Opinion guest column

Analysis of pro-Palestinian protests on US college campuses

I am an Israeli-born Jew and MIT graduate from the class of 1985. My family has long roots in Israel and first immigrated to what was then part of the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s. I was four years old when the Six Day War broke out. I still remember the weeks preceding the war. I was too young to understand what war meant, but I could feel the overwhelming fear. It hung in the air, and I have often used the cliché that it was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I don’t remember the war itself; I was in a bomb-shelter, but I am told I would not stop crying because I wanted my doll. Two years later, my immediate family immigrated to the United States. When the Yom Kippur War broke out, I was safe, living in a Boston suburb, but my cousin was badly injured.

While still an MIT undergraduate, I spent a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where my courses included, “A Study of the Holocaust.” This class was taught by an amazing teacher, Prof. Ze’ev Mankiewicz. The course delved deeply into the psychology of the victims, the perpetrators, and the allies. In the last class, held in January 1985, Prof. Mankiewicz explained that after the Holocaust, overt anti-Semitism was no longer as acceptable among the educated classes. He further explained that to make anti-Semitism respectable again, it has been transformed into never-ending criticism of Israel. He reported hearing Europeans assert that Israel, a country created by the United Nations as a safe haven for the Jewish people, is expected to be “a light to the nations,” and must serve as an exemplar of the highest moral values. He argued that such declarations were used to justify a double standard for Israel.

Despite this warning from almost 40 years ago, the recent pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses that call for the destruction of the State of Israel have been profoundly disturbing. I wanted to try, like Prof. Mankiewicz, to delve into the psychology behind these events. I think there are several factors at play. I’ve heard it said that diversity, equity, and inclusion tries to paint the world as oppressors and oppressed, and Israelis are portrayed as the white oppressors of the Palestinians. I saw a Yale student eloquently refer to Israelis as “white supremacists.” I wonder how many students and faculty realize that less than 20% of Israelis are descendants of European Jews. Most of European Jewry was murdered in the Holocaust. Most Israelis are descendants of Jews originating from Middle Eastern countries, where they lived, often under extreme hardship, until some fled, leaving all their belongings behind, and many were expelled. Others came from Ethiopia, China, India and South America. 

Another issue is that more and more people are getting their news from social media, which is a great platform for propaganda. Fake news is prevalent everywhere. I highly doubt that most protesters have bothered to educate themselves about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If they had, they would not accuse Israel of being an apartheid state. (Presented are links to videos that refute this claim. Here is an Israeli Arab Muslim woman, Sophia Khalifa [1] expressing her views about the State of Israel. Here is a video about Israeli Arabs joining the IDF [2], even elite combat units [3], and this is a more in-depth story of an Arab Israeli girl from Haifa who joined the IDF [4]. Finally, here is an interview with Rawan Osman [5], a Syrian-born Arab Muslim woman who has become a Zionist.) Students need reliable sources to become better informed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. PBS has three FrontLine documentaries about Israel: “Six Days in June,” “The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs,” and their most recent, “The Israeli Palestinian Conflict and Shattered Dreams of Peace.” I take issue with some of their presentation because I think their anti-Israel bias is evident in some sections, but I do believe it is a good starting place. Perhaps MIT could purchase these videos for the library. Some of these may also be found on YouTube. Students should also look at Mark Twain’s description of Palestine when he visited in 1867. The Jerusalem Post has a summary [6] but one can look at the original. 

Then, there is the media which bombards viewers with daily images of civilian deaths, inflaming emotions. Perhaps if the media had shown the allies bombing Dresden in World War II, there would have been student protesters calling for cease-fire and the continuation of the Nazi state. More than 100,000 Lebanese were murdered in the Lebanon Civil War, but none of this was shown on TV. When the US Army was conducting urban warfare in Iraq, we did not see daily images of civilian deaths because the media did not want to inflame the public. Moreover, I am unaware of any mainstream media that showed the footage from the October 7 massacre. The media is very selective in what they choose to portray in order to shape the narrative.

(Editor’s note: footage from the October 7 Hamas-led attack was observed by The Tech to be published that same day in broadcasts from PBS [E1] and NBC News [E2], as well as in an article from the Associated Press [E3].)

