Student activists for Palestine urgently need a makeover

The body count keeps rising in Gaza, so it is only sensible to express concern. Whether or not this is a genocide is an open question, but it should be beyond dispute that the IDF have been reckless in their approach, as the number of civilian casualties is grotesquely disproportional to their military objectives.

Consequently, I cannot help but sympathize with students who throughout American campuses, take to the streets to protest such injustices, as it is currently happening in highly prestigious institutions such as Columbia and Yale.

But then again, upon seeing the way students protest, I have second thoughts.

In protests, there is a message and there is a medium. This dichotomy was famously established by Canadian cultural critic Marshall McLuhan, who referred to the way technology impacts communication. This dichotomy can also be extended to the current protests. The message is taking a stance against a genocide; the medium is to be disruptive.

McLuhan eventually concluded that “the medium is the message”, to the extent that, in our age, what matters is the way the message is delivered, and not the message itself. For many students at these protests, the medium has also become the message. It seems they are not so much motivated by the desire to rid the world of injustices as by the eagerness to be on the vanguard of coolness.

If they really cared about occupations and attempts at genocides, they would have long ago protested the Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs, the displacement of the Rohingya, or the recent ethnic cleansing in Nagorno Karabakh. But of course, we only heard crickets. As Steven Tucker recently phrased it in a piece for Mercator, “some genocides are more equal than others.” Given that those crimes are perpetrated by non-Western regimes, many students fear that protesting against those injustices somehow makes them complicit with colonialism, and in our times, anti-colonialism is the epitome of coolness.

No wonder the Palestinian keffiyeh has become somewhat of a fashion statement. These days, activism is all about style and hipness; not long ago, some bold producer even had the idea of doing something akin to American Idol, only this time, activists (instead of singers) would compete.  

Some Jewish leaders have argued that these double standards and selectiveness in protests are instances of antisemitism. That may be, but I am more inclined to think that many of these protesters are simply against “the system”, and they found a convenient excuse to camp out. Their quarrel is not with Jews, but with rules and structure in general.

Cultural critics have long ago noticed the appeal of these attitudes in American youth. James Dean will be forever remembered for his flamboyant looks and his untimely death, but also for his masterful portrayal of a youngster who is not at ease with himself and diverts his anger towards the system, not fully understanding why. In doing so, he makes sure the leather jacket is on and the hair is perfectly combed.

Surely most pro-Palestinian protesters are not rebels without a cause. But the history of riots does suggest that when the ball starts rolling, the medium becomes the message. During the infamous Nike riots of the 6th Century in Byzantium, fans of two charioteer teams—the Blues and the Greens— clashed, and tens of thousands died. Did they really fight over which horse was faster? Of course not. In fact, there probably was no cause, other than the eagerness to wreck stuff or bond with fellow anti-system activists in a tirade against others.

Having been a student and a professor in Latin American universities, I worry that American academia will follow some of the patterns that are more prevalent south of the Rio Grande. For decades, Latin American universities had a strong reputation as hotbeds of leftist activism. In my days, we referred to such activists as tira piedras (stone throwers). Some of them knew the intricacies of, say, the Afghanistan war and how the CIA had been in cahoots with Osama Bin Laden. But many others simply wanted to cancel some upcoming difficult exam and took to the streets using some faraway injustice as an excuse. 


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By and large, student activism is a force for good. Students have taken it upon themselves to change the course of History. They were key players in the 1848 European revolutions, and those events have passed the test of time as being on the right side of history.

Yet, current student activism urgently needs a makeover. Sadly, student activists in places like Yale or Columbia have lost credibility. When a borderline thug harasses other students simply for wearing a yarmulke, we have a problem. When an activist carries a sign saying, “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free!” —dismissing the right of the state of Israel to exist—it is clear that this is about much more than just protesting the war in Gaza.

Of course, they may just be a few “bad apples”. But don’t we (rightly) get upset when people use that same language in referring to racist cops who kill unarmed black men? Perhaps you can count such bad apples with your own fingers, but the harm they are doing to the credibility of the movement is not insignificant.

The ball is now on the student activists’ court. If they truly want to be taken seriously, they must at once do a few things.

