Campus protests serve Arab nationalism, not antisemitism or civil rights

by | May 2, 2024 | The Recent Modern Age, Current Politics

The WWI Arab nationalist flag, basis for campus protest Palestinian flags

The WWI Arab nationalist flag, basis for the Palestinian flag raised by campus protestors

Today’s campus protests have been called antisemitic. Some of the protestors, on the other hand, think they’ve joined the tradition of university civil rights activism, dating back to the 1960s. Neither view fits the news from campus. Many protestors themselves don’t realize it, but Arab nationalism plays the central role in these protests against Israel and in favor of Palestine.

The campus protests involve two groups: Arab nationalists and liberal activists.

Arab Nationalists

I use Arab nationalism simply for nationalist feeling among Arab peoples, not for the 20th century movement to unite Arabs into a single state. That broader movement includes Palestinian nationalism.1Some would dispute the name “Arab nationalism,” arguing that pro-Palestinian feeling sweeps in much of the Islamic world,  not just Arabs. Arab nationalists have been heavily involved in today’s campus protests, both among the student protestors and the alleged “professionals” and other non-students involved. (Early reports suggest non-students make up almost half the protestors at Columbia and City College of New York.) The Columbia protestors, for example, include Nahla Al-Najjar, wife of Sami Al-Arian – the latter a 68-year-old Palestinian activist deported from the U.S. in 2015.

Arab nationalism favors a Palestinian Arab state. It often takes an antisemitic tone. But the movement doesn’t embrace the anti-Jewish racism once common among Europeans and their American descendants. Rather, Arab nationalists express fury at Israeli Jews’ displacement of the Palestinians – and at the presence of a non-Arab state in heart of a region they consider the Arab homeland.

Abdel Nasser, Muammar Gaddifi, and other 1960s leaders of the Middle East

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (in black, left of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi) led the Arab Nationalist movement of the 1960s, including the unsuccessful struggle against Israel.

Many Arab nationalists call for the annihilation of Israel. That demand reflects the same sort of nationalist fury that led Irish to hate English, Turks to hate Armenians, and Russians to hate … lots of people. It’s not necessarily racist, but it’s often ugly.

Nationalism also drives Israelis and their Jewish supporters around the world. And their nationalism can turn ugly too, with its own share of hatred and dreams of a national enemy utterly destroyed.

Liberal Would-Be Civil Rights Activists

The liberal protestors are generally neither nationalist nor racist against Jews or anyone else. In fact, they include Jews. It seems they make up most but not all of the student protestors (as opposed to the “outsider” protestors).

When the liberal activists look at the war in Gaza, they see prosperous White people, the Israelis, fighting poor, oppressed Brown people, the Palestinians. The racial categories are imaginary, like all racial groups. But they still wield great power over the imagination. Columbia student leader Khymani James, for instance, said that “Zionists [Israeli nationalists] are White supremacists.” For the liberal protestors, this is a struggle against White, Western oppression. It’s also a civil rights movement. “We are a continuation of the Vietnam anti-war movement,” according to Columbia University Apartheid Divest, one of the key student organizations involved.

Some liberal activists have joined their nationalist companions in wearing the keffiyeh: the black and white scarf that symbolizes Palestinian nationalism. Many more have adopted Arab nationalist rhetoric. “Zionists don’t deserve to live,” again according to Khymani James. But these are not Arab nationalists. Most lack any connection to the Middle East. They’re young and often privileged. And they apparently don’t recognize that they’ve taken sides in a battle between nationalists.

Awful Death Toll

Yasser Arafat wearing the keffiyeh

PLO leader Yasser Arafat made the keffiyeh famous in the West as the symbol of Palestinian nationalism – worn today by campus protestors.

None of this means the protestors’ outrage is not sincere or that the Gaza war does not involve human rights abuses. War itself abuses human rights. And the Palestinians have suffered and continue to suffer far more than the Israelis. Few could watch the news without horror, particularly at the deaths of Palestinian children.

For both Arab nationalists and liberal activists, however, outrage seems to run one way. The protests have little to say about Hamas’ use of Palestinian civilians and hospitals as human shields. Nor do they say much about human rights violations against Israelis. The liberal activists include ardent feminists, yet the campus protests reflect almost no concern about Hamas’ October 7 gang rapes of Israeli women, not to mention children. They also have little to say about the Israelis still held hostage by Hamas or the civilians Hamas executed on October 7. Finally, both Arab nationalist and liberal activist protestors have called for genocide against Israelis, suggesting mass-killing is a one-way concern.

This nationalist protest is no worse than any other. Nationalist movements usually demand human rights only for their own people and lament only their own side’s losses.

Campus Protests in the Dark

The campus liberal activists’ failure to see the full picture reflects poorly on their otherwise bright futures as doctors, lawyers, and executives. (Unfortunately, some have closed the door on those futures through intolerant online comments, including many that sound antisemitic.) But they’re not the only ones misled. Misunderstanding also drives claims of antisemitism, including in the U.S. House of Representatives, which just passed a bill to protect Jews on campus.

Even the Arab nationalists have probably made a serious mistake. Israel is no longer particularly important to America’s strategic interests. (Blocking Russian expansion in Ukraine matters far more.) But the U.S. majority doesn’t like either Arab nationalism or antisemitism. So the protestors’ apparent embrace of each increases support for Israel. Worse for the protestors, the movement could hurt the Biden administration, which could put Trump in office. That would give Israel an American president happy to support and even encourage almost any level of violence against Arabs.

[For an update, see “Liberal Student Activists in Campus Protests.”]

© 2024 by David W. Tollen

Arafat photo: © National History Museum of Romania

  • 1
    Some would dispute the name “Arab nationalism,” arguing that pro-Palestinian feeling sweeps in much of the Islamic world,  not just Arabs.


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