedy that ignorance to some meager extent. The overwhelming majority of them lack the knowledge to appreciate the complex histories that inform contemporary realities such as the plight of black Americans or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, students, far more than mature adults, are impulsive, excitable, impressionable to the point of being easily manipulable and responsive to peer pressure. This combination of characteristics makes them, on the one hand, perfect patsies for opportunists organizing a political protest and, on the other hand, the very last people that we would want protesting anything. And this, of course, is precisely what we saw with the current spate of protests, in which large numbers of experienced outside agitators, including professional protest consultants, steered uninformed on-campus dolts who barely knew what they were protesting (which river? which sea?) and who were just there because camping out in tents while cosplaying keffiyeh-clad radicals seemed like a heck of a lot more fun than studying for finals, and all the cool kids were doing it. Putting aside the obvious unpleasantness of all of this tempestuous revelry on students whose sympathies ran in the opposite, i.e., pro-Israel, direction, the protests, in all events, made it impossible to conduct the ordinary business of a university. Those who sustained the greatest harm from the protests were those students, if any such there be, who actually came to college to learn.

We are rapidly approaching a societal dead end of sorts, and this descent cannot be allowed to continue. It is high time for us to wake up to the fact that political protests are, by their very nature, antithetical to what should be the contemplative, monastic character of a university. Consistent with their First Amendment rights, students who wish to partake in a protest should be completely free to do so…elsewhere. Given how easily distractible and how susceptible to being swept up in crazes college students are, a protest on university grounds is inherently a distraction, and if the goal of graduating informed citizens that will become productive members of society is one we still value, then universities need to save themselves the trouble of sifting through viewpoints to find which ones are or are not socially acceptable and simply ban every single protest, if it is taking place on university property, no matter what it is for or against. And courts need to get out of the way and recognize that, as long as students can protest to their hearts’ content away from university grounds, there is every reason to permit universities to impose such restrictions in the interests of their student bodies’ collective good. If, as a result, some loudmouthed louts no longer feel welcome on campus, and if those student bodies, in the future, are composed of more scholars and fewer shouters, shriekers, shirkers and activist rabble-rousers, we as a society will reap the benefits.

Alexander Zubatov is a lawyer in New York, as well as an essayist and poet. He can be found on X @Zoobahtov

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