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  • Writer's picturejeffmcm

Protest and Palestine

When I was young and immersed in demonstration politics, I may have said some extreme statements. Having realized a need to engage, to show up and shout, argue and strategize, in the process I also learned about people whose experiences and perspectives were very different from mine. My politics and tactics of engagement evolved.


The students protesting the war in Gaza, specifically Israel’s excessive response to the brutality of Hamas’ initial attack, are neither perfect in their politics nor flawless in tactics. Young people often see the world in David & Goliath relief, instinctively sticking up for whomever they identify as the underdog. They are drawn to causes, passions, upstarts. Why did I identify as Irish (my father’s heritage), when I escaped to New York in 1979 as a 22 year old drop-out? Because the Irish were historically the persecuted, the starved and ghettoized by the more powerful English. I researched a particular history of colonization, oppression, and resistance (and of thuggery and violence on both sides). The plight of the underdog is motivating, especially to the young. It is, I believe, part of the narrative of Israel itself (and before that, the United States). We know from sociological/political studies that far too often the once-persecuted become the persecutors. To deny that based on a fixed position of advocacy, does not advance deeper understanding nor suggest sustainable solutions.


What is missing in the opinionating and alumni/donor/politician placating  over protests at Columbia, ASU and elsewhere is a compassionate understanding of young people. This is our responsibility as teachers and adults. The images we should be seeing are professors and administrators meeting with the protesters on their temporary turf. Instead we have pictures of police, summoned by those same administrators, dragging protestors to jail.  The only crime being committed is a minor one of occupying property, yet we forget who that property is for and who is paying for it; the students.


I was accepted to Columbia as an undergrad in the mid-1970’s but my now suburban California parents were fearful, having read of murders in Morningside Heights. Instead, I attended Reed College, in what was then a rather sleepy Portland. I finally got to be a Columbia student, approaching 40 in the late 1990’s, earning an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Walking through the gates onto campus I felt not only safe, but at home in a place where  creativity, knowledge, dialogue and critical thinking were designed into the place. The campus was alive, dynamic with possibility of dialogue, disagreement and development. Currently, threats to safety are advertised, with ideological intent, as coming from students themselves. The reactionary tendency by partisans and non-students to assume odious objectives in the protestors, accompanied by a shocking lack of understanding of the students themselves, serves only the worst interests. This was a disastrous approach in 1968 and remains so, as  we abdicate our abilities as mature adults. We need to reclaim the agency of  teachers, of thinkers and peace-makers, creators and sustainers. We need not perform indignance and disdain based on paranoia and hearsay, misattributed quotes and selective imagery.


My grandmother, back in those late 1960’s, became deeply upset when colleges, in particular our  exemplary California university system, erupted in protests. Mostly self-educated, she would have thrived in higher education, and supported tax increases to support it for others. But she was even more upset when Governor Reagan used these student actions as an excuse to radically cut-back funding for these world-renowned institutions. The young often make mistakes, but calling-out their elders for supporting violent quagmires (Vietnam, Gaza) is a clarion that need to be answered, not annihilated.


We have failed the young in many areas, and this crisis is putting those failures on display. We should be modeling generous leadership, not a sclerotic gerontocracy that has lost sight of what the young need. Press releases, lawyering-up, and calling-in the cops to do our dirty work are utterly inappropriate. Assuaging the extreme right, in particular, in their hypocritical attack on “woke” as they claim to be battling anti-Semitism, is to be engaging in a fraud. We need to talk directly to students, listening to them while also gently guiding them. We are on their side. We want to make things better. That is why we are here.


I spent 21 years teaching theatre at Arizona State University, after 3 years of adjunct teaching at Kutztown University. Some of the most promising of my students were indeed full of Yeats’ “passionate intensity,” a quality of youth that both politics and performance manifest in the young. In their enthusiasm and eagerness for answers, do they overdo it? Yes, they do. But they are learning, and we need to respond by teaching, not condemning.


Leaving the police to deal with crime outside the gates, university, administrators must engage the creative thinkers, artists and arbitrators, philosophers and historians in-house to expand this screaming match into a dialogue, a symposium.  A recent theatre production, Itamar Moses’ THE ALLY, recently closed at The Public Theatre in NYC, immersed the audience in a painful, shifting multi-sided debate, arguments many of us have suffered through (or elided out of fear). It was not always easy to listen, to watch, or to position oneself in the shifting passions so articulately and dramatically presented. There were gasps and even sobs of recognition; we felt the fabric of our society ripping in front of us. We see the damage, now we must reclaim and repair, activating our intelligence and compassion.



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