What’s the right way to protest Israel?

The Columbia University lawn strewn with Palestinian flags and protest signs

Columbia students’ protest encampment (CC0)

[Previous: The First Amendment doesn’t have an Israel exception]

The pro-Palestine college protests all over the country feel personal to me. First, a BDS resolution passed at Binghamton University, which I attended as an undergraduate. Now, as you’ve probably heard, there’s a much bigger eruption at Columbia, where I earned a graduate degree.

When Columbia’s president Minouche Shafik rejected students’ demands to divest from Israel’s war machine, protesters staged a sit-in on campus. They set up a tent city and, later, broke into and occupied Hamilton Hall. Eventually, Columbia locked down the campus and called in an army of police in riot gear to arrest the protesters. It was an uncanny echo of the 1968 demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

I can’t in good conscience claim that Columbia students had an absolute right to set up an encampment on the university lawn, or to break into a building and take it over. They were engaging in civil disobedience, we all know that, and one consequence of that strategy is that you should expect to be arrested.

Of course, this in no way excuses violence by the police or excessively harsh punishment. For all the tabloid fearmongering, it seems clear that the Columbia protests were consistently peaceful. At worst, there were some angry exchanges of words and minor property damage. If anyone had been seriously hurt, much less killed, by one of the protesters, you can be sure that Israel’s defenders would be screaming at the top of their lungs about it. They aren’t, because they can’t point to any such incident.

It’s the same all over the country. As soon as students start demonstrating for Gaza, governors and university presidents panic and lash out with overwhelming force. Their knee-jerk response is to treat protests as a threat to be suppressed by any means necessary:

Last week, from New York to Texas, cops stormed college campuses clad in riot gear. They weren’t there to confront active shooters, thank goodness, or answer bomb threats. Instead, they were there to conduct mass arrests of students protesting the war in Gaza.

…After sending a phalanx of state law-enforcement officers into the University of Texas at Austin campus, for example, Governor Greg Abbott announced on X that students “joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled.”

(The district attorney immediately dropped all charges against the UT students, citing lack of probable cause.)

And more:

At Emory University, in Atlanta, police officers reportedly used tear gas and Tasers against protesters. State troopers with rifles directed toward protesters stood watch on a rooftop at Ohio State University. At Indiana University, administrators rushed out a last-minute, overnight policy change to justify a similar show of force from law enforcement, resulting in 34 arrests. It’s hard to keep up.

Students nationwide are watching how the adults who professed to care about free speech are responding under pressure. And they are learning that those adults don’t really mean what they say about the First Amendment.

All these denunciations and shows of force beg the question. If “from the river to the sea” is hate speech… if the word “intifada” is a threat… if BDS is “not allowed” and students who advocate it should be expelled… then what methods of protest are acceptable? How can we, as Americans, express disagreement with Israel in a way that its defenders would accept as reasonable and legitimate?

What Zionist groups say about this doesn’t have to be the last word. Obviously, no person or group has absolute authority to decree how it is or isn’t acceptable to criticize them. But it’s a starting point from which there can be a debate.

On the other hand, if their answer is “nothing” – if every opinion that’s not unswerving support of Israel is deemed hateful or antisemitic – then that would prove they’re not arguing in good faith; they’re only trying to silence dissent.

Protests aren’t meant to be nice. They’re supposed to cause discomfort and agitation among the people they’re targeting. That’s the whole point. If a protest doesn’t make anyone upset or uncomfortable, it failed to serve its purpose. There’s no reason to protest on behalf of an uncontroversial cause that everyone agrees with. Absent any actual violence, no one has the right to shut down a protest merely by claiming it makes them feel unsafe.

It’s a consistent theme across history that people protesting injustice and war always get told it’s not the right way, or the right time, or the right place. This advice is almost never offered in good faith. In almost every case, it’s nothing but a majority trying to shut down a message they don’t want to hear. If Zionists don’t want to be part of this illiberal tradition, they should prove it.


