How to Think…About the Gaza Protests

How to think about Gaza and the Student Protests

In the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel, I wrote a “How to think…” piece about the conflict there. It was not hopeful, but it was prescient:

For now, Israel will go into Gaza and attempt to destroy Hamas. They’ll do this because they must. Israeli’s will expect retribution, and no country with sufficient power would do less. Certainly, we wouldn’t. But even in the somewhat unlikely event that they succeed, it probably won’t do much good. Nor do I think Israel’s leadership is under some delusion that it will. Whatever follows is unlikely to be better.

Summing up, I wrote:

The massacre in Israel was shocking even to a world that has become very hard to shock. The scope and nature of the carnage were terrible, the events hard to absorb. The response from Israel will likely provide its own terrible challenges. The mistaken rush to blame Israel for the hospital bombing was shoddy journalism and also completely understandable. It is hard to imagine that at some point Israel will not drop bombs somewhere they shouldn’t for the simple reason that war is a very messy business. The commonplace of friendly-fire casualties is proof of how messy combat can be even in situations far less complex than Gaza. And in our world, whatever mistakes are made will be splashed across the news in the brightest reds the cameras can summon.

We are well into the harvest of those news reports, though in the wonderful way of U.S. politics, we have managed to take an international tragedy and turn it into a domestic farce. People here are far more concerned with the fate of elite college students and their rights/abuses than of anything happening in Gaza. And, of course, that is especially true of the students themselves.

Writing about college protests is a tricky business. There is a tendency to take them more seriously than they deserve both by the people who grant them deep moral authority and the people who fear them the most. But there’s also a tendency — rather more justifiable — to not take them seriously at all. And that, too, may be a disservice.

We tend to give outsized importance (and credit) to anyone willing to forcefully state their position. And the louder and more forcefully they state it, the more credit we tend to give. Most of us muddle along genuinely uncertain what to think about complex issues. It’s hard not to be swayed when people seem so certain.

As a determined, life-long non-protestor, I’m confident that the act of protesting does not add at all to the seriousness of one’s views. A willingness to take your cause to the streets does not ennoble it, deepen it, or make it more important. It just makes it louder. History strongly suggests that many (but definitely not all!) of those who take to the streets are neither serious nor interesting. We should give zero credit to a position simply because it can mobilize people to shout, fight or even die for it. Hitler’s brand of fascism was able to do all these things. And yes, that ability does mean that we must take such causes seriously as political forces, but it doesn’t mean we need take them seriously morally or intellectually.

This applies, in particular, to college protests. College students love them a good protest. Oh, to be part of a group of angry shouters; to be the Molly Bloom of Palestine. My heart was going like mad and no I said no you will not No.

College students are a remarkably silly group of people and the more rarified the school they attend, the higher the silliness quotient. It has always been so. It was that way when I went to college. It will be that way when, if luck allows it, my daughter’s, daughter’s, daughters go to college. At that age, elite students are so sure of everything, so unable to think that they might be mistaken, so unhumbled by experience and the world, and so radically unempathetic to anyone not in their friend circle, that their opinions must always be highly colored by silliness.

It’s hard sometimes to look at these bright, shiny, passionate youth in the full-flower of their moral indignation and self-righteousness and not smile. Youth is so wasted on the young.

But there I go, with all the reasons that it’s easy to laugh at college protests and easy to let their passionate moral convictions slide off our all too experienced consciences. Because there are plenty of times when our vast shitpile of adult experience has not made us wiser or more humane, but simply worse. Times when we need to be reminded of what matters and why some things are of genuine ethical importance.

So how to think about the Gaza protests?

Are they just silliness? Are they antisemitic? What should a college president do to earn their 7-figure salary? And should the protests make us think differently about the situation in Gaza? Are we missing something or being too casual in our acceptance of what’s happening there?

Are They Just Silliness?

Mostly, they are just silliness. A vast range of reasonable opinion is possible on Israel, Palestine, the current fighting, and the nature of a solution. When I wrote my piece after the Hamas attack, I doubted there was a solution or would be for many, many years. It’s plausible to suggest that Israel has gone too far or been too careless of life in Gaza. I don’t think either is true, but neither is either self-evidently false, and it’s not like I couldn’t be persuaded otherwise. What Israel is trying to do was always going to be brutal, bloody and likely pointless and, yet, in the peculiar logic of the region, it’s hard to see what else they could have done. To call it a genocide, though, is silly — capturing none of the events on the ground, the way the war is being waged, the situation of Israel, or the actions of Hamas.

The narrative of Israel as some form of colonial enterprise is even less compelling. Whatever the nature of the Jewish state, it’s utterly unlike the kind of settler colonialism for which the terms were designed. Nor does the easy assumption that if it is a case of settler colonialism then the rights of a Jewish state must be utterly abrogated make much sense. I happen to think that the Puritans venturing forth to our shores was a good thing, though I will not deny that it was settler colonialism. The left uses phrases like this as weapons, but whatever reality they capture is never as simplistic as they would have us believe. The case for a Jewish state in the aftermath of WW2 was compelling and that justification remains compelling even though — like every real-world political decision — it was deeply unfair to some.

