A Makeshift Alliance

A Makeshift Alliance

A professor’s critical support for the student protests.

Protesters on the campus of Columbia University on April 30, 2024 (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Dear students,

I am writing you to open a real dialogue. Because I respect you, and also because such a serious dialogue is important, here on the Bloomington campus of Indiana University, in the country, and in the world at large.

I have not been at the forefront of your struggle to “Free Palestine,” as other colleagues and friends have been, and I expect or deserve no special appreciation from you. I hope only for understanding. And while you have heard me speak publicly in support of your rights and against legislation that would treat your protests as punishable forms of discrimination and hate, there are other things you have not heard. Some of this is because I have not been saying them to you. But some of it is because you have only been listening to the things you have wanted to hear. I understand that. You are in the midst of an important moral and political struggle, and you are being figuratively and literally attacked. For some of you—those who are Palestinian or Palestinian-American or Arab-American—your opposition to Israel’s destruction of Gaza is a matter of life or death for yourselves or those you know and love. And as the humanitarian crisis there continues to worsen, while Israel poises for an attack on Rafah, the need for protest becomes ever greater.

I sympathize with your situation, which is why I have been focusing my attention these past months, weeks, and days on a simple public message: no to the administration that seeks to limit and punish you and supportive faculty members; no to the state troopers and police who have invaded our campus, destroyed your peaceful encampment, and brutally arrested many of you; and no to the scurrilous charges that you are antisemites who promote the genocide of Jewish people everywhere and must be treated as dangerous proto-terrorists. No!

I have said this no, very loudly and persistently, for you, but also for me. Because I admire what you are trying to do, and because I know that the attacks on you are wrong.

Having thus far been on your side in most ways that matter, I need now to explain to you the limits of my support, because this kind of honesty is the only basis of the true and powerful solidarity that can, perhaps, achieve meaningful peace and justice in a world being torn apart by violence and authoritarianism. And make no mistake, our world will only be more violently torn apart if the dedicated enemies of democracy—Trump and Putin and Orbán and Netanyahu and Modi and al-Assad and Khamenei and Hamas’s Yahya Sinwar—are allowed to have their way.

I hope they will not have their way, and I hope you agree that they must not. And so I hope you will also bear with me as I explain why, as an ally, I cannot embrace some of your anti-Zionist rhetoric, and why I would encourage you to adopt a more inclusive rhetoric in the interests of sustaining the kind of coalition that will only become more necessary as the pressure builds.


My Discomfort with Your Rhetoric

My discomfort is my problem, not yours.

But since you know me to be an ally, and in politics allies are important, I hope you will hear me out. Perhaps we can together model a valuable kind of dialogue. Perhaps you will listen to me, and then respond in kind, and I will then listen to you. Conversation among fellow citizens who are fellows by virtue of being different is good.

I want to highlight three moments of discomfort I have felt in recent weeks:

Vignette 1: I have been a staunch supporter of unions ever since my working-class father taught me what a union was, around six decades ago. Supporting Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition has been a no-brainer for me. During the recent three-day strike, I was invited to join the picket line in front of Woodburn Hall and to speak in support of the union. I agreed, and when I arrived, I watched one of the union leaders, who is also one of the leaders of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, lead the fifty or so assembled union members in a twenty-minute march to the chant of “Free, free Palestine.” I am not big on chants altogether. But these chants really troubled me.

One reason is because “Free Palestine” can mean many things (as can “from the river to the sea”), from “one secular democratic state for all who live in the area of Israel-Palestine” to “we must defeat the Zionist colonial settlers who have stolen our land and who don’t belong here, destroy their state and reclaim Palestine, which belongs to us and not them.”

I consider the first meaning noble but of questionable practicality—though I would be happy to be proven wrong.

I consider the second to be a call for the violent defeat and destruction of the state of Israel that is little different than the ideology of Hamas. This I consider deplorable and could never support, for reasons both moral and practical.

The second reason I was troubled by the chants is because, while forms of struggle overlap, they are not therefore fully overlapping. And the distinctions are as important as the connections.

IGWC is a union of all graduate workers, whatever their nationality or ethnicity, religion or political allegiance, justified on the grounds that all workers, as such, are entitled to recognition and representation. The union is not a pro-Palestine organization, and when I was invited by union leaders to come speak in its support, I showed up to support a union, and not to support a national liberation movement or to denounce the state of Israel.

