Roll on, Columbia

Published May 1, 2024
Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

MUCH to the consternation of the pat­h­e­tically insipid Biden administration as well as its rabidly right-wing Republican opposition, student protests over the unfolding genocide in Gaza have been spreading throughout the US. They offer hope, which has been in short supply. At the same time, for the Zionist right they unintentionally serve as a distraction from the very atrocities that enrage most of the protesters. The main story is still unfolding in a starving Gaza, just as it was five or six decades ago in a beleaguered but unbending Vietnam.

That does not, of course, render it irrelevant or even peripheral. The vast demonstrations demanding an end to American apartheid in the 1960s and the subsequent mobilisations against the Vietnam War challenged both state and federal administrations, and contributed to the end of that horrific conflict in 1975.

In the preceding years, it wasn’t uncommon for those involved in the resistance to be derided as pinkos, reds or communist dupes, in a reflection of the recent McCarthyist era. These days the charge is antisemitism. That weapon, too, is hardly new. It has been deployed over the decades against anyone who questioned Israel’s predilection for ethnic supremacism. What’s relatively unusual is the extent to which young Jewish Americans are revolting against their nation’s attachment to the Zionist state that most of their parents’ generation embraced.

To some extent, residual right-wing antipathy towards Jews springs from the left-wing inclinations of many of their intellectuals. American science and culture would have considerably been diminished without the input of Jewish immigrants from Europe. They also enriched America’s political landscape, reflected lately in both Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and independent senator Bernie Sanders.

The past is prelude on US campuses today.

Schumer attracted the headlines when, as the highest-ranking Jew in American politics, he mildly denounced the inclinations of the Likud-led regime in Israel and called for an election to replace Benjamin Netanyahu. That contributed to the Demo­c­ra­tic effort to focus resentment on the current Israeli PM and his despicable regime, instead of accurately recognising Israel’s consistent drift towards dispossession and potential genocide ever since the Nakba.

There is evidence that many young Jews won’t be fooled by the ‘hasbara’ narratives that entrapped their elders or the fantasy that Zionism is an essential component of Jewish identity. As many of them have recognised, after their exposure to anti-Zionist Jews and Palestinians at university, the essence of Jewish experience embodies a concept of humanity that Netanyahu and his acolytes fail to recognise. That poses a problem for Zionism’s biggest assets — its useful idiots in the US, a category that ranges from the president to most legislators and much of the bureaucracy.

Something has changed, though, in the past couple of decades in the US and Israel. No US president has been unfriendly towards Israel, but some have challenged its excesses. All of them have known that Israeli militarism relies on US beneficence. That remains intact even as Biden administration pretends to challenge Israeli excesses while supplying the weapons required to perpetrate the atrocities.

Almost a century ago, Americans who militated against the death of democracy in Spain in the 1930s were categorised as ‘premature anti-fascists’. They were rarely accepted into mainstream politics even during the Soviet alliance during World War II. The McCarthyism that descended after that war, disproportionately targeting Jews, violated every principle that the US purports to worship. Since then at least, free speech has been a right reserved for adherents to the officially sanctioned mainstream.

That has occasionally been disrupted in decades gone by. But perhaps never so potently as in recent months. Despite Netanyahu and Biden’s best efforts, the frequently nonsensical claim of antisemitism no longer carries much weight.

Woody Guthrie had the river, rather than the university, in mind when he wrote more than 80 years ago, “Roll on, Columbia, roll on/ Your power is turning our darkness to dawn”. Some 20 years later, his spiritual descendant Bob Dylan reminded “mothers and fathers throughout the land” not to “criticise what you can’t understand” because “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command”. That echoes, in a way, the early 20th-century Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s well-known warning: “Your children are not your children./ They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”

When “Life’s longing for itself” is being strangled in Gaza or anywhere else, surely it is incumbent upon anyone with a humanitarian impulse to resist it. Whether or not the rebellion across US campuses achieves its aims, gratitude is owed to those who tried.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2024

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