Can there be nuance?

May 03, 2024 00:56

Across many campuses in the United States today are protests that claim to oppose what they construe to be Israel’s unjust, wanton even, actions over the Gaza Strip. Protesters have stormed and occupied buildings, offices, and cafeteria, with the explicit objective of calling out the American state’s apathy in face of surging atrocities, but also of pressing for – in a more immediate timeline – the cessation of investment into and partnership with Israeli institutions.

Whilst these protests had largely commenced in the form of peaceful sit-ins and/or non-violent break-ins, some amongst them have morphed into violent altercations between protesters and counter-protesters, as well as between security and police forces on one hand, and those sympathetic to the movement on the other. Those of us who recall the unsightly, rancorous events that rocked our city five years ago, will not find unfamiliar at all these sights. Indeed, we may be inclined to believe that the student protesters in the US today are far less violent than those who had paraded the streets in our very city – though that is a judgment I shall leave up to the reader to affirm or appraise. Crude analogies go down well with those with pre-existing confirmation biases – but not with others.

There is an evident cause motivating many involved in the protests – albeit not all, certainly not those who are opportunistic jumping onto the bandwagon or take this to be the opportunity to grand-stand and mount tirades against what they take to be the imperialist tendencies of modern-day capitalism (socialist states, too, can be imperialist). The cause pertains to the mounting casualties and horrifying humanitarian toll that we see on the streets of Jabalia, Beit Lahiya, Gaza City, and Rafah. It would be frankly implausible – downright absurd - to claim that all who have been killed are members of Hamas, a known and indeed abhorrent terrorist group in their own right. It seems equally dubious to posit that such deaths could be justified in name of counter-terrorism: we set constraints of proportionality as core parts of debates over just war and just violence for a reason – for the fact that all actions that transgress our default presumption of peace must be justified with thought, and with care.

Yet this is also where questions must inevitably be asked. To those advocating divestment and disengagement with Israeli universities, with many amongst their faculty and students also those who are most vocally calling for an end to Netanyahu’s tenure and a serious introspection into Israel’s foreign and domestic policies on Palestinian statehood, could it be the case that the severance of ties in fact does little to strike at the core of the most vociferous zealots in Israel – and that such decoupling only ends up wounding and sidelining voices whom we need the most? And to those who call for the heralding of the Palestinian cause, it is imperative that the political yearning for justice and resistance against injustice do not become a convenient excuse for thinly veiled anti-Semitic comments and slurs.

We can oppose what we take to be disproportionate, atrocious, unconscionable actions of a government, without resorting to vulgar, despicable bigotry and slanders against an entire race. It is all fair game for American and Chinese think-tanks and policy wonks to challenge and call out the “other side” – but the moment such discourse descends into casualised, crass generalisations about “white” or “Chinese” people, is when the much-needed space for nuance thus disappears. Anti-Semitic abuse adopted by a fringe minority of protests only throws under the bus victims who are already excluded and disenfranchised – in their own ways – from present-day discourse. It is not hypocritical to care about the rights of both Jews and Palestinians, and abhor those who weaponise one side against the other, at the same time.

More substantively and fundamentally, we must also remember that violence is not only an active affront upon the civil fabric of any society, but also amongst the least persuasive tools of political argumentation. With a battered Democratic establishment and a vindictive Trump campaign looming over the horizon, the radical tactics adopted by a small minority of protesters would only compound the growing mistrust of centrists and independents towards the Democrats – compelling them to view the two parties as equally bad. Even if this were the case, there exist plenty of reasons to see Biden as a more decent (for domestic governance) President than Trump. Be careful what one wishes for – is the message I’d leave to those who cherubically and cynically view both candidates as equally evil.

At the end of the day, the United States stands at a critical juncture today. Will the powers that be choose to listen, to engage, and to understand the demands and outcries of a disillusioned youth that will stomach the structural apathy no longer? Or will they double down on the unfortunate – albeit understandably predictable – rhetoric that the words of the youth should be discarded because of the actions of a select few, thereby ignoring the calls for a long-overdue reset to US-Israel relations? Biden and the White House must choose, and choose wisely.

HKEJ contributor