What Are the Pro-Palestine Demonstrators Thinking?
I was watching some of the coverage of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations recently and started thinking. I wondered why people would come to the US (and other Western countries and start doing things like tearing down American flags and attacking Jewish citizens. From there, I wondered what the protesters hoped to achieve with their behavior.
I think I made a bad assumption in the first paragraph and I’m going to address it first. Why do we assume that those protesters aren’t American? It may be that some of them are Palestinian or Muslim immigrants, but behind the keffiyehs and masks, I wouldn’t be surprised to find quite a few good old American palefaces.
Think about it. We’ve had quite a few violent episodes in our recent history. Aside from January 6, there was the BLM rioting, the Portland anarchy, the Occupy movement, and going a little further back, there were large-scale protests and rioting in Seattle in 1999 over the World Trade Organization. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the people behind the masks of the pro-Hamas violence are the same people and groups who have engaged in rioting for other left-wing causes.
Whoever makes up the protesters, I think that they are miscalculating. I think it’s a mistake to engage in violent protests because it normally hurts the image of the cause that brought out the protesters. In general, most average people don’t like disruptions in their lives. They don’t like seeing their towns vandalized and innocent bystanders (or even counterprotesters) hassled. And most of us really don’t like to see the American flag torn down, trampled, and disrespected.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I support freedom of speech and the First Amendment, even for those who disagree with me. In fact, if you don’t support free speech for those who disagree with you then you don’t really support free speech at all. I think that even immigrants and noncitizens have the right to speak their minds without fear of reprisal. That’s true even if they support Hamas and hate Israel and the United States.
There is a line, however. That line is crossed when the protesters start vandalizing property that does not belong to them and assaulting other people. The line could also be crossed inciting riots or conspiring to commit crimes or acts of violence.
The real question is what the protesters hope to accomplish. If they want to change American policy towards Israel, acting like a—h—-s is not the way to accomplish that. Americans (and many other peoples around the world, notably the Ukrainians and the Israelis) don’t react well to intimidation. If the pandemic didn’t teach us anything else it should have taught us that if you tell people to do something, they will often do the opposite out of spite. That’s true even if what you tell them to do could save their lives. Anyone who thinks that local acts of violence are going to make the US distance itself from Israel hasn’t been paying attention.
It’s also possible that there is no real goal for the protests. Sometimes, riots and demonstrations are just days of rage in which tempers boil over and people flood into the streets because they have taken everything that they are going to take. I think that was the case in much of the BLM riots.
There were a lot of polls back in 2020 that showed that violence hurt the Black Lives Matter movement. Even though most Americans were supportive of the goal of fighting police brutality, they didn’t support the violence and the rioting hurt the movement’s image.
That’s true even though most BLM protests were peaceful. The small number of violent protests crowded out the majority peaceful demonstrations on the news and allowed critics to mock the claim that the protests were “mostly peaceful.” Violence harmed the cause.
But that didn’t stop the violence. By then, the rioting had taken on a life of its own. Some people were legitimately angry and boiling over, some were spoiling for a fight, and some wanted to take the opportunity to shoplift a new television.
I think the truth of the matter is that people engage in protests because it’s fun. Protesting doesn’t accomplish much. How many protest movements actually achieved their goal? Not many.
The protests against the Vietnam War are a classic example. The first big protests against the war date back to 1964, but the war continued for more than another decade. Michael Medved, my favorite conservative radio talker, used to point out that the end of the Vietnam protests coincided more closely with the end of the draft in 1973 than the end of the war.
I have to confess that I’ve engaged in a few protests myself. Well, two anyway. I remember taking part in a silent pro-life vigil that my church sponsored back in the late 1990s. I was also part of the earliest round of Tea Party protests in 2009. I took my son to the rally at the Georgia State Capitol and we had a blast.
I also went to other Tea Party events later including one where a “former Marine” went viral for singing the last verse of the National Anthem (I’m on the right side of the video frame with a brown hat over my heart at 1:39. Those later events were more commercial and less grass-roots than the original rallies.
Protesting makes us feel like we are doing something, but in the end, it’s a feel-good activity. Protesting doesn’t usually accomplish much unless the protesters are willing to take things to the next level. By that, I don’t mean violence. I mean persuading their fellow citizens.
The Civil Rights protests were probably the most successful series of protests in our history. One thing that made them different from the pro-Palestine (or even the BLM and Stop the Steal) protests was their nonviolence. Martin Luther King’s strategy of peaceful civil disobedience ultimately won the day.
Do you know who got violent back then? It was the establishment. It was the Klansmen, the Bull Connors, the police who cracked innocent heads with their nightsticks, and the firefighters who turned hoses on marchers. These acts of violence ultimately cost the segregationists any hope of retaining the moral high ground and won sympathy for civil rights demonstrators.
I think there’s a lesson there. This isn’t a dictatorship where change is going to be brought about by a violent uprising. This is a democracy where you change society by winning hearts and minds.
As I have written many times about government shutdowns (another of which is looming), votes are what matter. If you don’t do something to increase the number of votes on your side, then your side is going to lose. That’s true whether the cause is civil rights, police brutality, banning the bomb, saving the whales, pro-life, pro-choice, electing Trump, or the war in Gaza.
That’s also true even if there are legitimate grievances involved. You hurt your cause when you act crazy and get violent.
For the record, I do think that the Palestinians have legitimate grievances. More than two million Gazans have been shoehorned into a strip the size of Las Vegas for decades. The economy is almost nonexistent and life is cheap. People there didn’t have much of a future, even before the war.
This isn’t all the fault of Israel, however. Hamas has maintained its rule with an iron fist and Egypt tightly controls its border with Gaza. The Arab nations don’t want Palestinian refugees in their countries because of the possibility of importing radicals and militants.
I have a lot of sympathy for the Palestinians caught in the middle between Hamas and Israel. Take polling from authoritarian countries with a grain of salt, but last July, 62 percent of Gazans supported maintaining the ceasefire with Israel in a Washington Institute poll. Fifty-seven percent approved of Hamas but that’s a shockingly low approval number for what is essentially a military dictatorship.
Gaza health authorities report that 11,000 Gazans have been killed so far in the war. Whether that number is accurate or not, I have no doubt that a lot of the casualties were innocent civilians used as human shields or camouflage by Hamas or were killed inadvertently. Whatever your politics, the war is tragic and the human cost is horrible.
None of this going to be solved by tearing down American flags and assaulting American bystanders.
I don’t think that there is much chance of breaking up the US relationship with Israel. On the right, evangelicals are tightly aligned with the Jewish state while American Jews make up a significant portion of the Democratic Party. However, I will say that there is a better chance of getting some political concessions if pro-Palestine demonstrations are peaceful and respectful.
When pro-Palestine activists get violent, it is simply viewed as confirmation of a stereotype: The activists who support baby-murdering Hamas are roughing up Jews on the street. Where, in that viewpoint, is there any incentive for either party to aid Palestine?
If the demonstrators really want to help Gaza, they can collect money for aid organizations or work to promote understanding for those who think that every Gazan (or every Muslim) is a terrorist.
The problem is that it’s much more fun to rage from behind a mask.