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  1. The Weekend Essay
4 May 2024

Protest nation

Pro-Palestine activists at Columbia show an America unable to come to terms with its own helplessness.

By Lee Siegel

Watching my 13-year-old daughter perform in Fiddler on the Roof the other night threw me into a welter of strong emotions. The musical, written in §964, is set in the Russian Pale around 1905. That was the year my maternal grandfather’s parents and much of his family were slaughtered in the notorious Odesa pogrom, after which Menka, my grandfather, emigrated to America with his three sisters. My daughter played Hodel, who falls in love with Perchik, a Jewish revolutionary, and follows him into exile in Siberia. I don’t necessarily disagree with Philip Roth, who called Fiddler “shtetl kitsch”. But when my daughter sang her solo number, “Far from the Home I Love”, telling her father that she is going with Perchik to Siberia, it was all I could do to keep myself from jumping out of my seat and crying out to her to stay home.

And yet before that scene, I experienced an altogether different set of feelings. Towards the end of the first act, in an almost intolerably sanitised reference to the 1905 pogrom, Russians invade the wedding of one of Hodel’s sisters. They rough Jews up and seem to set fire to the village. The scene gripped my heart. But it also seized a fresher part of me. Like many people, such as the pro-Palestinian protesters who were confronting police at Columbia University, just across the Hudson River, and at universities across the country, I had been enraged by the disproportionate Israeli response to the Hamas pogrom on 7 October. Around 30,000 slaughtered innocent Palestinians, most of them children, and counting, as Benjamin Netanyahu, with a Cossack chieftain’s mentality, shamefully, irresponsibly and falsely bellows about “anti-Semitic mobs” in the US while he prepares to invade Rafah – the million-plus innocents sheltering there, and the Israeli hostages, be damned. So as the Russians stormed into the shtetl, I stopped seeing them as Russians.

Instead, I imagined a production of Fiddler in which the Jews celebrating a wedding in the Russian Pale were Palestinians celebrating a wedding in Gaza. Instead of Russians throwing Jews to the ground – and in historical reality, murdering them – I saw Israeli soldiers throwing Palestinians to the ground and murdering them. I wondered whether a revival of Fiddler along those lines might bring the internecine strife in the American-Jewish community over the Israel/Palestine war to a productive boiling point – or make the impasse insurmountable. I wondered what a Palestinian father might think as his daughter sang of following her fiancé to Ketziot prison in the Negev desert, where, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Palestinian prisoners are regularly beaten and tortured.

For over two weeks, the American media has revelled in interminable analysis of the extraordinary pro-Palestinian university campus disruptions now perhaps reaching a denouement with the arrest of hundreds of student protesters across the US. The demonstrations began with straightforward deliberateness. On 17 April, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine tweeted that “Columbia University students have occupied the center of campus, launching our Gaza Solidarity Encampment. We demand divestment and an end to Columbia’s complicity in genocide.” The encampment might have been the end of it at a university where such political expressions have been commonplace for decades. But using the term “genocide” at a place with a large number of Jewish students and faculty was, at the least, a provocation, and at the most, a callous tu quoque.

Even then, the university population might have taken the encampment in its stride and gone about its business. The Columbia population prides itself on a certain unflappable urbanity. But the organisers of the protest began their occupation of the university’s main quadrangle on 17 April for a reason. That was the day that Columbia’s relatively new president Minouche Shafik – less than a year into her role – was to testify before Congress about charges of anti-Semitism at Columbia. After her testimony, the situation began to combust.

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Mindful of the fates of the previous university presidents who testified to the same House of Representatives committee – the presidents of Harvard and University of Pennsylvania were subsequently defenestrated for seeming to defend students’ anti-Semitic outbursts in the name of free speech – Shafik, in effect, promised the Republican congressmen and women bearing down on her that she would shut down the protests. The standoff rapidly spiralled out of control. During the next two days, Shafik called in the police to clear out the encampment; the police had not entered the campus for such a purpose since the student protests of 1968. This had the predictable effect of stiffening the resistance of the protesters, who then erected tents.

