Joel Cohen


Hundreds, maybe thousands, of pro-Palestinian protesters have been marching aggressively, and occasionally violently, on public streets and campuses around America.  It’s about what the protesters see as Israel’s historic “occupation” of Palestine coupled with Israel’s Gaza incursion intended to wipe Hamas off the face of the earth. But what about it? Do the protesters actually believe that the Israeli government might ever bow to protests designed to discourage Israel in how it should react to the existential threat that Hamas presents to it, especially given the barbarity of October 7?

Those contrastingly engaged in mass rallies in support of Israel over Hamas’s atrocities do so peacefully, never violently. Those rallies, particularly the one in Washington D. C. on November 15th, are about “solidarity” with Israel. They seek to remind American officials that American Jews absolutely need America’s continued support and will well remember it if their public officials withdraw from their constancy over Israel’s unambiguous need to aggressively protect itself.

This seems often, however, not the purpose of the pro-Palestinian (sometimes pro-Hamas), anti-Israel, anti-Zionist protesters. They’re not really about gaining Biden Administration support to actually “see it their way”. Clearly not only because they sometimes affirmatively engage in intimidation that never helps persuade sympathetic governmental action. Indeed, the totally non-violent protests of the 1960’s civil rights movement helped change the face of civil rights in America. Even occasional violence by the protesters would have taken it in a totally counterproductive direction.

Some believe that the true intent of many of the shambolic pro-Palestinian actions is to “intimidate” Jewish populations in the cities and campuses where they typically occur. They seem to argue that the random acts of violence may encourage “intimidated” Jews to encourage Israel to leave Gaza. Ridiculous! Yes, Jews who are intimidated as a consequence of any violence will certainly double lock their doors at night. But they will hardly change their views over what Israel should do in response to October 7. Nor will they withhold giving money to support Israel’s charities in this hour of need.

More likely, the protests seek to greatly concern President Biden – observing the public’s reaction to the Gazan civilian deaths — to weaken his resolve in supporting Israel. And for Biden to engage with Netanyahu to pull back some, arguing that the IDF has already significantly damaged Hamas. And beyond that to somehow encourage Biden to describe for Netanyahu what “’you war, however justified’ is doing on the streets of America to your own people.”

But is that really the purpose of the pro-Palestinian protests either? Notably, the protesters don’t seem to differentiate Zionism from Judaism. So, are they actually protesting American support of Israel? Or are they protesting against those who might typically support Israel? Simply put, Jews.

Interestingly, in that vein, we don’t see any intimidating protests directed at Evangelical Christians (themselves Zionists) who urgently support Israel given their religious doctrine regarding the “End of Days.” The extremely energized pro-Israel remarks by Pastor John Hagge on the Washington Mall on November 15, for example, were as aggressively pro-Israel as any given by the notable Jewish Zionists who spoke. But yet, fortunately, we see no protests against the Evangelical community who preach the vitality of the State of Israel. Why not? The answer seems clear enough.

It also makes one consider the massive protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.  There was considerable violence then, but it was largely directed against the criminal justice system’s institutional racism that often condones such police behavior.  The violent protests simply welled up in a frustration that communicated that “we can’t take it anymore” from the police. Still, it didn’t target white people generally. It targeted law enforcement. Today, though, and plainly so, it seems that many of the protesters essentially conflate the objects of their derision – Zionists — with the Jewish people in general.

Unquestionably, the pro-Palestinian marchers who support the innocent civilians of Gaza — who, yes, do suffer the yoke of Hamas oppression — are furious seeing the Gazan death toll mount.  Interestingly, though, they don’t speak out against Hamas. After all, the IDF, not Hamas, is doing the shooting. It’s far easier for them to blame the shooter, even though the Hamas terrorist pulled the shooting victim in front of him – indeed, a far worse act than an IDF soldier focused on killing a committed terrorist.

Still, if the pro-Palestinian protesters despise Israel for a variety of historic reasons and Israelis who support Israel, or even American Zionists who support both, that’s one thing. One can probably understand a Palestinian-sympathizer in America with family in Gaza, tormented by Gazan life under Hamas rule, but blaming it on Israel – ill-informed of the region’s history and the fact that Israel hasn’t ruled Gaza in sixteen years.

It’s quite another to attack Jews simply because their views may be consonant with those of Israelis – and failing to recognize that anti-Semitism in and of itself led to the Holocaust and resultantly the birth of the State of Israel.

We must acknowledge that many pro-Palestinian marchers are themselves Jewish. It’s just a simple fact that exists for whatever reason, but labelling them self-hating Jews is  silly.

It would be illuminating indeed, however, to conduct random man/woman-on-the-street interviews of the non-Jewish, pro-Palestinian protesters. Assuming absolutely truthful responses, how will they describe the objectives and targets of their derision, and the motivation of their protests?

Will they answer, “the senseless killing of innocent civilians in Gaza?” Fair enough. Will they respond by saying “the very existence of the State of Israel”? “River to the sea” kind of thing? Or will they simply say “Jews”?

One has to wonder! And in seriously trying to give totally truthful answers will they require a self-reckoning to reach their answer?  Or is the answer just there in plain sight for so many of the non-Jewish protesters?

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.