First, they must purge from their ranks all those rebels without a cause who just want to destroy property, harass people and cause mayhem for the heck of it. Second, they must be far more careful in separating the IDF from Jewish people. Third— and perhaps most importantly—, they need to show consistency; they failed to come out and condemn Hamas in the wake of the October 7th attacks— in fact, some of them even went out in support of the terrorist organization— and have not cared in the least about many other atrocities currently going on in the world.

If they do not urgently take care of business, they will strike this writer—and many others— as simply the North American version of the vandalistic Latin American tira piedras. 

Should the riots and protests be supported? Forward this article to your friends!  

Gabriel Andrade is a university professor originally from Venezuela. He writes about politics, philosophy, history, religion, and psychology.

Image:  ABC News screenshot


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  • David Page
    commented 2024-05-06 11:40:05 +1000
    Lets see what I learned so far. The first massacre was at Deir Yassin in 1948. The entire Palestinian population was raped, mutilated, and murdered By Rabin and his Israeli thugs, some after being paraded in the streets of Jerusalem. What else? 44 US sailors were murdered in 1967 over an 8 hour period by Israeli fighter jets even though their ship, the Liberty, was flying an American flag. And then a Boston Globe reporter was shot in the back by Israeli soldiers. Need I go on? I know that Palestinians are routinely murdered on the West Bank by Israeli “settlers”, and no one is ever charged. The Arab population is taunted and humiliated constantly by an Israeli military which is no longer a fighting force, but a police force; and a very poor one. This can be seen in their poor showing in their last dust-up with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. I also know, because I read Haaretz and the Times of Jerusalem that Netanyahu was funneling money to Hamas. Why do you imagine that was? Now tell me what you know.
  • David Elazar
    commented 2024-04-28 21:39:39 +1000
    To David Page: You seem to need a lot to learn about the conflict.. Do you really think the Palestinians believe in a 2-state solution? Can you show me any evidence that they are trying to convince their population that this is the right path? They have had many chances in the past but have refused. The main reason being that they cannot give up their unrealist dream of the “right of return” which means the destruction of Israel.
    Palestinian/Arab rejectionism:!AhG76qq_HklXhJQZ3PPOoPG5qj5iWw?e=cdfoIz

    I suggest this important book: The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace
  • David Page
    commented 2024-04-28 09:06:12 +1000
    Mrs Cracker, wouldn’t it make sense for the Israelis to dial back the slaughter, starvation, and humiliation of Palestinians?
  • David Page
    commented 2024-04-27 06:48:34 +1000
    The conspiracy theorists are coming out of the woodwork. Soros? Good grief! He must be the busiest man in the world.
  • mrscracker
    “Hamas’s “secret” weapon against Israel is dead, wounded, and suffering Palestinians and with the help of the media it is working.”
  • David Elazar
    commented 2024-04-27 00:32:33 +1000
    In general, war is not expected to be moral. To discuss the morality of Israel in the same paragraph with the Hamas, a terrorist organization, is immoral.

    The Hamas, not Israel, is responsible for all the destruction and suffering (the more the better for them) as this is part of their strategy “For Israel, every civilian casualty is a tragedy. For Hamas, every civilian casualty is a strategy.”

    War is not a picnic. There is no way to protect civilians if the governing body (Hamas) intentionally does not want them protected. Hamas’s “secret” weapon against Israel is dead, wounded, and suffering Palestinians and with the help of the media it is working.
  • mrscracker
    This really isn’t organic, student led activism but instigated by Soros funded operatives. Even if it was student led it would still be wrong. Free speech, even ugly free speech, is a right but sectarian threats & law breaking are not.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-04-25 12:46:02 +1000
    You can forgive young people anything but conformity. That is especially true if conformity means ignoring the slaughter of innocents. Opposing Israeli brutality is not support for Hamas. The sad part is that most of us expected more from Israel. Now Israel has lost a generation of Americans.
  • mrscracker
    One of my children attended Columbia.
    The rioting students who are closing down the school should be arrested if they refuse to follow the rules & classes should be reopened on campus. Every law-abiding student is currently being punished for the actions of the unruly & the school administration should be fired if they can’t control the situation.
    It’s beyond disturbing to see Nazi Era-type antisemitic flyers on a US campus.
  • Gabriel Andrade
    published this page in The Latest 2024-04-24 20:59:14 +1000