Adults in the Room: A Response to Jeffrey C. Isaac

Adults in the Room: A Response to Jeffrey C. Isaac

To insist that a movement remake itself in one’s image is not a plea for solidarity; it is a demand for obedience.

The following is a response to “A Makeshift Alliance” by Jeffrey C. Isaac.

In 1965, describing a style of “new leftism” that was emerging on American university campuses, Irving Howe wrote: “There is a segment or fringe among the newly-blossoming young radicals that causes one disturbance—and not simply because they have ideas different from persons like myself.” Howe criticized these students for their understanding of politics as “an effort to assert a personal style.” In doing so, he claimed, they attempted to “épater le père” while inadvertently “repeat[ing] somewhat too casually the tags of the very past they believe themselves to be transcending.” His point is well taken, but it also suggests its inverse: the older leftist’s disdain for his youthful counterpart reveals le père’s desire to discipline the child.

This attitude toward student activists, understood in generational terms, has unfortunately been something of a Dissent calling card. It has often been former student radicals themselves—of Howe’s generation, and then the New Left—who have become liberal professors, ensconced in the university and wary of successive generations of student radicals. In a 1966 article on the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, Reginald E. Zelnik described the student protesters as staging a “conflict between the prodigal father and the existential son.” In a 1971 book, Dissent’s longtime editor Michael Walzer urged student radicals to be “sane and steady.” In a reconsideration of the book (after it was reissued in 2019) in Dissent, Joshua B. Freeman described Walzer as wanting to be “the grown-up in the room.”

Jeffrey C. Isaac, the author of a recent article in this tradition, is no stranger to it. Back in 2002, he chided students who protested the U.S. war in Afghanistan as “moralistic rather than politically serious,” in an essay that is strikingly reminiscent of his latest in its dismissal of students’ supposedly naïve understanding of political practice. Given the consistency of his position across more than two decades, one cannot help but wonder whether these responses to student protests are reflexive and dispositional, betraying a desire to force youthful radicals to conform to the confines of politics as he understands it. Howe, for his part, admitted that “no sensible radical over the age of 30 (something of a cut-off point, I’m told) wants young people merely to rehearse his ideas, or mimic his vocabulary, or (heaven forbid!) look back upon his dusty old articles.” Yet I am left wondering how exactly young people are meant to do radical politics in a way that does not alienate their elders.

Isaac’s letter to student protesters is representative of a certain swath of left-liberals who, while decrying both Israel’s war in Gaza and universities’ repressive tactics, reserve most of their ire and anguish for the people protesting those very things. This position rests on a series of misapprehensions of the students’ Palestine solidarity movement and the role of the coalition supporting it.

The student movement is characterized tactically by its encampments on university lawns and takeovers of buildings, and strategically by its demand for universities to cut financial and institutional ties with Israel. The students’ central aim, like that of the broader Palestine solidarity movement, is Palestinian freedom—which, of course, in the short term, requires an end to Israel’s war on Gaza. Students target the university both because of their position within it and because the university is a crucial nexus of financial, cultural, and political power. The demand for divestment is both material and symbolic: universities invest millions of dollars in companies that manufacture military equipment and weapons used against Palestinians. In the case of apartheid South Africa, which offers a precedent, the withdrawal of universities’ capital heralded a cultural shift wherein institutional, political, and financial support for the government’s crimes became untenable. Student protesters have already won notable concessions that were unthinkable six months ago.

As universities have forced student protesters to escalate their tactics by arbitrarily suspending pro-Palestine student organizations and suppressing peaceful protest and free speech, students have adopted a bold strategy: to create a spectacle that no one can look away from. Knowing that they will be smeared as antisemitic, violent, or threatening whatever they say and however they behave, and that the possibility of winning hearts and minds among university administrators has been foreclosed, the students aim to make not divesting so politically toxic that it no longer serves universities to resist.

Central to this strategy is the use of galvanizing rhetoric that conveys and preserves their core commitment: Palestinian liberation. To ask them to do any less is to compromise and coopt their movement. Yet that is precisely Isaac’s demand when he asks them to modify what he considers to be “politically maximalist and morally tone deaf” rhetoric in order to assuage his feelings of discomfort and exclusion. It is revealing that Isaac identifies the chant “free, free Palestine” as the object of his uneasiness: that he chafes against this broadest—and, arguably, vaguest—of slogans indicates the suspicion, rather than magnanimity, with which he appraises students’ demands.