I am reminded again of my Holocaust class. One tactic that the Nazi state used to create Jew-hatred was to show films of Jewish butchers butchering cows. German audiences would sit in movie theaters watching Jewish butchers cutting the throats of cows. Watching this was unpleasant, and the audience was horrified and sickened by it; they would leave hating the Jews and go have their dinner of schnitzel or sausage. One might wonder how such propaganda could work. After all, most Germans were not vegetarians. It did work, however. Somehow, and this is something I have difficulty understanding, many people are able to compartmentalize their world-view in such a way that they can hate in others what they condone and often ignore in their own conduct.

One might argue that students are not waging war in Gaza, but that is immaterial. First, the majority of the Germans that were sitting in the theater did not butcher animals. They were, however, benefiting from the fact that there were German butchers to provide the meat that they were consuming. Similarly, we, as Americans, benefit from the dispossession of the indigenous population of America. I believe we can all agree that Americans were colonialists who established colonies for their mother country. This is in stark contrast to Jewish refugees settling in their ancient homeland [7]. (Pakistani-born author and journalist Tarak Fatah [8] concurs.) In addition, we fought wars with Mexico and Spain to conquer more land, not to mention battles with Native Americans who tried to protect their homes. Even as recently as 1945, the United States dropped bombs on civilians when it was under an existential threat from Germany and Japan. We, as Americans, benefit from their actions. It is easy to contend that those events happened in the past, and student protesters are not responsible. Yet when the students chant, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free” [9] are they not referring to 1948 and the creation of the State of Israel? Any Israeli under the age of 90 benefits from the creation of the State of Israel but had no active role in its establishment. So the same student-protesters who are the beneficiaries of American colonialism and American military dominance are enraged by what they perceive to be Israeli colonialism and Israeli military strength.

There is, I believe, a misapprehension about what is motivating these students. There is no question that photos of civilian deaths, especially children, inflame emotions. Nevertheless, the reaction of students to such photos would be substantially different if there was not already a deep-rooted hatred of Israel, at least among the organizers, and if the feeling of being united in a sacred cause to free Palestine from its white supremacist colonialists was not so intoxicating. If stopping the killing of innocent children was the main objective, the protests would be far more balanced. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently asked why no one is making demands of Hamas [10]. The protesters do not condemn Hamas for starting the current war on October 7. They do not blame Hamas for embedding themselves within the civilian population and using civilians as human shields. They certainly do not call on Hamas to surrender. They have no criticism for Arab countries, such as Egypt, that refused to accept Gazan refugees, including toddlers and babies. We, Americans, took in British children during World War II to save them from the German Blitz – the bombing of English cities by the German Luftwaffe. I am unaware of any country that has agreed to accept Gazan refugees, even temporarily. Jordan has many refugees from the recent Syrian Civil War. Europe also took in many refugees from Syria. Some countries will send humanitarian aid but will not provide temporary refuge as the IDF battles Hamas in difficult urban warfare. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that Palestinian civilians are being killed, but the numbers are far less [11] than reported by the Hamas-run Ministry of Health, which includes Hamas fighters in the totals and inflates the numbers [12] in general. Military expert, John Spencer, agrees that Israel is not at fault [13] in an opinion published by CNN. In addition, these protesters place little value on Israeli lives. One does not hear chants or see signs demanding the return of the hostages from pro-Palestinian protesters. These protesters want to stop civilian deaths in Gaza, but only if this can be done in a manner that will keep Hamas in power, because the principal aim of these protests is the destruction of the State of Israel as made apparent by the calls to divest.

There is another aspect to the latest controversy that I wish to address. There is a great deal of animosity between Jews who support Israel and those who are part of the pro-Palestinian movement. To be perfectly honest, until a couple of weeks ago, I too shared that animosity. I looked upon American Jews who support the pro-Palestinian movement as hypocrites because they live comfortable lives in the United States on land usurped from the indigenous native population and are calling for the displacement and/or extermination of the six million Israeli Jews whom, I believe, are the indigenous people of the Land of Israel. What made it worse was that they are doing this as Jews, as if they have some skin in the game, when, in reality, they are not impacted at all. They are legitimizing calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, which I found despicable. 

Two weeks ago, however, I met and spoke to a student from the MIT tent-encampment. I asked him why it was so important for him to identify as a Jewish pro-Palestinian supporter. Why could he not just support the Palestinians as a person as opposed to a Jewish person? I explained that I understood that he has no special attachment to Jews living in Israel, but, given that their destruction would have no impact on him, why is it relevant that he is Jewish? He started to explain that he suffered anti-Semitism as a child. He also said that pro-Israel Jews have insulted him and called him “a fake Jew.” We had to stop the conversation because he had to clean up the tent, so I left still not fully understanding why his being Jewish was relevant. 

