A Memorial Day Challenge for Pro-Palestinian Protesters

Critics say student activists don’t understand history. The holiday offers protesters a chance to dispute that claim by honoring American traditions.

First Published24 May 2024
A Memorial Day Challenge for Pro-Palestinian Protesters
A Memorial Day Challenge for Pro-Palestinian Protesters

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Hillary Clinton’s recent criticism of young pro-Palestinian protesters — that they “don’t know very much about the history of the Middle East, or frankly about history in many areas of the world, including our own country” — drew angry rebukes from the left. For student activists who wish to prove her wrong, I’d like to offer a modest proposal.

This Monday, the US will mark Memorial Day, which, as some students surely know, grew out of the Civil War and was originally called Decoration Day, after the practice of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. Even as the holiday took on different meanings in the North and South (where it became an occasion to propagate the Lost Cause), the regions shared a common practice: northerners tended to Confederate graves and southerners tended to Union graves.

Those simple acts of decency, respect, and solidarity — though hardly ending the nation’s bitter divisions — were small symbolic victories for the “better angels of our nature” that Abraham Lincoln had appealed to prior to the war. And they are just what we need more of today.

Even as civil war is once again on people’s lips, many Americans will take part this long weekend in commemorations and parades that transcend partisanship. Together, they will honor all those who died in uniform defending the freedoms we enjoy, including the freedom to march and protest — and even to be rude and crude while doing so.

On Christmas Eve last year, my wife and I were among the several hundred people singing carols around the Washington Square Park Christmas tree in New York’s Greenwich Village, when pro-Palestinian protesters tried to drown us out with honking horns and chants. One protester shouted obscenities and insults at a caroler who was trying to shield an elderly woman from the bullhorn that had been thrust next to her ear, frightening her. Even Ebenezer Scrooge would have blushed.

Instead of joining in solidarity with all of us celebrating the birth of someone born in Palestine who always sided with the poor, oppressed, and peacemakers, these protesters only aimed to be provocatively disruptive, to maximize media coverage and clicks. And so instead of winning sympathy and friends, they lost both.

I tell this story because it often seems that pro-Palestine protesters are less interested in broadening public support for their cause than in venting righteousness. Elite college campuses, where righteousness reigns, have been natural staging grounds. But just as righteousness without restraining leadership tends to veer into harassment, intimidation and violence, it can also blind people to the complexities of history.

Whether students are, as Clinton suggested, ignorant of these complications or not, the black and white framework many use for speaking about the issue — oppressor vs. oppressed, colonial power vs. indigenous victim — suggests, if nothing else, narrow-mindedness. That’s further underscored when some protesters are reluctant to unequivocally denounce the slaughter of Israeli civilians on October 7th and the anti-Semitism the protests have fueled.

That reluctance has done the people of Gaza no favors. There would be broader and deeper sympathy in the US for their tragic plight — and for putting more pressure on the Israeli government to outline a post-war plan for Gaza, as one of its ministers is now demanding — if their most vocal champions abroad were equally vociferous in denouncing terrorism and anti-Semitism, which, as history teaches, can lead to unimaginable horrors.

So, here’s my proposal to help protesters prove Clinton wrong — to demonstrate that they do understand history, or at least US history. And it’s simply this: Observe Memorial Day.

Instead of taking part in a protest, join a parade.

Instead of picking up a bullhorn, place a flower on a soldier’s grave.

Instead of waving the Palestinian flag, wave the US flag in appreciation for those who fought to liberate Europe from Nazism and fascism.

Instead of demanding that others support the Palestinian cause, show support for the sacrifices so many have made to sustain and advance our shared American cause.

Instead of noisy provocations, visit a synagogue or Holocaust museum and offer a silent prayer for American Jews killed in combat.

In short, protesters should allow their better angels to reveal themselves, by treating the holiday’s honorees with the respect and solidarity that we all owe them.

Doing so won’t end the political divisions over Gaza, of course. But it would help protesters show that they understand a central truth of US history: Our freedom to protest has come at a steep cost, and those who have paid it deserve our eternal gratitude. And it may even help win them more supporters.

If, on the other hand, Memorial Day weekend is just another occasion to shout slogans with righteous rage, protesters shouldn’t be surprised if more Americans conclude: Clinton had a point.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Frank Barry is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering national affairs. He is the author of the forthcoming book, 'Back Roads and Better Angels: A Journey Into the Heart of American Democracy.'

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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