After the chants, I almost walked away before speaking but a well-meaning graduate student persuaded me to stay, invoking the rhetoric of “intersectionality.” I agreed, because at that moment, what was most important was supporting the union, but also because my general support of the besieged pro-Palestinian movement on our campus led me to suppress my own discomfort—as it is sometimes necessary do in politics if you care more about the world than about yourself.

But “intersectionality” works in many different directions, and a progressive politics of intersectionality requires real alliances, based on the serious reckoning with real differences of identity and opinion. Treating a union movement as if it were a “Free Palestine” movement fails to do this.

Vignette 2: As soon as Columbia University administrators shut down the student encampment on their campus, I knew that similar encampments would spring up across the country, including here, and that it would be important to support the rights of IU students to speak and to assemble, and even to set up an encampment on the campus’s free speech zone on Dunn Meadow.

I attended your demonstration on April 25. As a result of a freak accident that led me to spend hours in the emergency room, I was not present when the state police arrived to disperse your assembly, tear down your tents, and violently arrest over thirty protesters, to be followed by dozens more the next day. But during the time I was present, I listened carefully and was deeply disturbed by many of the slogans that were loudly and repeatedly chanted:


  • “We don’t want two states, what we want is ’48,” says to me “there can be no peace so long as there is a country called Israel.”
  • “No justice, no peace . . . intifada, intifada, globalize the intifada,” says to me “we will expand conflict, everywhere, perhaps by any means necessary, until we get what we demand.”
  • “Long live Palestine, Palestine forever, from the river to the sea,” says to me “this is not only about justice for the individuals, both Palestinian and Israeli, who share a common land, it is about an eternal and metaphysical struggle on behalf of a singular nation, Palestine, whose existence requires the defeat of its adversary.”

I may be reading too much into these slogans. I understand that there are different ways of interpreting some of them. To be clear, I do not consider them to be antisemitic just because they are emphatically anti-Zionist. Far from being aggressively hateful, I consider them defensive. But defensive aggression is a very real thing. And I consider those slogans and others like them to be politically maximalist and morally tone deaf, however motivated by justified outrage.

Israel is an ethno-national state that oppresses Palestinians. It deserves your criticism and opposition, and mine. But Israel is a state; like all states it is founded on and seeks to monopolize the legitimate use of violence, and it is no less “deserving” of existence than any other state in the world, from Syria to Sudan, and Saudi Arabia to Singapore. If you support a secular, democratic state for all citizens in the territory of historic Palestine, then why not say so and make it clear?

Outrage-generating slogans are effective. But often they mobilize some people by framing others as beyond the pale and make it more difficult to imagine real solutions to the problems at hand. Israel is a problem, but it is not going away and it cannot be eradicated in a way that is consistent with human rights or any real justice.

Vignette 3: A couple of weeks have passed since the Thursday demonstration, and state troopers have now twice invaded the campus, attacked your assembly, and brutally arrested many of you and your supporters. For shame.

In response, a very broad coalition of faculty members has loudly denounced this brutality toward you, defending your rights on campus and calling for the resignation of President Whitten and Provost Shrivastav because of their decision to repress you. I publicly expressed these views at two rallies in front of Bryan Hall, the building that houses the president’s and the provost’s offices. I was proud to stand with you on both occasions. And I am not done.

Every speech at the big rally was excellent, including the speeches of your leaders, and whether I agreed with everything that they said is beside the point. But at that event, I believe only one of the speeches was truly brave. It was given by my friend and colleague Michael Weinman, who is an untenured lecturer, one of the few untenured colleagues willing to speak out against the administration and in defense of your rights. His bravery did not reside primarily in his willingness to defend you, however. It resided in his willingness to speak honestly as the man he is, beginning with his deliberately chosen self-identification: “I am speaking here as an American citizen and as a citizen of the state of Israel.”

The sentence that immediately preceded those words received cheers. But as soon as “the state of Israel” came from his mouth, there was a deafening silence. The request that immediately followed, offered gently and with a smile, was this, verbatim: “For the next few minutes, if you bear with me—I see the signs about ‘liberation,’ I see the Palestinian flags . . . just as long as I speak, I’d appreciate it if you’d put the signs down. Then you can lift them again.” What immediately followed were jeers and boos. “I hear you,” he said with a smile. More jeers and boos, drowning him out. “Let him speak” a few individuals (including me) said. He then proceeded to propose that in order for us to stay together as a coalition that is against administrative repression, against the war, and supportive of the rights of you and your protests, it is essential for everyone to realize that coalitions involve commonalities among differences, and that some of the slogans being repeated were alienating to him and many like him.

