Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Don’t Dismiss the Moral Power of Protest

A few days ago, a video was posted online of an anti-Israel protest at Portland State University. Following an increasingly common tactic among campus anti-Israelists, the protesters filled a few rows of the audience for a talk on Israel by CBN contributor Erick Stackelbeck with people wearing tape over their mouths and then silently walkingd out, holding signs and – in a few uncontrolled cases – shouting slogans.

As foolish as the protest looks, it would be unwise to dismiss its potential power or what it says about the nature of the view of Israel endorsed by a small yet committed minority at many American universities.

This particular video is interesting mostly because Stackelbeck invites the protesters to take the tape off their mouths, stay for his talk, and then debate him afterwards. It’s an effective way to make them look foolish and is a tactic other pro-Israel speakers, faced with similar displays at other universities, should consider.

While it is true, as Joel Pollak notes, that the students’ refusal to debate is a sign of an anti-intellectualism that has taken hold at far too many schools, there is a powerful statement within the silent protest that anti-Israelists are trying to latch onto. For if you believe that Jewish independence is morally repugnant, it is appropriate to refuse to debate those who cast themselves as its defenders. The act of debate itself, the granting of a platform in a university, is itself a kind of approval, if not for the totality of an ideology then at least for its place within respectable debate. Because anti-Israelists are driven by the conviction that Israel is not a topic worthy of debate, it makes sense for them to refuse to do so.

Conveying that message, along with the idea that anti-Israelists speak for the center of campus opinion, is precisely the idea behind staging such a protest.

It’s a view many who support Israel should find easier to understand than they perhaps realize. It was only five years ago that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was granted his bit of real estate on the campus of Columbia University, and many were the voices who found it appalling. And rightly so. Letting him in the door conveyed the idea on a significant stage that he stood for ideas worth debating, not standing against. So too can you find this thinking in a recent article criticizing Harvard’s hosting of a “one state solution” conference by the esteemed Alan Dershowitz, who, in pointing out that a conference around a question like “Are the Palestinians Really a People?” would likely find no sanction on campus was reminding us that there are limits to the questions we consider. Though those limits may often be misplaced, it is undoubtedly true that it is good for there to be some.

Thankfully, anti-Israelists committed to the idea that Israel does not deserve even a hearing on campus are no more than a small fraction of nearly any school, and thus incapable of pushing pro-Israel voices off campus. But to ensure their ranks do not grow, and they do not succeed in making Zionism an ideology not even permitted a defense, we’ll have to recognize the potential power of their strategy and get better at reaching the vast middle whose views remain up for grabs.