The mutually reinforcing dynamic intensified over the following days, with House speaker Mike Johnson grabbing the low-hanging fruit of political opportunity and calling for Shafik to resign, even as critics on her left were making the same demand. Columbia finally issued a public statement refusing to divest from Israel; the protesters stormed and occupied Hamilton Hall, the prestigious seat of Columbia College, and the police swept in to remove them. Meanwhile the Columbia uprising, as it was beginning to be called, spread to other universities. The police have removed protesters from New York University to UCLA on the West Coast.

The media has run explainers enumerating the history of campus unrest in America, the history of campus unrest at Columbia. It has detailed analogies with the mother of all university demonstrations, the takeover of Columbia by student radicals in 1968. Much of this is helpfully explanatory, little of it is illuminating, and all of it gives the impression that nothing much is happening that has not happened before. You begin to wonder whether America’s motto should not be e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) but “on a clear day you can see forever” since the national project, even now, has always seemed to be to construct the fiction that everything in every situation can be known and understood, classified and neutralised into a safe place.

The unrest on campus now, though, is unique. It is, on the one hand, the product of a singular history, starting with the legendary Columbia uprising in 1968, and continuing with the influential history of Columbia radicalism itself. On the other hand, what is happening at Columbia now and throughout the country is the result of a collective helplessness. A demagogue and alleged criminal seems poised to win the presidential election in November and send the country hurtling towards chaos – he has implied he will do that even if he loses. At the same time, the country has a president who does not seem to be able to lead it. The pro-Palestinian protesters at American universities are, to a great extent, simply trying to control a world they cannot understand, or find a place in.

By contrast, the Columbia protests in 1968 were vitally connected to and almost directly followed the 1967 “summer of rage” when American cities exploded into race riots following police beatings and shootings of black people. American race riots traditionally happen in the summer, when poor neighbourhoods become intolerably hot and people angrily take to the streets: the fires they set are a way to throw the hell of broiling tenements back into the face of air-conditioned power. University uprisings take place in the spring, when genuine indignation blends imperceptibly with spring revel, the oncoming “kiss of May”, and the semi-conscious sense that the end of the school year is close by, thus offering an escape hatch to most protesters, who, in the end, do not want serious trouble in their hopeful young lives.

Beginning on 23 April (Shakespeare’s birthday, as it happened) as a protest against the university’s plans to build a gym in the surrounding impoverished neighbourhood, the 1968 Columbia uprising quickly widened into opposition to racism in general and the Vietnam War. It captured precisely the “tide in the affairs of men” that was lifting the country towards a national reckoning. The pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia come from an entirely different place.

When I was taking classes at Columbia in the 1980s as a graduate student in English and comparative literature, the Palestinian-American professor Edward Said was a giant at the centre of the department. Though, to the frustration of many of his colleagues, he declined to participate in the practical running of the department, he was a major force behind hiring new faculty and directing the curriculum. He almost single-handedly established the abiding hegemony of post-colonial studies in academia. In Columbia’s case, the new model of literary study ended in intra-departmental strife that disabled the English department – one of the most prestigious in the country – sending it in 2001, two years before Said’s death, into receivership.

I was not able to cotton to Said. For starters, he had established himself with his writing about Joseph Conrad, of whom Said considered, for all his admiration of Conrad, a rank imperialist. Heart of Darkness, which Said thought an “exemplary” imperialist text was, to me, a searing evisceration of the imperialist mind.

Most of all, there was the matter of class. The self-educated Conrad was one of my literary idols. I had travelled a long, circuitous route to Columbia, from a bankrupt father and a mother who left him and then could barely make ends meet, to a string of low-paying jobs and inadequate colleges, to, finally, the university’s redemptive gates at 116th Street and Broadway. Said was the Christian son of a wealthy Palestinian businessman who had acquired US citizenship, and who had moved his family to Cairo in 1947, before the UN partition of Palestine. I had transferred from a private university in the Midwest to a public university in New Jersey before arriving at Columbia. After being educated in English-language schools in Cairo, Said attended an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts, then Princeton and Harvard. Said, an avowed dandy, dressed in deliberate resplendence. He radiated wealth and privilege, and he surrounded himself with acolytes from similar backgrounds.

To the extent that I was political, I wanted to see a radical redistribution of wealth and material goods. That, to my mind, would save both America’s grimy, commercialised and commodified soul and generations of children, mostly black, from intellectual and spiritual extinction. Said and his disciples seemed like they couldn’t have cared less about the grinding poverty all around them in the Columbia neighbourhood. I began to assert myself in various seminars and, after a while, Said, decked out in Brioni, or something like that, would glare at me when he passed by me in the hallway. Maybe it was my shoes.

