I don't like protesting.
I don't like sit-ins or marches or chanting or lists of ultimatums. Perhaps some of this is that I don't feel comfortable in these spaces -- you never know when you think you're objecting to high tuition only to find out that it's really all the Zionists' fault -- but it's also temperamental. Odd as this may be to say, I don't like confrontation. I'm an introvert and a writer, I like to take my time and consider various positions and grapple with other perspectives, and much of the performance of protesting seems orthogonal to all of that. So protesting has never been a big part of my political M.O..
And yet, I've begun to wonder whether Jews -- the Jewish majority, that is -- need to develop more protest tactics to counter rising tides of anti-Semitism.
When one thinks about why protests "work", there are two main considerations. Sometimes, protests succeed because of their direct coercive effects:a boycott inflicts enough economic pain to force a change in policy, a sit-in is sufficiently inconveniencing that an administration has to yield. More frequently, protests exert indirect power: they put an issue "on the map", demonstrating the depth of feeling that exists behind it and its significance as a issue of concern to the relevant protesting community.
Neither of these map on well for Jews. Protests rarely can muster enough coercive power to mandate direct change, and in any event if Jews tried to utilize such power we'd immediately run into a hammerfist of "World Dominating Zionist Conspiracy strikes again!" In terms of indirect effects, well, whatever other problems afflict the Jews, people being unaware that we see a link between certain segments of anti-Zionist practice and anti-Semitism isn't one of them. The issue isn't that people aren't aware of our broad-stroke position, it's that they're utterly dismissive of it as a valid concern.
But I think there is another potential dimension to protest politics that the foregoing doesn't capture. The great legal scholar Robert Cover (I think) once said something to the effect that minorities must act in a manner that demonstrates that they believe they are entitled to equal rights and equal standing in the relevant social communities. They must take those steps that clearly assert that they are here and part of the community that they are making a claim on, equal in value to everyone else.
At least on campuses, it seems that certain brands of protest have become the language through which communities communicate that they are part of the circle of progressive concern. We can identify an issue as a "progressive" one by reference to how its advocates perform their demands -- the medium rather than the message. If something is demanded through a sit-in or a march, that's an issue that's in the progressive pantheon. Something that is pressed through a Board of Trustees resolution, not so much.
Thus far, Jewish groups on campus have almost never organized their political activities this way. They've mostly done things the way that I would like to do them -- letters to the editor and newspaper columns, blog posts and editorials, and when all else fails urging the political branches to step in and be that brute hedge against outright marginalization. And while I don't want to say these tactics have met with no success, they have acted to further isolate Jews from the space of progressive concern. Communities progressives are concerned about don't get Board resolutions passed. Indeed, such resolutions can be dismissed as proof that the Jews are really in the dominant camp; they are part of the structure of power to be smashed rather than a fellow marginalized group to be engaged with.
And so I wonder: What would happen if Jews started acting through the medium of contemporary progressive protest? What would happen if Jews occupied the office of UCSD's Curtiz Marez, demanding that he take anti-Semitism seriously and renounce the anti-Semitic elements latent in the BDS movement he champions (why target Prof. Marez when there are many academics who support BDS? "One has to start somewhere".)? What would happen if Jewish campus institutions voted no confidence in their student governments when they passed BDS resolutions? What would happen if Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews staged sit-ins in Middle Eastern student spaces, demanding that they stop perpetuating their marginalization and accord them equal standing to articulate what Middle Eastern identity means? What would happen if Jews rallied on campus lawns and occupied the quad and said they weren't going anywhere until student government and administration alike took forceful steps to integrate Jewish perspectives into the multicultural curriculum and concretely demonstrate that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and exclusion are wholly intolerable on a modern campus?
I honestly don't know. The cynic in me thinks that we'd get the same old rolls of the eyes, with a healthy dose of "co-opting" and "appropriating" charges ladled on top. But maybe not. There's a lot of talk about how progressive Jews need to speak in progressive language, but language is about the medium as much as it is the message. It might be the speaking in a medium that is identifiably-left, that suggests that Jews will no longer treat anti-Semitism as politics-as-usual, might make a dent.
As I said, I don't like any of this one bit. Not occupying professors' offices, not staging sit-ins at another group's meetings, not rallies and marches on the quads (resolutions of no confidence is maybe the closest to what I'd generally be okay with). They aren't my style, and they aren't what I'm comfortable doing. I'm certainly not endorsing any of this. But if someone like me -- who really instinctively recoils at this sort of practice -- is nonetheless having these thoughts, perhaps that's a very big sign that they are thoughts worth taking seriously (even if they shouldn't be converted into concrete action).