Isaac posits “mutual understanding,” embodied by a kind of “serious dialogue,” as the means by which students will, or ought to, build a broader movement to achieve their goals, and he believes himself to be a good faith interlocutor. But such dialogue occurs between mutually generous parties, not those whose solidarity is so flimsy that it requires total rhetorical and tactical acquiescence. In relationships of solidarity, we open ourselves up to learning from, and being moved by, others; in turn, we hope they will do the same for us. To insist that a movement remake itself in one’s image, however, especially as one admits one is wary of not only its slogans but its substantive aims, is not a plea for solidarity, it is a demand for obedience.

Student protesters are already modeling the kind of “serious dialogue” that Isaac fetishizes, both among themselves and with good faith interlocutors. As Harvard historian Walter Johnson writes, recounting an interaction between protesters and an Israeli-American professor skeptical of their tactics, “civil discourse and critical inquiry are not abstract concepts in the encampment. They are active principles: the pro-Palestinian students and the Israeli American professor having a conversation, agreeing to disagree about some things, finding common ground about others.” It is striking, therefore, that Isaac glosses his Israeli-American colleague’s request for students to put down their Palestinian flags as he speaks as an example of the “intellectually foolish and politically counterproductive” rejection of dialogue. Isaac’s colleague was not rebuffed from the coalition because of students’ rash political maximalism, but rather because he demanded that they mute their central demand—not only a ceasefire or the university president’s resignation, but a free Palestine—for the sake of his comfort.

Moreover, solidarity does not imply equivalent, bidirectional responsibilities, particularly when there is a power differential between parties, such as between professors and students. (Let alone the power differential between U.S. citizens whose taxes fund Israel’s military operations and Palestinians who live under siege and occupation.) Student protesters are risking their degrees, their reputations, and their physical safety in the face of violent police repression and administrative sanction from their universities.

As administrators brazenly abdicate their duty to keep students safe and to create an environment conducive to learning, professors, particularly those with tenure, bear a great responsibility to protect and advocate for their students. Many faculty have exemplified this solidarity, such as those at NYU who were arrested after forming a protective circle around students, or those at Columbia who are withholding “administrative service work” until police are removed from campus, or those at the New School who have established their own encampment. At minimum, this responsibility requires professors to forego centering their own insulated feelings of discomfort.

Like many commentators who focus on chants and slogans, Isaac is aware of their multiple interpretations. Yet he clings to the most paranoid reading with little evidence to support his verdict. Chants, however, are neither manifestos nor political programs. By nature, they both distill and oversimplify a movement’s multifaceted goals and ideologies. This process entails slippage, collapse, and ambiguity. That some still feel the need to quibble about this simple fact ad nauseam against the backdrop of more than 35,000 Palestinians slaughtered seems a cruel joke.

Many have pointed out that the assumption that slogans such as “from the river to the sea” imply ethnonationalist or eliminationist intent hinges on an insidious form of racism and Islamophobia and merely mirrors Israel’s own ethnonationalist or eliminationist logic. Others have delineated various alternative, universalizing understandings: that “from the river to the sea” is a call for a secular, democratic political formation in the land that is currently Israel and Palestine; or that “we don’t want no two states, we want ’48” refers to the multiethnic, ecumenical framework that existed in Palestine before partition. These interpretations are undoubtedly in tension with the more nationalist or even eliminationist strands that exist within the movement, and not every slogan offers such abundant possibilities. Yet Isaac and those like him hear what they want to hear.

The rhetoric of any cause, however, will alienate some people who are otherwise sympathetic. (Polling from the early 1960s, for example, shows that most Americans thought civil rights protests, at that point still using more “moderate” rhetoric, would hurt the movement.) Excessive focus on rhetorical inclusiveness as the source of the left’s viability—or lack thereof—risks eroding our core commitments and values while, as Aziz Rana argues in a recent interview, circumscribing “what aspirations are sayable.” “Those making this argument,” Rana continues, “have routinely scapegoated the most confrontational activist protest choices or slogans from the ’60s as the reason for conservative strength” in the intervening years, and have consequently claimed that “the only path to change in the US involves tacking to the political center.”

However, retreating to the center has resoundingly failed to preclude reactionary backlash. This is not to say that rhetoric is insignificant or that students do not need to consider the weight of their words. But the impulse to disavow and contain students’ idealism and even maximalism betrays a fear that the most ambitious and idealistic aspirations are not worth voicing. This is a capitulation to the center and the right in the guise of pragmatic leftism.

One can’t help but wonder, then, why those who find themselves in this position maintain their attachment to a left with which they find themselves continuously at odds and which understandably views them with suspicion. This left—encompassing socialists, anti-imperialists, feminists, anarchists, progressives, and others—has cohered around a vision of Palestinian liberation that extends far beyond the immediate demand for a ceasefire. This is the coalition for a free Palestine. It is up to agonized liberals whether they deign to join it.

Gemma Sack is the associate editor at Dissent.