Orientalism (1978), which I read with meticulous care, was a masterwork, brilliant and erudite. It was also a masterpiece of base imputation. Said gratifyingly took on, in the literary world, a mode of study that “disfigures both the discipline and the culture so described by maligning the people’s mentality as a mistaken sense of reality” – to borrow a characterisation from the late American cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who was critiquing his own discipline along lines similar to Said’s. He illuminated a new way of reading literature, and he laid bare the ideas and sentiments that reinforce the humiliation and subjugation of one people by another. He also, deliberately or not, profoundly mischaracterised the motives of the scholars whose work he was exposing. The academic literature departments that Said wanted to tear down and rebuild had always been on the post-colonialist side. There was plenty of room next to the chip on my own lower-middle-class shoulder for chips of every race and nationality.

What burned me up was that the elevated Said tossed into the dustbin of history books and authors that had raised me above my lowly origins. It was a kind of historical gaslighting. No doubt many parents watching on television the children of Said take over universities that are now nearly five times as expensive as they were in the 1980s feel, more than anything, not the passion behind the protests, but the privilege.

America has been transformed time and again since 1968, but many people commenting on the present situation write and speak as if all we have to do to understand what is going on now is to more fully grasp what happened nearly 60 years ago. Yet the protests at Columbia in 1968, and at other universities around that time, followed a clear arc of converging anger over the Vietnam War, racism, a heedless capitalism, and a starry-eyed and savage American imperialism. There was also the sense, in that election year of 1968, that Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee facing Richard Nixon, represented the worst sort of venal, weak-kneed liberalism. In the event, the college protests of that time, combined with the violent acts of American radicals such as the Weathermen, ensured that Nixon got elected to the White House in both 1968 and 1972 – the latter election a landslide victory.

The heavy irony of the current situation is that the university presidents are having pressure exerted on them from two opposite directions. The Republicans, desperate to finally terminate the left’s long march through the institutions by commandeering the universities themselves – replacing Orientalism with, in effect, William Bennett’s Book of Virtues – are saying, “Get this under control or we will send in the National Guard.” The Democrats, haunted by the campus turmoil that put Nixon in power, are saying, “Get this under control or we will belittle you in public and then cut you off financially and [no small thing for a university president] socially.”

In 1968, politicians, at least in public, left it to the universities to handle their own affairs. Now, aware of Donald Trump’s electoral vulnerability as an alleged felon, Republicans are accusing Democrats of complicity with crimes on campus. Trump’s trial at the south end of Manhattan on charges of falsifying business records in order to cover up hush-money payments to a porn star he was involved with, and Columbia’s trials at the northern end of Manhattan are like two wild children on a see-saw.

[See also: Inside Columbia’s campus wars]

The dynamic between them is invisible, but it is powerful. Seeing the heavy police presence at both locations is like watching American law bend almost to breaking point. It is alarming. The commentating class in America is so busy ruminating on the possibility of a “fascist” takeover of the country that it does not see the creeping authoritarianism that is taking place, in a historically unprecedented way, before their eyes. The police have Trump in their clutches. The police have the universities in their clutches. And yet the lawless Trump seems to embody the anarchic spirit of 1968 more than anyone or anything else. The student protesters, on the other hand, are suddenly the most conservative force at work in the country. They yearn for control, they seem to literally be imploring the police to come down on them, they will not be content until they have provoked the powers-that-be to restore law and order. Even as Trump, in a recent interview with Time magazine, hints at more and more disorder. This is how tyranny happens. Not along clearly knowable and classifiable textbook lines emerging out of the past. But slowly, in the guise of freedom righting itself, out of the inner dynamic of an unknowable present. One day you are updating your profile on LinkedIn. The next day there are soldiers on the street in front of your house.

