Protest movements, to gain legitimacy, often relate their cause to another, more established one from the past. Thus we see that gay rights advocates cite the Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties, and advocates against the Iraq War find common cause with antiwar protesters from the Vietnam era.
Not all protests are the same, though, and just because the demographics and setting of one movement may relate to those of another does not mean the two should be implicitly equated. One such inaccurate, implicit equation occurred in a Forward article that appeared yesterday — which was otherwise a fine story — about the JVP protest of Bibi Netanyahu’s GA speech:
This is not the first time young activists have disrupted the federation movement’s annual meeting. In 1969, the North American Jewish Student’s Network conducted a sit-in at the general assembly of Council of Jewish Federations, an organizational ancestor of the JFNA, to protest what was described as the Jewish establishment’s lack of attention to issues concerning young Jews. They were ultimately invited to offer their own speaker at the event.
This is a misleading comparison. Yes, it’s true that in both cases young activists disrupted the General Assembly, but the similarities more or less end there. In 1969, the students who protested the GA did so with concrete, positive goals in mind–increased funding for Jewish education and Jewish culture. The Jewish Student Press Service, New Voices’s publisher, is an outgrowth of that student movement. To achieve their goals, students spoke with delegates to the GA, organized a sit-in and eventually reached a compromise wherein they presented a speaker at the conference. These students had a productive vision for the American Jewish community and found a way to articulate that vision, in the end, within the framework of the conference.
Not so with the JVP protesters. By interrupting Netanyahu with shouted slogans, these activists (not all of whom were students) showed that they were more interested in disruption than in dialogue. Far from articulating a positive and productive vision for the Jewish community, all they did was yell vapid sound bytes during a public event. They did not speak with delegates. They did not publicly present a plan of what they wanted. They did not engage in a multifaceted, organized protest campaign. All they did was cause a scene.
As I’ve written before, I think that JVP will be ineffective and — in the end — irrelevant because of this. The organization does not articulate a vision for what it wants; all it does is protest what it does not want. And JVP doesn’t always have its eyes on the prize, whatever that prize may be. At the GA, the movement cared more about getting attention than about changing the minds of Jewish organizations.
Independent student activism is great, but it needs to be productive, positive and open to dialogue. If not, it cannot hope to see the change it desires.