While Pro-Palestinian Supporters Glorify a Suicide, a Ballot Box Protest Gets Results

Andrew Silow-Carroll

Andrew Silow-Carroll

Last week saw two wildly contrasting acts of pro-Palestinian protest: a U.S. airman who died after he set himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington shouting “Free Palestine,” and a protest vote in Michigan’s Democratic primaries.

One protest was personal and shockingly violent; the other was peaceful and had mass appeal.

They contrasted in another way: While Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation drew impassioned social media attention — from supporters and critics — the campaign to vote “Uncommitted” rather than for President Joe Biden in the primaries may have gotten something that often eludes the pro-Palestinian movement: results.

Nonviolence appeared to have worked, at least in getting the media to talk about the protesters’ actual grievances about Biden’s support for Israel in its war on Hamas; in causing the Biden campaign to acknowledge that they were listening; and in inspiring similar efforts by those who hope to replicate the “Uncommitted” movement in other states.

It may have represented a shift in pro-Palestinian advocacy that the pro-Israel community cannot dismiss.

“I think it’s historic,” Sally Howell, an assistant professor in Arab American studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, told Al Jazeera. “And for Arab American political participation, it’s really groundbreaking. I don’t think they’ve ever gotten the attention of a presidential campaign like they have it now.”

On Feb. 25, Bushnell livestreamed his action as he approached the embassy with a bottle of gasoline and declared, “I will no longer be complicit in genocide.” He lit himself on fire and died from his wounds that night.

Many on the pro-Palestinian left praised Bushnell’s self-immolation. Cornel West, the African-American scholar and 2024 independent presidential candidate, called it an act of “extraordinary courage and commitment.” The anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace wrote, “We honor the life of Aaron Bushnell” for his “final act of solidarity.” Bushnell’s name trended on X, formerly Twitter, thanks mostly to supporters.

Others were quick to condemn his act. Graeme Wood, a staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote that the “tendency to celebrate and encourage this behavior, or even to be moved by it, strikes me as deeply sick,” and asserted that the “Palestinian cause is already associated with death cultism.” Washington Post columnist Ramesh Ponnuru wrote that Bushnell “accomplished nothing good by killing himself,” and that his death “will not change U.S. policy or public opinion — and it shouldn’t.”

The Anti-Defamation League dedicated a page on its website to Bushnell’s death, highlighting the “anti-Israel activists” and “terrorist organizations” who praised his protest.
The social media discourse, as usual, soon became about the discourse. A sympathetic Rolling Stone reporter who covered the story wrote that such disapproval of Bushnell’s act was “almost laughably ignorant, seemingly desperate to delegitimize Bushnell’s action and, in so doing, the overall movement for which he did it.”

And Mohammed El-Kurd, The Nation’s “first-ever Palestine correspondent,” suggested that critics of the Palestinian cause condemn all forms of protest, violent and otherwise.
“You can’t protest peacefully. You can’t boycott. You can’t hunger strike. You can’t hijack planes,” he wrote on X. “You can’t block traffic. You can’t throw Molotovs. You can’t self-immolate. You can’t heckle politicians. You can’t march. You can’t riot. You can’t dissent. You just can’t be.”

Pro-Israel activists mocked him, using the tweet as evidence that supporters of the Palestinians see no moral difference between throwing a firebomb and protesting peacefully. But El-Kurd isn’t the first to suggest that Palestinians are dismissed as extremists even when they adopt nonviolent forms of protest.

After the Hamas attacks, Jewish writer Peter Beinart wrote that “Palestinians received little credit for trying to follow Black South Africans’ largely nonviolent path.” He cited the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel as one example of a nonviolent tactic that “was widely deemed antisemitic because it conflicts with the idea of a state that favors Jews.”

Beinart’s detractors responded that they do indeed consider BDS antisemitic because its leaders call for a Holy Land without a Jewish state. But it’s true that there are few forms of pro-Palestinian protest that don’t get under the skin of Israel’s supporters.

A new JTA survey of federal Title VI investigations included warnings even by some Jewish activists that a law meant to protect students from discrimination is being weaponized, often by outsiders and without the input or consent of the alleged Jewish student “victims,” to cast harsh but nonviolent pro-Palestinian protests as antisemitic.

In other examples, Tal Fortgang, an adjunct fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, recently called pro-Palestinian demonstrators who have blocked traffic in major cities across the country “civil terrorists.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL, was dismissive of the Michigan primary protest. “I think it’s pathetic,” he said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” adding, “I’m old enough to remember [that] when you’re upset about policies that a government was doing … you didn’t pull back. You said, ‘I want a seat at the table and I’m gonna earn it.’”

When his interviewer suggested that was exactly what the Michigan protesters were doing, Greenblatt scoffed. “If they really want to make a difference, they should roll up their sleeves and get involved,” he said.

The Michigan protesters, meanwhile, seemed to have made a difference — if not in getting Biden to change his policies, then at least in getting his team to listen. In the Feb. 27 primary, “Uncommitted” garnered more than 10% of the Democratic vote, or 100,000 people on a day of unusually high turnout.

Mitch Landrieu, the national co-chair of the Biden campaign, told NPR the next day that the “message has been received.” The administration sent a team of high-ranking officials to Michigan before the vote to talk with Muslim and Arab American community leaders.

The “Uncommitted” movement is heeding what studies and experts have lately confirmed: that nonviolent protests are consistently more effective than violence. Social psychologist Eric Schuman, now at NYU, was a researcher at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2020 when he led research finding that “nonviolent nonnormative” protest — disruptive but nonviolent tactics like strikes, boycotts and sit-ins — “can be an effective means for advancing social change because they are disruptive in a way that generates pressure for political change but also lead people to view the protesters as constructive.”

Meanwhile, protesters often lose support if they use violence, according to Stanford sociologist Robb Willer.

And sometimes, nonviolent protests work because organizers and their targets come to dread the alternative. The movement to free Soviet Jewry learned this lesson in the 1970s, said Gal Beckerman, who wrote a history of the movement, when the violent street tactics of Rabbi Meir Kahane and other extremists led the Jewish establishment to step up its own nonviolent rallies and political lobbying.

Kahane’s antics “put a lot of pressure in the early ’70s on the Jewish establishment to say, ‘Hey, we need to do more. We need to organize Solidarity Sundays and get out in the streets,’ and it made them more amenable to activists who were already doing that work in the ’60s,” Beckerman said.

Or, as Landrieu said about the “Uncommitted” voters, “We’re going to continue to listen to what it is that they have to say.” In Michigan, the pro-Palestinian movement may have found a way to get, if not a seat at a table, then at least some time in the room.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and JTA’s managing editor for ideas.


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