It would be unreasonable to expect protestors shouting through their megaphones to make reasoned arguments. But it is not too much to ask that behind their protest some reasonable argument could be made. If the protestors were demanding that Israel make some change in its rules of engagement or that the U.S. should more intensively pressure Israel for such changes, then the protests might be wrong but they wouldn’t be silly. But when their focus is on the erasure of Israel or the glossing of Hamas, I take it that they are just being silly, at least where they are not being actively evil. Which brings me to…

Are the Protestors Antisemitic?

This is more complicated. Where the protestors are Arabic, I would assume that a fair amount of antisemitism is present. And I say that without casting deep aspersions. I’m sure it cuts both ways. The antipathy between Jews and Arabs is deep-rooted and the hatred between the two communities is a great factory of prejudice. The creation of Israel undeniably involved some injustice. That injustice falls more on our heads than on Israel, but Israel has not often dealt fairly or generously with the Palestinians. There’s plenty of blame to go around — as there always is when people unhappily co-exist.

But nobody really cares about that. The real question, I think, is whether the “progressive” left is antisemitic. It has sometimes seemed to be, but I’m skeptical of that claim. The distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism is real and legitimate. I happen not to be an anti-Zionist. But there is nothing inherently antisemitic in believing that Israel shouldn’t exist or that, as a state, it is deeply corrupt or flawed. It might seem as odd to say of Israel that it should not exist as to say the same of Japan. Yet I do not think the comparison is apt. Depth of history matters and even the difference of a hundred years may make us think very differently about such questions.

Nor is Israel a special case of left-wing hate. The progressive left has many, many hatreds. Rich people, Evangelicals, conservative Blacks, old white men, model minorities, etc., etc. It would be hard to tie a thread between all these hatreds, but if the left has no love for Jews or Israel, it’s hardly surprising. Jews are the original model minority. As a group, they have committed the sins of “becoming” white and successful even while taking their religion and culture seriously, just as Israel has committed the mortal sin of becoming powerful and successful while doing the same. For a movement steeped in identity politics, victimhood and a visceral distaste for Western culture, these are truly serious crimes. Yet these crimes are crimes of ideology not blood.

For the racist, it does not matter what the other person believes. To a Nazi, a Nazi Jew is still a Jew. In Trading Places, Valentine is still BLACK to Mortimer and Randolph no matter how much money he makes the Dukes. That just doesn’t seem, to me, to capture how the left feels.

The modern left, like the modern right, hates many people and there is often little rhyme and no reason for their antipathy. Their loves, as many have remarked about their defense of Hamas, are equally irrational. But while the line between the racist and the merely stupid and hate-filled may be fine, it nevertheless exists.

What should a college president do?

College presidents definitely won’t be trotting out the Columbia playbook in the future. It would be hard to imagine handling things worse. Yet there’s no denying that Shafik’s situation was more difficult than most. The recent disasters on the Hill, the NY location, the virulence of the activists, and the timing (with Graduation looming) all worked against her.

It’s also important to understand that college Presidents are not like CEOs or Governors; they are almost never hands on managers of a college or university. When I became a partner at Ernst & Young, I thought my job was to lead teams doing analytic work. Not so. My job was to sell stuff. Similarly, the job of a college President is to raise money. Raising money is a unique skill. And here’s the thing, those who have it are very much like politicians. They are not managers; their primary function is to be liked.

So, it’s no surprise that a college President when faced with a difficult situation will dither, put a happy face on things as long as possible, and then panic. Because that’s what happens when someone whose main skill is being liked is thrust into a crisis.

Some college Presidents have the luxury of a Greg Abbott to fall back on. When the big boss is itching to send in the troops, the college President can play the good cop, the reasonable soul. But nobody was going to come and bail out Columbia.

A fair number of other college Presidents have trotted out the old delay, stall, and defuse strategy. After all, you just need to get through graduation and you’re good. When I look at deals like the one Northwestern cut, it strikes me that they didn’t give up very much (not that they got a lot either). For colleges who just don’t want to be embarrassed, counting on the bureaucracy to grind those poor activists into submission is always a plan. What this situation calls for is a commission to study the problem till summertime!

And, after all, it’s not like the activists have any real agenda. College Presidents can’t declare a ceasefire and while sure, in theory, some of them could divest, most of them (including Columbia) probably can’t. Most probably aren’t significantly invested in Israel. And no, investing in Google doesn’t count. So, there’s literally nothing your average college can bargain with (except a commission).

Still, the one thing you never want to have to do is call in the police. That’s not to say that sometimes you have a choice. By the time buildings started getting seized, the police were pretty much the only option left at Columbia. But if you’ve let things get that far, you’ve lost. Because every college protester longs to be arrested (as publicly as possible) by the police. Getting arrested turns a protestor from an extra to a star.