  1. Paul S says

    My brain’s been a mess these last few months, most likely due to some stressful events in my life. There’s been a lot of doubts, conflicting ideas, whataboutism, distrust and the like making noise in the back of my mind. Been trying to quiet it all down, but situations like this whole nightmare in Palestine and the protests just gives those monsters inside me more fuel for their fires.

    For instance, when you mentioned your conflict over the issue of students setting up encampments and taking over buildings, a part of me agrees with you, and logically I know that this doesn’t represent the movement as a whole. But then when I see posts in other (perhaps extreme) leftist spaces cheering these kind of behaviors on, I get depressed and that negative part of me latches on to it. And then it’s more doubt and unwelcome internal debate.

    And then I realize that the whole thing is running on double standards. There are voices on the Zionist side that go “You call anyone you don’t like Nazis/fascists/racists!” while throwing those same accusations at their opponents. Calling protesters violent while counter-protesters try to pick fights or shoot fireworks into crowds. Getting smug when protesters are arrested or get hurt by riot squads since “They deserved it.”

    And yet those negative parts of me keep throwing doubts, like someone in the back of my mind is reading of a ticker of awful blue checkmark posts. Just hoping that I can quiet it down, rebuild my convictions and get back to who I was.

    Sorry for venting.

    • Silentbob says

      Nah, you sound like an intelligent thoughtfull person with much to contribute.

      Just post your outlook. Worst case scenario it’s ignored, but I want to hear what you have to say.

      • Paul S says

        Thank you.

        A lot of this, I think, is due to events in my life in the past year that has lead to me confronting issues of aging, what I’ve done in my life and where I’m going along with issues of financial security, insurance and so on. Things like that fatigue the mind and causes all those nasty thoughts and ideas one normally pushes aside to spring forward more and more. Combine that with isolation and pre-existing conditions like depression, it turns into a freefall of rumination, endless internal debate, convictions are challenged and one starts to question everything…

        I’m starting to see how some people end up radically shifting their beliefs and values, such as when someone who held strong progressive positions suddenly turns right-wing. Doubt is a very, very powerful thing against a fatigued mind. One starts to perceive more and more flaws and imperfections on their “side”, and when you combine that with so much noise from the other “side” it begins to wear you down. All those outside ideas swim around more and more and one can end up shifting… not out of any logical or rational reasons or arguments, but because they now “feel” better, safer somehow. And oh look, there’s a whole new set of people ready to take you in.

        And that’s what I’ve been fighting inside. It’s a process of highs and lows while dealing with my own pre-existing conditions. Trying to quiet those nasty thought clusters and doubts while regaining my own convictions. Trying so hard to go back to who I was before this crisis of mine began. I’m getting help and I’m looking for more, and hopefully I’ll get myself back.

  2. JM says

    People opposed to the protests also love to pick out the one guy who got drunk and started chanting offensive slogans or the ones plastering signs and slogans all over the place even if it’s somebody else’s property. This is inevitable given a large enough group there will always be some that behave badly. You can’t let a small fraction of people paint the entire group, there has to be fair judgement of how many and how badly they behaved.
    That is before even trying to count the intentional bad actors. Large extended protests have had problems with people joining because they want to loot or set fires when things get out of hand.
    If you hang around organized protests enough you will also run into undercover police and FBI that always seem to be encouraging violence but just indirectly enough that you can’t point to them in court when violence starts.

  3. says

    I think that it’s clear by now many see protesting Israel as just inherently wrong, so there is no right way. Personally, not all such protests are ones I’d support. Even aside from violating free speech though, those behind the crackdowns against protests are idiots if they think it will do anything but raise tensions and convince the protesters they’re total hypocrites about this (rightly so) after complaining of the colleges not supporting free speech (truly or not) for so long

  4. Bekenstein Bound says

    Their knee-jerk response is to treat protests as a threat to be suppressed by any means necessary

    One must ask what, in America, is being threatened by these protests?

    I can think of a few things. Northrup-Grumman’s gravy train is one of them. Most of the rest are similar gravy trains traveling to similar destinations.

    people protesting injustice and war always get told it’s not the right way, or the right time, or the right place.

    I seem to recall MLK Jr. having had something to say about trying to set a timetable for someone else’s freedom …

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