At Manhattan’s south end, Trump spits in the eye of justice by maligning the judge who is trying him and the entire judicial process. At Manhattan’s other end, Minouche Shafik, Columbia’s president, betrays the principles of free speech animating her university when, mindful of the embarrassing fate of Harvard’s Claudine Gay and University of Penn’s Liz Magill, she vows to shut the pro-Palestinian demonstrations down. The university, ever since students founded the University of Bologna in 1088 as an independent commune defiant of princes and their politics – ever since, indeed, Dante mentions in the Paradiso the “street of straw” in Paris where students could study scholars who held bitterly antagonistic views – has been a place, like Kant’s “kingdom of ends”, where students could act freely, before being corralled into the adult world, where most things hold value only as the means to obtain other things. Shafik – who, like the other presidents of universities in turmoil, has not once appeared on campus, in full view of all the competing factions, to address the university community – chose instead to save her own skin.

Once, however, the protests ran off the rails into verbal threats, absolute disruption of campus business and now, at UCLA, actual violence, Shafik had no choice but to send in the police in greater numbers. Unlike in 1968, when the students, for better and for worse, found themselves clearly along a national path, many of the pro-Palestinian protesters seem to have lost their bearings. It was not just the young woman occupying Columbia’s Hamilton Hall, the prestigious seat of Columbia College, who complained that since student protesters had paid for a meal plan, the university should be delivering food and water to them. It was their apparent belief, at the beginning, and now utterly destroyed, that there would be no serious pushback from the university.

You could hardly blame them for thinking so. Between 2002 and 2023, during the administration of Shafik’s predecessor, Lee Bollinger, Columbia became a place where the tradition of academic free speech was under siege. Under the stewardship of Bollinger, a celebrated First Amendment scholar, Columbia was ranked last among colleges and universities for free speech by the non-partisan civil rights organisation, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression). Bollinger’s shutting down of free speech in the name of free feelings was a terrible category mistake – the child, as it were, of Said’s own category mistake when he indicted all academic literary studies as being complicit with imperialism, even though American academia was the only place in the country where one could be as left, and as radical, as one liked.

But having felt protected by tightened university rules forbidding “harmful” speech the protesting students could well have believed that their own speech and actions were protected against, in their eyes, harmful calls for them to desist. Since the number of students now being removed from campuses by police is small – in some cases barely 100 – I imagine that this original group of students has already disbanded in disappointment and surprise. An irrational hardcore remains. Like everything in American life, the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on American campuses have been professionalised by outside experts in political demonstrations – just as collective anxiety about civil strife has been professionalised into a popular, and lucrative, movie about civil war.

Digital culture foregrounds everything into an eternal present in which conflicting situations, each with its own deep historical context, all seem equal to each other, even as they are discontinuous to each other. That is to say, the students are trapped on a horizonless plain of incommensurable simultaneities. That’s a mouthful, but I don’t know how else to put it. Israel is a beautiful, redemptive idea; Israel acts like a ruthless, amoral state. The pro-Palestinian protests are rooted in real, terrible injustice and suffering; they are fuelling an authoritarian right; they have been commandeered by people who think nothing of the shocking stupidity of having the students wear masks like the Hamas invaders who raped and butchered Israelis on 7 October. Protesting students are acting like feckless students; protesting students are the only people in society free enough to protest an ongoing mass slaughter. The universities have misappropriated Said’s excoriations of scholarly malfeasance as admonitions against politically unacceptable speech altogether; the Republicans are threatening the universities’ independence, which is the lifeblood of a democracy; the universities have to be allowed to handle their own affairs; the universities are incapable of handling their own affairs. In 1968, everything converged. In 2024, nothing is aligned with anything else – even as everything is connected in some way.

Yet above it all, and by this point almost disengaged from it all, hovers a simple, fundamental question, given the following premises. Anti-Semitism is abhorrent and unacceptable. Anyone who publicly espouses it will be swiftly and firmly punished. The universities should be allowed to set boundaries for the disruptions of civil disobedience since they are, after all, private spaces. Given all that, under what circumstances and conditions can university students, the only people in society who – briefly – inhabit a kingdom of ends, protest the vast massacre of innocents and an impending invasion by Israel that will slaughter perhaps tens of thousands more and threaten to obliterate an entire population’s means of survival? Jared Kushner has suggested, with others, that the surviving Palestinian population should go live in the Negev so that Gaza can be developed into the Marbella of the Middle East. Is there, in America’s culture of accusation, recrimination, retribution and litigation, in the country’s fantastical withdrawal from any real sense of itself, any room for true protest at all?

[See also: Why affirmative action failed]

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