Reflection on student mobilizations for Palestine



The pro-Palestinian demonstrations in European and American universities, one of which recently attempted to prevent Elie Barnavi from attending a conference at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) on 3 June 2024, resulting in havng to move the event to another room, under police protection, have prompted me to jot down these few thoughts.

The heirs to the 1960s have had no occasion to mobilise against a war like the Vietnam War – an “imperialist” conflict waged by the American superpower against an impoverished Asian country. Instead, apart from the Iraq War, which provoked demonstrations in the West, it has been socio-cultural and ecological issues, not war, that have had young people take to the streets in recent years.

For since the end of the Second World War, young people in the West have fortunately been spared direct experience of war, and have enjoyed a long period of peace. Yet war has by no means disappeared from our planet. Whether on the African continent, in Asia, Latin America or the Middle East, war has raged unabated, leaving millions dead – Tutsis, Sudanese, Syrians, Kurds, Uyghurs, Sahrawis, Yemenites, and Congolese, to name but a few – yet these events have left Western youth almost unmoved. And the fact that for the last two years a democratic country in the heart of Europe  has been fighting a war against its neighbour and agressor, Russia, does not seem to have mobilised the masses in  the Western capitals either.

After the barbarous attack by the Hamas on Israeli territory on the 7th of October 2023, the images filmed and broadcast live by the attackers themselves horrified all those who saw them – for a few hours. Then, as soon as the Israeli army started bombing Gaza in reaction to the attack, these images disappeared so completely that some even doubted their truthfulness. Demonstrations supporting one camp or the other started soon after that.

It is certainly not the first time that the Middle Eastern conflict has unleashed such passions and forced its way onto the political agenda in the West. But there had never been such massive mobilisation previously, especially not on the part of these young people who fly to support Palestinian victims while ignoring the victims in the other camp.

How explain this “double standard”, this staggering silence on wars both both near and far , but at the same time the reactions to the war between Israelis and Palestinians? There is, first, one point in common between this war and those waged by the US in Vietnam and Iraq: a “powerful” democracy is pitted against a “weaker” population. And in the West, it is clearly easier, and of course potentially more effective, to demonstrate against a democracy than against a dictatorship: demonstrating against Russia’s war in Ukraine or against the massacres of Uyghurs in China would make almost no impression on the regimes of Putin or Xi Jinping.

I don’t doubt that today’s demonstrators are seriously committed to the Palestinian cause,  but I note that in their mobilisation against the State of Israel, they are in fact recognising its status as one of the liberal democracies, whatever its imperfections, and hence the possibility of putting pressure on its government for a change of policy. The Israelis are indeed the first to do this: throughout 2023 they gathered week after week by hundreds and thousands – the equivalent, scaled up, to as many millions in France – to demonstrate against a reform of the justice system which the Netanyahu government wanted to push through, and which targeted the powers of the Supreme Court. And the Israelis continue to demonstrate to this day, to call for the liberation of the hostages or to demand early elections.

Another explanation of this “double standard”, and a much more worrying one if we look at its consequences, is the manichean reading of the conflict, with in one camp the “good”, the “weak”, the “non-white”, the “oppressed” and the “non-Western”, and in the other all that is “evil”, “strong”, “white”, “colonialist”, and “Western”. This simplistic vision, derived in part from today’s wokism, cannot but be a disaster for both peoples, today and in the future. I would like to remind these demonstrators, who want to be on the “right side of the barrier”, of the words of Amos Oz writing on the conflict in his book “Help us to Divorce. Israel & Palestine: between Right and Right”  (London: Vintage, 2004). [i]

To which should be added, alas, another reading, required by what I thought I would never again see surface with such force into the public realm, namely anti-semitism. We had become accustomed – though never resigned –  to anti-semitism in the repugnant fringes of the Far Right. But today the word “Zionist” has replaced the word “Jew”, in order to attack Israelis and Jewish citizens living in the Diaspora who claim that the Israelis have the right to defend their own State. Even those who criticise the policies of Israel’s present government concerning the Palestinians are targeted.

No one is fooled by this change of terms. For what does the word “Zionist” mean? It means the recognition that the Jews have the right to their own State, in which half of the Jewish people live today and to which most of the others are unwaveringly attached. Not to recognise this right is anti-semitic, especially when the Zionist movement, like every other national movement, has as many Right-wing as Left-wing advocates, and when the latter have been militating for many a year for a Palestinian State next to Israel.

The fact that today, in France, an anti-Zionist discourse is becoming dominant among citizens aligned with a certain Left wing is profoundly disturbing for the future of our democracies and for the future of the Left. And the fact that some people adopt this discourse for purely electoral reasons – or, worse still, under the influence of fundamentalist Islam –  is even more troubling.


David Chemla

[i] It is not a struggle between Good and Evil. Rather, it is a tragedy in the ancient sense, a conflict between two causes, each of which is as just as the other.  … The Palestinians are in Palestine, because Palestine is the homeland, and the only homeland, of the Palestinian people… . The Israeli Jews are in Israel because there is no other country in the world that the Jews, as a people, as a nation, can call their homeland…   The Palestinians want the country they call Palestine. They have good reasons for wanting it. The Israelis want exactly the same country, for exactly the same reasons…  This leads to tragedy… .What we need is a painful compromise… For me, the word compromise means life. The opposite means fanaticism and death…. Compromise means that the Palestinian people, no more than the Israeli Jewish people, will never again be crushed and humiliated. And Oz concludes by saying to the Europeans: “If you have even the smallest desire to help, and sympathy to offer, give them not to one or the other, but to both patients. You no longer have to choose between being pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, you must be pro-peace.”



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