Chomsky, Friedman and the Politics of Protests
On Oct 24, I protested a visit to Yale University by noted journalist, Thomas Friedman. After his lecture, I stood in the corner of the Whitney Humanities Center and held a sign that asked the question: “With friends like Chomsky, Soros, Mearsheimer and Thomas Friedman, does Israel need enemies?”
A video of the event now has over 12,000 views on YouTube and has been written about and discussed in newspapers and on television worldwide. I have received hundreds of emails about my silent action – both encouraging and disparaging. Many wanted to know why I would include Friedman, who claims to be a friend of the Jewish State, among others whose hostility towards Israel is open and unapologetic.
A few days ago, I ran into a former Yale professor and Harvard graduate who was about my age during the turbulent 60s and who was particularly enthusiastic about my latest effort, even calling it “revolutionary.” Aside from taking the remark as a deep compliment, that word also struck me as one that inspired so-called radicals from that historic time to action. More recently, Tea Party rallies as well as the Occupy Wall Street movement have shown a renewed spirit of protest in our country. But something is missing. I asked my learned friend where organizers and activists like Mario Savio, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin are in these modern movements. These men emerged from their protests as leaders and cultural heroes, even though they sometimes actively plotted mayhem and destruction.
“There was a draft,” my friend replied, explaining the powerful sense of urgency among the nation’s young men and women who felt their lives were inevitably on the line. Young people today seem more worried about the next iPhone release.
The fact is that what’s happening today is no less urgent, in this country and especially in the Middle East.
Iran appears to be on the brink of finishing a nuclear bomb which could leave death tolls on the scale of Auschwitz with the press of a button. Thousands of rockets fall indiscriminately on Israel, to which any response by the Israel Defense Forces is condemned globally. Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak was last seen publicly in a cage, ex-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is dead and Syria’s Government is executing its own citizens, including woman and children. In Israel, America’s ally swapped a thousand prisoners – hundreds of which are convicted murderers – for one soldier held in solitary confinement for five years while having been denied access to visits by the Red Cross.
What happens across the sea ultimately reaches our shores. Friends call me from Columbia University, scared to walk out of their dorms as visible Jews because of a malicious public campaign to equate Israel with the system of Apartheid. Students in the University of California system are trying desperately to fend off a renewed campus anti-Semitism fueled by Islamic radicals. A Yale Professor proudly took her students to meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who calls for the annihilation of the Jewish State. Even Occupy protests have been colored with anti-Semitic statements reminiscent of early 20th century Germany. As I look to Occupy rallies in major cities across the country, I see some of our youth, but I do not see the same intellectual debate that was seen in college student movements of the past.
Friedman, meanwhile, routinely lectures on the mythical emergence of true democracy in the Middle East. He continues to blame Israel for the lack of progress as defined under the terms of the Oslo accords. He seems to forget that the unilateral moves of PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN effectively and illegally canceled the agreements. He also seems to forget that Israel’s first obligation is to protect its own citizens. The Chomskys and Mearsheimers are easier to deal with, because their hostility is naked. Friedman comes to the table cloaked in the language of moderation, neutrality and respectability.
America was founded on the notion that freedom is an unalienable right. Why then is speaking out not the noble pursuit it once was? The politics of the protester should never determine the validity of their statements. If the ultimate American expression is our free speech, the student discussions on our nation’s college campuses should be representative of the issues we all face. Through time, the true promise of a people has always seemed to evolve from those that are young, well-informed and idealistic. Ironically, violent protests for liberal causes such as the 1960s Berkeley student rallies in Oakland, Yale New Haven May Day event of 1972 and a number of the “Occupy” sites of today get praised by the Left. It seems strange to me that people of the same ideological persuasion would criticize me for simply standing silent with a banner, because my views are seen mistakenly as coming from the Right.
Some critics told me that my behavior was inappropriate for a “sophisticated” campus like Yale. I could not disagree more. Friedman’s current book is titled “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind In the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.” I have no desire to follow in the more radical actions of Savio, Hoffman or Rubin, but I will always believe that the best way to “come back” to our truest selves, as Americans, is for people of all political views to reclaim the great tradition of protest, a tradition that has been best preserved on campuses such as this one.
The writer is a rabbi and the co-founder of Eliezer, the Jewish Society at Yale University. This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post.