Jewish Post

Protesting Without Hate and Bias

By Gregory Meeks

Gregory Meeks Congressman Gregory Meeks

Student protests have erupted across the United States in opposition to Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza following Hamas’ horrific attacks of Oct. 7. Campus political activism is a First Amendment right, but it’s also our American heritage; a historied tradition of young people practicing civil disobedience to right the injustices they perceive in the world and at home.

I know, because that was the tradition I inherited too, born out of the civil rights movement and inspired by the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. “to step into responsible action.” The generation before me used sit-ins and boycotts, marches and public demonstrations to secure voting rights for African-Americans and end de jure segregation.

My generation of student activists used civil disobedience to protest the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. I was one of those students. And, as a congressman, I was arrested for nonviolent protest of police brutality after the killing of Amadou Diallo.

The success of every student-led demonstration since — whether that be the Iraq War protests, Occupy Wall Street, the #MeToo Movement or Black Lives Matter — was predicated on the moral high ground attained by the practice of nonviolence.

Dr. King said, “the key significance of the student movement lies in the fact that from its inception, everywhere, it has combined direct action with non-violence. This quality has given it the extraordinary power and discipline which every thinking person observes.”

It is the constitutional right of any student to take part in the tradition of nonviolent protest; I proudly support that right, even if — especially if — I disagree with their perspective.

However, the implicit responsibility of any social movement is a zero-tolerance policy for anyone who’d promote violence, hate, or in this case the elimination of the state of Israel. I have been deeply disturbed by the antisemitic language we’ve seen. Antisemitic slurs and slogans, praise for terrorism, calls for violence against Jews and Zionists. There is no place for this on a college campus or anywhere in America.

However, many protest leaders are doing the right thing, condemning hate speech and violent rhetoric. I urge all protesters to follow their example, and not allow bad actors to usurp and delegitimize their movement.

Because I do believe their intentions are good. I agree with the protesters who believe that Israel’s war against Hamas has resulted in far too many civilian casualties — it has.

I also agree there needs to be a ceasefire — one that results in the release of the hostages and the removal of Hamas from power. And I agree with those rightfully calling for Palestinian statehood; I continue to call for the creation of a two-state solution.

Where I disagree is with efforts to have institutions divest from Israel. I also disagree with efforts to curtail all U.S. military assistance to Israel, which faces an existential threat from Iran and its regional proxies.

And I fervently disagree with any revisionist efforts to shift blame away from Hamas. We cannot forget Oct. 7 and the reason why Israel has gone to war in Gaza in the first place. Hamas slaughtered, raped and kidnapped innocent civilians and they would do it again tomorrow if given the chance.

We may have our disagreements, but with disagreement comes opportunity for dialogue and debate, which universities have a responsibility to promote. I, for one, am encouraged by this generation’s political activism. I was inspired during the BLM marches a few short years ago when I marched shoulder to shoulder with people of every race, faith, and ethnicity.

I see that same diversity in the student protests today. Their will to fight for the rights of others, particularly those who may not have the power to fight for themselves, is exceptional.

But in no way should civil disobedience turn to or be met with capricious violence. That is never justified.

There is a fine line between righteous indignation and precipitous rage. Righteous indignation is a principled moral calling to right what you view as wrong; rage is all consuming and will overshadow a message.

As Dr. King’s fourth principle on nonviolence said, “Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.”

Violence is never a catalyst for long-lasting change. Nonviolent civil disobedience, throughout American history, has demonstrably been the most effective tool through which minds are changed.

That’s the proud American tradition all protesters and counter protesters should effort to uphold.

Gregory Meeks, a congressman from Queens, is the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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