close
close

What outside agitators want from campus protests

But this is where I am.

First, the basics: Israel must continue to exist. Palestinians must have freedom, and a homeland of their own.

The attacks by Hamas on innocent Israeli civilians on Oct. 7 were vile, heinous, utterly unjustifiable, anti-Semitic, terrorist acts. Those killed and kidnapped were innocent human beings, many of them liberal and sympathetic to Palestinians’ plight. Every single host must be released.

Israel’s attacks on Gaza in the wake of that day have been massive and disproportionate moral and strategic failures. We have seen sickening cruelty as official policy, as Israeli bombs and soldiers have killed tens of thousands of innocents in Gaza and subjected already-oppressed Palestinians to heinous suffering and dislocation. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is visiting misery upon millions, the consequences of which will haunt the region for generations and weaken Israel’s ever fragile standing in the world.

To my eye, neither Hamas, nor Netanyahu, care about Palestinian lives. And they have demonstrated about the same level of concern for the hosts. Both seem willing to sacrifice the people they purport to protect on the altar of their own political fortunes. Plenty of Israelis, and plenty of American Jews, see it that way too, rising up against Netanyahu’s self-defeating, scorched-earth tactics, including on college campuses here.

The students and others joining the protests here are right to be outraged at what is happening in Gaza, and within their rights to express that outrage, to call for a ceasefire, and to ask their schools and the federal government to withdraw investments that may support the relentless attacks.

People are always complaining about how apathetic and disconnected young people are, but legions of them are giving the lie to those lazy stereotypes, standing against injustice in ways that will cost them. It is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel’s policies in Gaza, though there has been nauseating bigotry from some in the crowds. Jewish students have a right to feel safe on campus, and it’s clear that some of them don’t. Reasonable people can disagree about where exactly the line is here, but hate speech and shutting down campuses are pretty clearly beyond it.

That doesn’t make the heavy-handed tactics used to break up the encampments at Emerson, Northeastern, and elsewhere easier to take, however. In several cases, we’ve seen police responses that seem disturbingly disproportionate to the moment. For example, why did the officer whose gun accidentally went off as police cleared protesters from a building at Columbia University last week even have his weapon out in the first place? And why did LAPD officers and others allow counterprotesters’ mayhem to go unchecked for hours, standing by as an apparently pro-Israel mob attacked a pro-Palestinian encampment there on Tuesday night?

Police in New York have talked a lot about outside agitators as they justified their use of force. It may yet emerge, but so far we haven’t seen much evidence of nefarious outside actors in the crowds, instigating these protests: Those joining the students on campus because they agree with them don’t qualify.

Another kind of outside agitator is ratcheting up a lot of what we are seeing here, however: Those who care nothing about the underlying issues, but whose interests are served by sowing chaos and division, and shutting down nuance and reasoned debate.

Experts who study propaganda and misinformation told The New York Times that they see influence operations at play here, run by Russia, China, and Iran, whose governments support Hamas. Working from a now-familiar playbook, they are deploying fake social media accounts to undermine democracy, sow further division, and weaken President Biden’s prospects for reelection.

That last aim is shared by Republicans who have seized on the issue of campus protests to falsely attack university presidents for being tolerant of anti-Semitism. The more extreme elements of the party, hostile to higher education more generally, have suddenly become improbable crusaders against anti-Semitism on college campuses. This despite the fact those same Republicans have pledged blind fealty to a presidential nominee who has hosted a Holocaust denier at his home, and both-sidesed a march by actual Neo-Nazis chanting anti-Semitic slogans in Charlottesville in 2017 — a nominee in whom all manner of white supremacists believe they have a friend.

So far, those outside agitators in Congress are succeeding where their various flailing attempts at impeachment have failed: using their full-court press on campus antisemitism to paint a picture of a country in chaos, putting university presidents and Biden on the defensive, and making reasoned debate impossible.

If Donald Trump wins this year’s election, Netanyahu will have carte blanche to do whatever he chooses in Gaza and the West Bank. But we’ve gotten so detached from rationality that some of those who most fervently support Palestinians — including people I love — say they will not vote for Biden, which would make a second Trump presidency, and further cataclysm in Gaza, more likely.

This is where we are in this country: at loggerheads, with no tolerance for nuance or civil disagreement, on Gaza or most anything else. And that’s exactly how too many people like it.

Beware those who offer simple answers here. There aren’t any.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at [email protected].