Nevertheless, perhaps because I could attach a real person to the sentiments, I became more empathetic to his belief system, and I would like to explain to pro-Israel Jews what I believe is the issue. If we can agree that social media is using propaganda to convince young people that Israel is a white supremacist rogue state, then why should Jewish students be immune to this propaganda? Many Jews believe in assimilation and neither know much about Israel nor teach their children much about it, so it is unreasonable to believe that these Jewish kids are any more educated about Israel than the average American teenager. Also, if we understand that anti-Semitism has been converted into the more respectable anti-Zionism, then it provides these Jewish students who are bombarded with anti-Israel propaganda a chance to escape by becoming anti-Zionist themselves. In Germany, one couldn’t escape the gas chambers by converting to Christianity, but here, students can avoid the stigma by converting to anti-Zionism. Not only do they avoid persecution, but they are embraced and loved because they provide legitimacy to the cause. So I would argue that it is wrong to denounce Jews in the pro-Palestine movement more than other students in the movement. They are both victims of anti-Semitic propaganda [14]. At the same time, I would urge everyone to understand that having Jews in the pro-Palestine movement does not provide it with legitimacy. 

My final observation is that there are often arguments about whether these protests are peaceful. I contend that none of them are peaceful because they don’t have peaceful intentions. Sometimes it’s difficult to see that because they are filled with slogans that many don’t understand. What these protesters are asking for is the destruction of the State of Israel - the only Jewish state. No one in the media asks them what they intend to do with the six million Jews who live there. They might tell you that the Jews should go back to Poland, underscoring their immense ignorance. More than 90% of the 3,300,000 Jews who lived in Poland in 1939 were slaughtered by the Nazis. Very few Israelis are descendants of Polish Jews. Also, what do these protesters intend to do with the 210,000 Muslim Bedouin and 150,000 Druze inhabitants of Israel? Both communities have been staunch supporters of the State of Israel since its inception, including serving in combat units of the IDF. Will they all be executed as traitors? Hamas already showed its intentions on October 7 by murdering and kidnapping both Israeli Arabs and migrant workers from Thailand and the Philippines because all were viewed as collaborators with the Zionist state. Israeli Arabs have gotten the message. A new poll [15] taken after the October 7 massacre showed that 70% (up from 48%) of Israeli Arabs identify with the State of Israel. 

Students try to legitimize their protests by declaring that they are a continuation of the legacy of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam antiwar movement, and the South African apartheid movement. Many of the students are sincere, though ill-informed, and believe they are fighting a righteous cause against the white supremacist colonialists in Israel, but nothing could be further from the truth. As Pakistani-born author and journalist Tarak Fatah states in the video whose link I provided earlier, it is the Jews who are the indigenous population of the Land of Israel. What these student protesters are, in reality, doing is waging war on the descendants of refugees from a minority with a long-standing history of life-threatening persecution. 

I would also like to respond to the recent MIT Black Graduate Students Association’s calls for divestment from Israel by directing readers to the first 28 minutes of an interview with Coleman Hughes [16], an African-American Columbia University graduate and author.


Oodi Pilzer graduated from MIT as part of the Class of 1985.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_MfnpuafBg&t=185s

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYdhwu5Zyx4

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aH30c6VTvwk

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGv9mym3Sqk

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pD64rmt6Ars&t=624s

[6] https://www.jpost.com/jerusalem-report/article-700904

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbOKDxb-u7U

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarek_Fatah

[9] https://www.youtube.com/shorts/B6m5mNMaAv8

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fcdd5h9-wKk

[11] https://www.youtube.com/shorts/h42Nm05zF-w

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fw6jXxL2faA

[13] https://www.cnn.com/2023/11/07/opinions/israel-hamas-gaza-not-war-crimes-spencer/index.html

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vtqn34pE-2o&t=907s

[15] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israels-arab-minority-feels-closer-country-war-poll-finds-2023-11-10/

[16] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_R1muC-owM


Additional links from the editor:

[E1] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/war-grips-israel-gaza-after-surprise-hamas-attack-and-israeli-retaliation

[E2] https://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news-netcast/video/nightly-news-full-broadcast-october-7th-194665541580

[E3] https://apnews.com/article/israel-palestinians-gaza-hamas-rockets-airstrikes-tel-aviv-11fb98655c256d54ecb5329284fc37d2