If it wasn’t possible to defuse the initial situation with promises of a commission, targeted suspensions and expulsions would probably have done the job. Getting arrested makes for great TV. Getting expelled? Not so much.

Students at Columbia have no reason to fear arrest and many reasons to welcome it. But expulsion is a real punishment. That Columbia degree is worth a lot of money, and it takes at least four years to acquire. I doubt many of the student protesters’ principles extend far enough to cover actual personal harm.

Frankly, that’s a good thing. Taken too far, even silliness can turn into tragedy.

Of course, this hinges on having rules and — the single most important thing — being consistent in enforcing those rules. If those protestors were from a student wing of the American Nazi Party (which, I know, strains even the strongest imagination), you can sure be they would have gotten suspended, broken-up and arrested in about 1/20th the time. If a protest activity is against the rules, colleges should have a published set of protocols for handling that. Something like this: Day 1 you get a warning. Day 2 you get a second warning. Day 3 you get suspended. Day 4, if you are still in violation, you get expelled. Having things in writing is good for all sorts of reasons. It makes it clear to everyone what the consequences are. It creates a timeline in everyone’s mind. Finally, it helps enforce consistency of treatment. The biggest gripe almost everyone has about the way colleges have handled free speech issues is how inconsistent they have been. Which goes back to the very first point; colleges need to treat every violation of protest rules equally. Fail in that and you have failed.

How Much Should Gaza Trouble Us?

This is the real question. The hard question. The college protestors may be almost universally silly. They may even be hate filled. But we shouldn’t dismiss their visceral reaction to what’s happening in Gaza. Nothing in Israel’s response has been surprising or, to me, seems other than what we all should have expected when this began. And I can say that because it’s pretty much been exactly what I predicted: a bloody, unproductive mess.

Unfortunately, it still seems to me to be a necessary bloody, unproductive mess. That’s not the way anyone likes to talk in our political culture; that makes it particularly likely to be the truth.

But that truth does not mean we should fail to reflect on the violence and human costs. Expecting a bloody mess is not always the same as seeing the bloody mess. Nor is there any world in which the extent of the bloodiness and messiness doesn’t matter and might not make us change our mind.

I’ve always believed that Bernard Williams’ concept of agent regret is one of the most profound insights into the nature of morality. Here’s an example:

You are driving at a reasonable speed on a street, paying attention. A dog (or, worse, a child) darts into the road. You do your best and it is not enough. You had no evil intention. You had no intention at all. You had no lapse of responsibility. On utilitarian or Kantian grounds, you have absolutely nothing to be blamed for. And, in fact, we will all re-assure you. “Don’t feel bad. There’s nothing you could have done.” And yet. And yet, if you did not feel bad, worse than those who merely heard about it, we would think there was something wrong with you. You ran over a dog (or a child). You need not feel guilty, but you MUST feel regret. Williams argued that we expect people to understand the there is a kind of responsibility that comes with agency even when we do the right thing or the best thing.

This regret is, I think, more fundamental to morality than duty or happiness and it is a better test of our humanity than our adherence to one or our optimization of the other. This may not seem rational. That’s okay. Our moral intuitions are not very rational and probably shouldn’t be.

Just as we expect someone to feel bad if they hit a dog darting in front of their car, the actual experience of a bloody mess will often give us pause even when we have rational reasons for supporting or undertaking what everybody knew would be a bloody mess.

As silly, performative and self-serving as I take the protests to be, at their heart they should force us to contemplate one real question. How bad should we collectively feel about this bloody mess, and must we change our minds about its necessity? It is, after all, a bloody mess that we condone and support and, to some extent, permit and abet.

This kind of thinking would surely drive those protesting crazy. “Do you mean that your position is that we can keep harming/killing people as long as we feel bad about it?” To which I would say that so long as we continue to believe the harming/killing is necessary and we have looked squarely at the consequences, the answer is yes. Such has been the answer behind every just war. Such is the answer behind every criminal punishment. Such is the answer behind every hard decision that harms some. The world confronts us with many terrible decisions. Hamas confronted us with one such terrible decision; a fact that those protesting like to gloss.

We may owe Gaza nothing more than an acknowledgement that we recognize that there is blood on our hands. We may not (and probably should not) be ready to begin the process of cleaning those hands. But even if we remain convinced that justice and necessity support Israeli action, we should never forget that the consequences of even our best decisions are sometimes terrible.

What’s the Point of How to think…essays?

People don’t need a point to push their opinions, but these how to think essays aren’t central to TW2BR and I sometimes wonder if they are worth doing. They get far less time than essays on ethics and decision-making or even book reviews. I’m a lot more interested in how to live than in politics, and I don’t think the two are very related. I make no pretense to being an expert in the subject and, honestly, I don’t always personally care much about the issue (campus protests being a good example).

These essays are not fundamentally about persuasion. Nor do I believe that there is some unusual merit in whatever position I happen to have arrived at. In their own poor way, they are meant only as examples of what the public square could/should look like if it was not dominated by ideology and partisans, but by people who at least tried to think for themselves. That, at least, is something worth caring about.

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