Preserving pomp and ignoring the circumstances

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It must say something about American higher education that so many university presidents are applauded for ending weeks of student encampments protesting the Gaza War that threatened to disrupt graduation ceremonies. The resumption of the normal end of semester calendar, however, required most presidents to consider, if not defer to demands to explore breaking educational, cultural, and financial ties with Israel. Proclaiming the return to peace in our time of the end of the semester calendar, university heads were keen to praise the moral seriousness of students, double down on the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and emphasize the sanctity of free speech in what those not having to call in the police depicted as ‘mostly peaceful demonstrations.’

Accompanying algorithmically generated messages were also somber pleas for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, sometimes adding, the return of the hostages to a list intended to reclaim the moral legitimacy of their institutions. Finally, they highlighted the importance of a civil dialogue allowing students to listen to one another and to the many different views on campus about what is happening in Gaza.

What, it might be asked, do these concessions and statements teach? Nothing.

That not one leader of what are considered the best universities and colleges across the globe demanded that students gain more knowledge about the origins and evolution of the Middle East Conflict is telling. No one even dared ask student protesters to interrogate whether their demands were grounded in an accurate reading of history or politics—regional or global–or whether their appeals to ‘globalize the Intifada’ were likely to bring on more war or more peace for the very people their protests are intended to serve. Conceding to sufficient demands to enable graduation festivities effectively reduced what is supposed to be an intellectual discourse to the level of slogans, becoming just another example of academic failure. It also catalyzed the Gaza War into the same cliches about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict that not only perpetuates false assumptions but also helps sustain the ongoing violence.

Few images exert as enduring a hold on the political imagination as Palestinians as innocent victims of a devastating oppression. A part of the ‘wretched of the earth,’ Palestinians are presumed deprived of power to forge their own future through any ordinary political process such as diplomatic negotiations. Supposedly ground down into passivity, Palestinians are confined by their own incapacity for action into either violent outbursts or into appeals to people of goodwill to become their tribunes for restitution.

But here is where a narrative overtakes and buries facts. For the strategy of outsourcing authority over their political fate was chosen by Palestinians and not imposed on them. It began in the late 1930s by putting Palestine’s fate into the orbit of regional Arab politics and that pattern has persisted. When faculty and students find the savagery of October 7 a call to action, they are only the latest overlords to assume responsibility for the Palestinian cause and to become its leading apostles.

The conviction that Palestinians cannot control their own destiny because they confront an enmity so implacable and evil in character, they will never be given the independence enjoyed by other nations is false. Palestinians preferred to turn their confrontation with Zionism into a clash of civilizations, rejecting the many options put before them to build a state and forge their own national future. Thus did the atrocity currency of 7 October have to be quickly drained in order not to complicate the familiar template of Palestinians as having no agency. The Gaza War on campus has been reduced to a landscape of destruction in Gaza covered with Palestinian innocents in order to wash away attention from the barbarism of October 7.

But make no mistake: October 7 jolted the Middle East Conflict into an apocalyptic realm substituting the call for ‘two states for two peoples,’  with the cry for ‘From the River to the Sea Palestine Will Be Free,” discounting the many times Palestinian leaders rejected the idea of sharing the land but retailing the message that a Jewish state necessarily deprived Palestinians of the chance to create their own. Coiled around a narrative of catastrophic defeat [nakba], Palestinians have become the enduring metaphor for the innocent victim of an historic injustice.

For that reason, the rapists, kidnappers, and mutilators were transubstantiated by activist scholars into icons of liberation to encourage the people across the globe to see these atrocities as models for emancipatory impulses. Not even Frantz Fanon imagined this kind of violence as laying the foundation for genuine post-colonial freedom. A struggle possessed of such emotional power may imbue Palestinians with the belief that they are fighting for pure and sacred goals, but someone should point out that what is promised with this strategy can never be achieved.

Nevertheless, it has become a totem for Hamas and for its determination to continue its violence without regard to how things evolve. University leaders should be told that calls for a ceasefire—permanent or temporary—are hardly novel. They are part of a narrative giving resilience to the expectation that this Gaza War, like so many others in the past, will spur international pressure on Israel to stop the bloodletting from going too far and permit the customary pay offs to Hamas leaders in return for burying their rocket launchers until exhumed before the next round.

Still, the next round may take longer than past ceasefire pauses because of Israel’s military actions in destroying the network of sophisticated tunnels particularly in the Rafah corridor that served as highways for delivering weapons to Hamas and to other terrorist groups. When the Israeli military sufficiently depletes Hamas’ arsenal, Israelis will return to the homes they were forced to evacuate in the country’s south. If Hezbollah follows Hamas’ conduct and ends its firing, displaced residents of Israel’s northern towns and communities will also be able to go back home. Returning home will rebuild confidence in Israel’s military. But restoring faith in the government will depend on bringing back the hostages alive and offering the country’s citizens a thorough examination of how and why the people elected to office failed to discharge their most fundamental duties to protect their citizens on 7 October.

Preserving pomp and ignoring the circumstances

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