And you, I am sorry to say, more than once sought to shout him down or drown him out with chants of “Free Palestine.” That, with all due respect, was intellectually foolish and politically counterproductive.

It was foolish because he was making an important argument about the difference between activism and coalition-building, and linking it to an important distinction (made long ago by the philosopher Hannah Arendt) between violence and power. Distinctions matter in politics. Violence, he tried to explain, instrumentalizes politics and treats others as means to a defined end. It is monological. Power recognizes the plurality of opinion that exists within every serious movement, and works to sustain dialogue. Citizens building power together listen to each other.

Michael was trying to perform dialogue with you, to listen but also to share, and he continued this effort, affably, even in the face of the jeers and the chants.

But he was present, by his own choosing and at real professional risk, to articulate his experience and his perspective, as a fellow citizen and a free human being. He opposes the Israeli war and the Israeli policies behind it, and he supports a peace process based on real justice. He does not think that justice can be achieved, anywhere, “by any means necessary,” considering certain violent means to be both immoral and practically inconsistent with real justice—because they threaten potential allies and they poison the hearts and minds of their perpetrators.

Most importantly, he supports your right to protest, and even to publicly say the things with which he strongly disagrees. And he further insists—with a moral credibility and potential influence that only a Jewish American can insist—that whatever his opinions, you are not preaching hatred of Jews or genocide of Jews and it is wrong to denounce you as “antisemites” who are motivated by hate.

This perspective, grounded in an experience very different from your own, is indispensable right now, precisely because it is a perspective shared by others with whom you are aligned and, honestly, whose support you need.


Thinking Politically in the Face of Danger

Hannah Arendt observed long ago of political thinking that “The power of judgment finds itself . . . in an anticipated communication with others with whom I know I must finally come to some agreement. From this potential agreement judgment derives its specific validity . . . It needs the special presence of others ‘in whose place’ it must think, whose perspectives it must take into consideration.”

To think from the standpoint of others, and to take their perspectives into consideration, of course does not mean simply to submit to those perspectives, to deny one’s own experiences and standpoint, or to suspend one’s own critical faculties or value commitments. It means to understand, and by doing so to expand one’s own perspective. For thinking is a process, and it is possible to seriously consider a range of possibilities before deciding, often provisionally, on one of them.

This requires a real openness to communication, a speaking that also involves listening. This is not always possible between adversaries. It is typically impossible among enemies. But among political friends—and alliance is a form of “friendship”—it is indispensable.

It is my hope that both the discomforts I have registered, and the desire for mutual understanding that I have articulated, resonate with you, and might cause you to rethink some of your rhetoric and perhaps some of your tactics.

The current situation is bleak in more ways than one.

The invasion of our campuses by state police threatens our freedom and endangers our lives.

The shameful capitulation of many “liberal” elites and Democratic Party leaders to the repression makes it all the more likely that Donald Trump will be returned to the White House in November—a disaster so great that it would make the current situation seem utopian by comparison.

Both the Israeli war on Gaza and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict centered on the Occupation continue, as the situation becomes ever more polarized there but also here in the United States.

In the face of these challenges, a makeshift alliance has come together to defend freedom, the right to protest war, and the possibility of justice.

Only through serious dialogue, and mutual understanding—which is an ongoing struggle—can any such alliance stay together.

I believe that we need such an alliance, here and now, if we are to defend our freedom—not just yours, but mine too—here and now. I also believe that sustaining this alliance, and modeling it, might even be the best way to contribute to the cause of justice and peace in the land of Palestine-Israel.

I hope you agree. If you do not, I hope you can explain the reasons why, and we can discuss them.

And if we do talk further, are we not, in fact, demonstrating through our dialogue a value more powerful, and more precious, than any signs and slogans can convey: the mutual understanding without which no enduring freedom or justice is possible?

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He has written many books and articles, and comments regularly on the political situation at Common Dreams and at his blog, Democracy in Dark Times. This text is a condensed and revised version of an “Open Letter” that he posted last week in response to the crisis on his own campus, a crisis that is spreading like wildfire across U.S. campuses, which is with few exceptions being met with deplorable administrative repression and police violence.

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