Campus Protests: What We Bring to What We See

In the past week I have had several conversations with friends about our respective opinions on what is happening on college campuses across the country, as students have set up encampments to protest the war in Gaza and insist that their university divest any financial holdings in Israel.  Our reactions to the demonstrations were mixed:  there was consensus that a ceasefire is necessary, but hesitation in supporting actions that breach campus policy and generate the unintended consequence of ramping up antisemitism. 

My initial internal critique of what is happening on college campuses represents a significant disconnect in my soul.  My college experience was largely framed by my journey to becoming an anti-war activist.  As a freshman, I was slow to support the campus strike against the war in Vietnam after the Kent State killings in the spring of 1970, but after some hard conversations with classmates I was all in.  In the spring of 1971, a group of my peers and I drove all night to join thousands of others in a March on Washington to end the war in Vietnam.  And I the spring of 1972 I was among 600 students and faculty who were arrested for a sit-in at the entrance to Westover Air Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts.  Three different spring events, which covered the tail end of my eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth years.   I look back fondly on my youthful passion and idealism, which I like to think I still claim over fifty years later, despite some seasons of discouragement and cynicism. 

My family was not happy with my campus activism.  Many people in my hometown thought I was, that we were, unpatriotic and un-American.   I saw it as just the opposite.   My reflections, my actions – indeed my spiritual conversion, made me more committed to work for a more just and peace-filled country.

The critics of campus activists today – who are lining up on talk shows, the internet, the halls of Congress – and often at the demonstrations themselves, echo the refrain of a half century ago:  that the demonstrators are unpatriotic and un-American.  But a new accusation has been introduced:   that the protestors are antisemitic.  Many have attempted to parse out the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, which works for some but only fuels the ire of others.  What cannot be ignored is that disturbing and often grotesque statements and actions of antisemitism are on the rise across the country – some coming from campus activists, and some are falsely attributed to campus activists.  The reality is that antisemitism has been around for generations, and the war in Gaza and the various responses to the war in Gaza has brought antisemitism to the surface, where it has more opportunity to display its venality.  At the same time, anti-Palestine prejudice has reared its ugly head in all sorts of despicable ways.

College life provided an opportunity for me to explore my relationship with the world.  It also was an environment that demanded intense academic rigor, which included being introduced to the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle during my freshman year.  As I now dimly remember it, the Uncertainty Principle posits that when trying to examine subatomic particles, the light required to view what is happening affects the particles themselves, which results in a skewed view of what is taking place.  What we bring to our observation affects what we are seeing.

I have long extrapolated the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to daily life.  What we bring to a situation affects how we see it.  Some people automatically see anti-Zionism as antisemitism.  Some don’t see antisemitism at all.  Some bring a Palestinian perspective to the war in Gaza; some invariably bring a locked in view of Hamas terrorism that defines what they see.

And some refuse to see at all.  Last week I went to the Auschwitz exhibit at a museum in Boston.  The story and pictures were gut wrenching, but what was particularly chilling for me were the photographs of young German men and women, soldiers and administrators at the death camp, who were frolicking in the sunshine, singing songs and toasting each other with steins of beer.  Seemingly unaware – or refusing to see, the genocide that was taking place on the other side of the high walls.  A recently released movie, The Zone of Interest, tells the story of the Auschwitz commandant’s family, and the idyllic life they fiercely protect by refusing to see.

While I still have mixed emotions about the campus demonstrations that are proliferating across the country, there is a silver lining.  They are forcing us to look more intently at the various issues that swirl about the war in Gaza:  the antisemitism that is so much a part of Western culture; the slim, if nonexistent, awareness of Palestinian history and story; the impulse to throw demonstrators off the bridge or into jail – or not to pay attention at all.  To come to the realization that the war in Gaza is wrapped in so much chaos, tragedy and death that it requires even more of our spiritual and emotional investment to sort it out; and to rely less on our reactivity.

“…First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye”, an exasperated Jesus tells his disciples. (Matthew 7:5) Logs, specks, dust, atomic particles – we all have them stuck in our eyes.  Large and small particles, prejudices and biases that we bring to whatever we see; and eventually affect how we think and believe.  The biggest challenge to all of us is with those, on the far ends of whatever religious or political spectrum we devise, who refuse to acknowledge any impediment in their eyes at all.  That there is no uncertainty principle.

Keep exploring the world.  And keep exploring the particles stuck in our eyes.









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