Doing Time as a Protestor

Tents on the Columbia Lawn

It’s not really déjà vu because the Vietnam era was different. But this week’s massive protests over Gaza on more than 30 campuses brought back heavy memories, mostly illustrating how the principles of protest have changed. I got involved in these early-‘60s protests against the war at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I was in graduate school studying French Symbolist poetry and its influence in England, enjoying being a bit of an intellectual snob and teaching a course in jazz. Smoking a little pot with friends. Not the profile of your typical bomb-thrower.

But we started marching in local protests around 1963. In those days many on the UW campus were fired up, with the protests getting more violent each time they occurred. Cops gassed protestors in the 1967 campus uproar over Dow Chemical’s production of napalm—which made earlier events look like a cakewalk. Then came the Sterling Hall bombing in 1970, killing a researcher.

By 1965 at age 31 when I moved to New York City, the war had become hugely unpopular and caused angry protests in the city and on many college campuses. One’s status in the culture reflected the growing split between those who opposed the war (the elites, by and large) and those who supported it (the working classes, by and large). And those divisions to an extent have persevered regarding the Gaza conflict. The 1960s gave birth to modern identity politics on a large scale.

I was teaching English at NYU and later at City College, marching in the streets with my colleagues and thousands of others, listening to Mailer and Sontag and Spock speak at rallies. It was a very heady and disconcerting time. Columbia was in the throes of protest and takeovers and, just as today, they spread to City College. When many of our classes were cancelled, my students wanted to keep meeting, in my apartment and other places. But discussing 19th century French poetry while the war was raging and anger in the streets was rising just seemed futile and absurd.

We talked about what was happening at Columbia, and I asked the kids what they thought the leaders like Mark Rudd hoped to accomplish. “They shut down the school, but they don’t have any real agenda,” I declared. Today, it’s all agendas and no real leadership. Maybe the issues with Palestine and Israel are too complex. But we all know the bombing has got to stop.

Now 76 and a pacifist, Mark Rudd says: “They don’t have the violent rhetoric we had, like calling the cops pigs and ‘Up against the wall, motherfucker,’ that kind of craziness,” he said. “I think they’re a lot more careful. I think they’re smarter.” He also says his identity as a Jew used to be based on Israel. “It took me a long time to get over that.”

As I said in my memoir, Vietnam and its turmoil constituted a major reason why I finally quit teaching. After Kent State (1970) I decided to get out of academia and find something more relevant to my interest in media, communications and the world at large. I was not the Peace Corps type; I had a family to support. But I wanted to write and do some good in the world.

It’s easy to forget how much violence was in the air. On March 6, 1970, the townhouse at 18 West 11th Street in Greenwich Village blew up. Working at home just a block and a half away, I heard and felt the enormous boom, ran out to witness the chaos and later learned that the place was a Weatherman bomb factory in which three people had been killed. Homegrown terrorism, right around the corner and heretofore unimaginable despite the constant rhetoric that was feeding it. I had written and marched against the war and helped a few kids go to Canada, but this event took the steam out of my protest, as it did for a lot of people. The unpopularity of the war was growing into a very popular and sometimes vicious cause.

Perhaps the same thing can be avoided now, as thousands of young people across the country protest the criminal actions of Hamas and Israel. Their tactics are very different and their numbers are yet nowhere near those who rioted and bombed in the ‘60s. But Mr. Biden, despite his platitudes about protest (It’s OK if it doesn’t get violent) is totally missing the boat on how significant and powerful their numbers will be for the forthcoming election. If the Gen Zs sit it out and/or fail to vote for him, he will be toast, as I wrote in my little protest here.

As of now, 57 Democrats in Congress have signed a letter urging Biden to withdraw the billions in aid and arms he still quietly permits to flow to Israel. Some 66 percent of the “41 million eligible ‘Gen Z’ voters in 2024 have opposed aid to Israel.” The New York Times is generally conservative about such matters. Yet they write:

Just as students then could no longer tolerate the horrific images of a distant war delivered, for the first time, in almost real time by television, so many of today’s students have found the images from Gaza, now transmitted instantly onto their phones, to demand action. And just as students in ’68 insisted that their school sever ties to a government institute doing research for the war, so today’s students demand that Columbia divest from companies profiting from Israel’s invasion of Gaza. And students then and now have found their college administrators deaf to their entreaties.

Even the deaf administrators and Mr. Biden should be able to read the handwriting on the wall.

Interminable Hate

The situation in Gaza shocks everybody and offers no ready solution. It’s another instance of how ineffectual present-day world politics has become. And most people don’t have time or inclination to understand the depths of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s like the Hundred Years War, and who knows what that was about?

Going back to the 1920s, Jews and Arabs were at odds even before the founding of Israel so it’s nigh on a hundred years. In the 1950s I was growing up in a Jewish environment generally opposed to Zionism as a solution to the refugee problem. I still feel that traditional Zionism and the long-favored “two-state solution” is no answer. The two sides have to learn to live together, and there’s no sign of that happening.

The apartheid and the bombs being launched by the far-right Israel government have made Gaza into a ghetto, says one correspondent, with a constant sense of peril and uncertainty.

“Even when things are quiet or seem quiet, they aren’t quiet. There is a shortage of electricity, of clean water. Gaza is coastal, but people can’t swim safely in the sea because there is so much sewage,” he said. “Nothing is stable. No one can make a business. All of a sudden, there is a war or an escalation or the crossings are closed and there is collapse of supplies. Plus, there are the restrictions from Hamas. It restricts personal freedom for women and girls.”

Well, maybe this moment will be different, as one Arab scholar hopes. Maybe the Palestinians have learned how to organize and displace Hamas influence. Maybe the UN and world political powers will move Biden to exert some serious force on Israel. Can Democratic pressure in Congress do anything? The U.S. has little credibility after its years of promoting and financing Israel’s assault on its neighbors and its own Arab people. “At the very least, Mr. Biden needs to make clear that support for Israel and support for Mr. Netanyahu are not the same thing.”

A good summary of the events leading to the current conflict and some hopeful if dubious resolutions is here. American diplomacy has forever failed to mitigate, much less resolve, the crisis. Two Middle East pros offer some suggestions for how Biden can take a more robust approach to diplomacy to counter years of America’s toadying to Israel’s aggressive moves. Indeed,

the administration’s seemingly unqualified support for Israel’s right of self-defense sounds strange when 20 times more Palestinians have been killed and tremendous damage has been done to Gaza’s already inadequate infrastructure. One might hope that as Israel’s closest ally, the U.S. would understand urgently that no matter how many airstrikes and artillery shells fall on Gaza, Israel will not deal Hamas a strategic blow, let alone a defeat. More likely, Israel will declare “victory” but again settle for a period of quiet until the next round.

One can hope that sentiment is too pessimistic. But if the only alternative is interminable hate, that must be unacceptable. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs concluded its report this way:

Many around the globe, and especially in the U.S. and Europe, have been surprised by the images of Jewish mob violence, but the sentiments they embody did not spring up overnight. They have long been cultivated and endorsed at the highest levels of the state. Tamping down ethnic incitement is a matter of self-preservation for the Jewish majority, because the alternative, a steady escalation of civil strife, is already on the horizon.