Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

What America's Palestine Protesters Should and Shouldn't Do

| May 06, 2024

A how-to guide for university students from a sympathetic observer.

If you're not a hermit, you’re aware that college campuses all over the United States have been roiled by student demonstrations, typically involving encampments of tents in quadrangles or plazas or other public spaces. The demonstrators are protesting Israel's actions in Gaza and U.S. support for them, calling for an immediate cease-fire, and sometimes demanding that the university divest from any investments in Israel and distance itself in other ways. University administrators now find themselves caught between idealistic and impassioned students, angry donors, influential groups in the Israel lobby, mendacious members of Congress, and faculty concerned that essential elements of academic freedom are at risk.

My sympathies are with the students here, which is not to say I agree with everything they’ve done or what a few of them have said. I've never doubted that what Hamas did in Israel on Oct. 7 was criminal and wrong, but its crimes in no way justify Israel's indiscriminate and deliberately cruel overreaction. Nor should Hamas's crimes lead us to ignore the suffering and displacement that Palestinians have experienced for decades. Although a handful of people involved in these protests have said reprehensible things, it is clear from multiple accounts that the vast majority of the participants (including a sizable number of younger American Jews) are motivated not by antisemitism but by sympathy for the plight of the beleaguered residents of Gaza, disgust at the support that the United States continues to provide to Israel, and a desire to advance the cause of peace for Palestinians and Israelis alike. It is ironic and disturbing, if not especially surprising, that the students' critics seem more upset by the lamentable statements of a few ignorant hotheads than by the indiscriminate killing of 35,000 Palestinians or the genocidal sentiments expressed by prominent Israeli officials. If you're going to condemn what a few extremists on one side have said, then fairness demands that you condemn extremists on the other side, too.

Will these protest movements accomplish their various aims? I don't know. Having successfully focused attention on Israel's predations and American complicity, I worry that they may now act in ways that unwittingly undermine the sympathy and support they have garnered, especially now that college and university graduation ceremonies are about to begin.

My thoughts on this subject are informed in part by a recent experience at a liberal arts college here in Massachusetts. I appeared at a public event on U.S. Middle East policy alongside a former State Department official, and we spent an hour or so responding to questions posed by a faculty moderator. We agreed on some points and disagreed sharply on others, but overall, it was a respectful and fruitful exchange of views. I made it clear that I thought U.S. policy in the past and at present was deeply misguided, and that the United States was now complicit in the crimes Israel was committing.

The event was uneventful until the Q&A. After the other speaker and I had answered a few questions from the audience, a student was called upon, rose, and began to read a long statement denouncing what was happening in Gaza. The speech did not respond to anything we had said over the previous hour, and despite repeated requests to wrap up and pose a question, the student read the statement to the end and then began a call-and-response chant with a group of perhaps a dozen other students. The chanting continued for several more minutes, a couple of security personnel arrived, and the students got up and marched out voluntarily....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“What America's Palestine Protesters Should and Shouldn't Do.” Foreign Policy, May 6, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt