Uncategorized · May 21, 2024 2

Older but Not Wiser

Marty Levine

May 21, 2024

When I was 21 and a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, I marched across New York City’s Central Park to join the undergraduates who had shut the University down. We were demanding that the University stop its support of our war effort against the Vietnamese people and stop its encroaching on Harlem with facilities that would only serve the Columbia community.  The protest was disruptive, some property was destroyed, and it ultimately brought an army of NYPD officers out to violently remove us.

We were young. We were cocky. We thought we were on the right side of history at a moment when we saw our University and our country on the wrong side. We argued about strategy, about how far we should push on and when and how we should compromise and make peace with the university.

The disruption we caused did force the University to be with us and resulted in more openness about their investments, changes in how the University would build new facilities in consultation with the community, and greater student participation in university governance. It was not a total victory, but significant steps forward.

I was brought to those memories when across the country students began to occupy their universities to demand divestment from Israel and an end to the brutalization of the Palestinian people.  As with Vietnam, Israel/Palestine was “my” issue; I have been demonstrating and advocating for a free Palestine for years.

The encampments from a distance looked like my Columbia occupation. Visiting the occupation of a lawn on the Northwestern University Campus I found a very diverse group of students and community supporters peacefully trying to push their University’s administration to act in defense of a defenseless population under siege and to do what they can do to pressure the state of Israel to end it policies of apartheid. The chanting was about a free Palestine from the river to sea, the speakers called out Zionism as a form of racism. The target was the State of Israel and not Jews. 

As I have tried to track other campus protests, Northwestern’s tone and language were not exceptional.

As benign as I have judged these protests to be, the reaction from established pro-Israel forces  to these protests has been quite different. They have been depicted as disruptive, violent, and threatening the lives of Jewish students. They have been another place to fuel the weaponization of antisemitism in these organizations’ battle to defend Israel even when its actions are indefensible.

None of this was surprising or unexpected.

What was unexpected was the strong pushback from those whom I expected would better understand the message and the tactics of these students.

So I was surprised when Mark Rudd, who led the Columbia strike of my youth made this critique in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz criticizing this generation of student activists.

“They’re not Hamas supporters,” says Rudd of the protesters. “They believe that Hamas is the oppressed, that the oppressed have the right to resist, and that those who are safe – white kids like themselves – have no right to tell the oppressed what to do. I lived this, friends of mine died because of this stupidity.

“And I’m not going to defend them,” he adds, “because they’re playing into the hands of the right wing in this country. And what terrifies me is that this could end up bringing [Donald] Trump back into power.”

“But you can’t say anything like that to the kids at Columbia these days, because they’re so hung up on their moral purity. And that’s why they’re not interested in getting any advice from people like me, especially not old people.”

Another wise man, Nicholas Kristoff made a similar critique in a recent NY Times essay where he reflected on how my campus protest and today’s protest are actually prolonging the war and will help elect a more repressive government:

Good intentions are not enough. Empathy is not enough. I’m sure we all agree that it’s outcomes that matter….”

And another New York Times columnist, David Brooks,  offered his critique as well.

“Unfortunately, an unorganized, decentralized movement is going to be good at disruption but not good at building a new reality.

“Today’s campus protesters share this weakness. When you have no formal organizational structure, you can’t control the message. The most outlandish comments — “Zionists don’t deserve to live” — get attention. When you have no formal organizational structure, you can’t be clear on basic positions. Does the movement, for example, believe in a two-state solution, or does it want to eliminate Israel and ethnically cleanse the region?

All three are expressing a concern that I hear widely. Campus protestors are going to bring the destruction of our democracy by energizing the right to re-elect Donald Trump and allow his MAGA movement to become ascendant. They should just stop making such a fuss and stop being annoying.

What I find so missing from these critiques is any responsibility on the part of these old, wise people for leaving the crisis to the young to solve.

If we had done our job, we would not be facing the Israel/Palestine that is before us. We would have marshaled our political power to ensure that our country did much more to bring about a solution that considered the futures of all who see that small land as their homeland. But that did not happen. And those of us who are now older and privileged must take responsibility for the world as it is and not just shake our heads and click our tongues at young protestors who do not have a complete answer or one that we think is politically possible.

The unfinished work on Israel/Palestine, the environment, racism, and economic justice are part of a legacy of unfinished business and unkept promises that my generation is leaving to the next. Lecturing younger activists about the pragmatism we have learned and the damage their youthful exuberance is causing, is, in my opinion, counterproductive.

We owe our children more than a lecture. We owe them, at least, our acceptance of responsibility for not keeping our promise to build a world of equity and fairness for all. We owe them the recognition that the way we have played the political game has not worked as we share whatever lessons we have learned. And we need to do this humbly, without the belief that we are wiser just because we are older.

The worry that because of these students and others who are expressing their frustration with America’s actions in support of Israel will result in a disaster at the polls in November is real. But rather than damn those of us who are protesting for making Joe Biden’s road so dangerous perhaps all of these wise men and women should be looking into their worlds and working as hard as they can to bring those progressives are turned off by these protests behind the effort to stop the horror of Gaza and bring the day when Palestinian lives and rights are not made equal to those of Israelis.

Those of us who are now elder voices have to accept that we failed, we broke it and we have to take the lead in fixing it. If we do that we will find that the energy of these young people will be there to fuel the real fight we need for progress.