What the Pro-Palestinian Campus Protests Are Really About

Published May 2, 2024

First Things

The recent pro-Palestinian student protests on elite university campuses across the country offer fascinating, if somewhat depressing, insights into the state of modern American culture. It is not so much that the lunatics have taken over the asylum as the kindergartners have taken over the nursery.

First, society takes the attitudes and antics of the young far too seriously. In an era when we are reliably informed that adolescence persists well into the twenties, it is strange that we deem the views of anyone under the age of thirty to have any real significance or merit. Yet it seems to be an unspoken assumption that young people, especially young, angry, and opinionated people, are to be indulged as important. World leaders were clamoring to have cringeworthy photo ops with Greta Thunberg when she first rose to prominence. Thunberg types now abound on the left and right of the political spectrum. They often combine their ill-informed opinions with a confident youthful extremism that should be summarily dismissed or mocked without mercy rather than featured on the news. 

This exaltation of youth is simultaneously the exaltation of ignorance and incompetence. Early claims of Israeli occupation of Gaza and the continued sloppy use of the language of genocide, fueled by people at the U.N. who could benefit from using a dictionary, are two obvious examples of the former. As for the latter, when, for example, did adult revolutionaries hold hunger strikes lasting a whole twelve hours or seize buildings and then demand that the university authorities give them food and water? I have no affection for Che Guevara, but he did at least spend time in a Bolivian jungle while trying to foment revolution. I presume he never once considered whining to the Bolivian government about the harsh conditions of jungle life and had to find his own food and water. A cynic might say that even our revolutionaries are pathetic these days.

Now, expressing criticism of Israeli military action is of course entirely legitimate in a democracy like the United States. There is a right to dissent and a right to protest. But the nature of these particular protests reveals something very disturbing. It is clear that they are not motivated by legitimate concern for Arab and Muslim lives, whatever the rhetoric. If they were, then Israel would hardly be the only, or even primary, target. The death toll from over a decade of government-led bloodshed in Syria is catastrophic but has not gripped the imagination of campus activists. The slaughter there continues to this day, though one could be forgiven for not knowing this, given the lack of media and student interest in the conflict. Rather, these campus protests are motivated by hatred of Jews. One can offer the specious dodge that Hamas’s 2017 manifesto speaks of Zionists rather than Jews as the enemy. But Hamas thinks Israel is the result of a Jewish conspiracy. To replace “Jews” and “Judaism” with “Zionists” and “Zionism” is thus to change words but not to change direction. Anti-Semitism is the motivation of both Hamas and the student activists who care only for Muslim lives when they are threatened by Israeli rather than Syrian bombs. 

This also points to the nihilism that lurks just below the surface. When one notes the craziness of some of the protests—queers professing solidarity with Palestine, for example, or a drag queen leading children in pro-Palestinian chants—it becomes clear that, for all of the blather about “human rights,” these people share no common vision about what it means to be human. The thing that unites these groups is neither concern for Arab lives nor a respect for Islamic culture. They are united only in wanting to tear down. In short, these protests are a manifestation of the Mephistophelean spirit of negation or, in religious terms, the spirit of desecration. To borrow from Marx, all that is holy must be profaned. What is to replace it—Shariah law, drag queen story hour, Judith Butler reading groups—is anybody’s guess. There is no agreed moral vision here. There is only consensus on a hatred of Jews, of Israel, of America, and of what is. And ironically, it comes from those who enjoy some of the greatest privileges that America has to offer.  

Americans have the right to protest Israeli military action and American support for Israel. Such a right is key to a healthy and well-functioning democracy. As has often been said, it is what distinguishes countries like America from places like Iran, where sixteen-year-olds who remove their hijabs in protest at cultural restrictions are raped and murdered, not lionized by the media. Such protests also provide important means of holding those in power to account. But no protester has the right to be taken seriously merely as a protester. When protests are childish, inconsistent, racist, and rooted in no shared vision beyond that of mere negation, then those who participate in them should be treated with contempt.

Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.

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