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[Kim Seong-kon] If Edward Said still lived today

By Korea Herald

Published : May 22, 2024 - 05:30

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Recently, pro-Palestine protests have been erupting across American college campuses. Ever since Columbia University ignited the protest on April 18 by setting up an encampment and occupying Hamilton Hall, many other elite American universities have joined the protests. At the University of Michigan, protestors even waved Palestinian flags.

The protestors demand the US government to withdraw its support of Israel in order to stop the genocide in Palestine. On Oct. 7, 2023, the Palestinian militant group Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 Israelis. As a retaliation, Israel began an extensive military campaign in Gaza, despite US President Biden’s opposition, killing reportedly 35,000 Palestinians.

In his State of the Union speech in March, President Biden said that even though Israel has a right to go after Hamas, it has a fundamental responsibility to protect Palestinian civilians when it strikes back against Hamas. Unfortunately, however, the civilian casualties in Gaza have been heavy.

Public opinion is split. The supporters of the pro-Palestine protestors argue that Israel is no longer a victim, but has now become an aggressor victimizing the people of Palestine. Moreover, Israel, taking advantage of America’s support, has massacred the Palestinians in Gaza. The anti-Israel protestors claim that they are non-violent and demand freedom of speech on campus.

The non-supporters contend that the protestors’ encampment on the campus lawn or occupying a university building to spread one specific ideology is wrong and illegal. They maintain that the protestors’ demand of divesting the endowment from companies connected to Israel is equally wrong because a university’s endowment is not a political tool. In the eyes of the critics, the protestors’ behaviors may invoke antisemitism that might endanger the safety of Jewish students on campus.

The critics also point out that many of the protestors on campus are not students, but organized agitators from outside. The University of Southern California and a few other universities had to cancel their commencement ceremony due to the possible disruptions of the pro-Palestine protestors. The critics also criticize the protestors’ wearing of masks, saying that if they were doing something right, they should not hide their identities.

It is new that widespread anti-Israel protests are taking place on the campus of American universities. In the past, we saw protests against Islamic terrorism, but not anti-Israel demonstrations. The right-wing American press perceives the protestors as left-wing radicals. “The New York Post” recently carried an article by Karol Markowicz, entitled, “Brainwashing campus activists starts long before college.”

The article states, “Americans shocked at the aggressive protests on our most elite campuses often imagine these kids have become brainwashed while away at school. That indoctrination certainly does take place. Yet the process for most starts far earlier, often in the K-12 years -- or even before.” It continues, “What we’re seeing on our campuses is the culmination of many years of leftist activists pushing kids to the forefront to spread their propaganda.”

The problem is that the anti-Israel protests may kindle antisemitism and Islamophobia at the same time. The clash between antisemitism and Islamophobia has long been a major threat to world peace and can result in a global catastrophe. We should care about both the Palestinian civilian victims in Gaza and the safety of Jewish students at American universities

Today, we are witnessing the clash between the Free World and the authoritarian, formerly Communist countries, and between Israel and Islamic countries. The former is the clash of political ideologies, and the latter is the clash of religious ideologies. The former intimidates the safety of Europe and Asia, and the latter threatens the peace of the Middle East. These days, therefore, people wonder which one will bring the apocalypse to earth.

It would be sad and tragic if human civilization ended due to ideological warfare, whether it is political or religious. Politics involves negotiations and diplomacy, and religion teaches us to love our neighbors. We should respect those who are different from us and acknowledge our differences. The world is not made of black and white, but it is a colorful place of diversity. It would be a shame if we antagonize and hate those who do not join us or who do not have the same ideology as ours.

Watching the controversial anti-Israel, pro-Palestine protests on American college campuses these days, we feel that we urgently need reconciliation and harmony, embracing one another with affection and caring. We remember that the late eminent Palestinian cultural critic Edward Said dedicated his life to seeking the peaceful co-existence of Israel and Palestine. As a pianist himself, Edward Said even held a concert at the border of the two countries with the celebrated Jewish musician Daniel Barenboim.

If he had lived to see today’s turbulent American universities and the Middle East at war, Edward Said would have told us: “Both antisemitism and Islamophobia will annihilate all of us. Before it’s too late, we should embrace each other.” Professor Said was a Christian Arab.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.