Why the pro-Palestinian protests failed

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Despite weeks of pro-Palestinian protests, colleges and universities have not divested from Israel. President Biden is still sending weapons to the Israel Defense Forces. That all appears unlikely to change, no matter how many commencements are canceled. 

The pro-Palestinian movement’s mistake was choosing a “Hamilton Hall” protest model instead of a “Parkland” one.

The Hamilton Hall model is based on the 1968 tactics of Columbia University students protesting the Vietnam War and the university’s planned expansion into Harlem. The students occupied five campus buildings, including Hamilton Hall and held a dean hostage overnight. The result was a disaster: 700 hundred students were arrested, 100 were injured, and the New York City Police Department was justly condemned for using excessive force.  

Parkland refers to the response of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, to a school shooting that killed 17 of their classmates in 2018. The traumatized students started a peaceful March For Our Lives movement with 300 chapters nationwide, testified in Congress and lobbied state legislators. They succeeded in enacting significant gun control legislation in conservative Florida and elsewhere. 

The pro-Palestinian demonstrators, with their disruptive tent encampments, academic building takeovers and often offensive rhetoric, enthusiastically embraced the disastrous legacy of Hamilton Hall — which they broke into and occupied — and not the persistent but respectful Parkland protests, whose most confrontational tactic was a nationwide, 17-minute classroom walk-out (one minute for each victim).   

Universities offer courses on settler colonialism, which teach students that colonizing nations, allegedly including Israel, have displaced and exploited the original inhabitants, such as Palestinians. The theory behind settler colonialism echoes the communism of the 1920s and 1930s by offering a simplistic “good and evil” belief system that divides the world into the oppressors and oppressed. While turbo-charging student outrage, settler-colonialism theory fails to teach how change in America really works. 

The most successful protest movements in American history had coherent goals, such as the recognition of specific legal rights, and displayed dignity. Think of the suffragettes marching proudly in white dresses despite physical and verbal abuse from men, or the civil rights workers in the 1960s who risked their lives, and sometimes lost them, in the segregated South. These were noble, inspiring movements that achieved some of the most far-reaching changes in American history. 

The Parkland teenagers had dignity, too, which enabled them to draw wide support. (The then-apolitical Taylor Swift made a donation to March for Our Lives.)

The pro-Palestinian protests have lacked dignity.  Slogans such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” can be interpreted as, at best, calling for the end of the Jewish identity of Israel, an affront not just to Israel but to millions of American Jews and non-Jews. The sincere anguish of so many students over Gaza was blurred by many protesters’ antisemitic remarks and conduct, including explicit support for Hamas, such as the Students for Justice in Palestine post on Instagram of a paraglider graphic. The Parkland movement’s most confrontational post may have been, “What if our politicians weren’t the bitch of the NRA?” which parodied an NRA ad.

The pro-Palestinian protests may still have an impact, but not one to the protesters’ liking. In 1968, Hamilton Hall-like student protests across the nation served as a foil for Republicans, who captured the White House on a law-and-order campaign. The Trump presidential campaign is similarly exploiting the protests by claiming that “this is Biden’s campus chaos.” 

The most enduring legacy of the pro-Palestinian protesters may be to elect as president a man who called them “raging lunatics” and said that the police breakup of the Hamilton Hall occupation was a “beautiful thing to watch.”

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor in the Carter and Reagan administrations and a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team, which convicted a U.S. senator and six representatives of bribery. He is the author of “Into Siberia: George Kennan’s Epic Journey Through the Brutal, Frozen Heart of Russia.”

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