Our Protests Should Be More Thoughtful

There are few moments when it is not worth listening to someone. This should be an obvious truism, yet it feels like an increasingly contentious position. When a group of my fellow students interrupted Haverford College Professor of Political Science Barak Mendelsohn before he gave a lecture on Israeli Security Policy, and I felt like I had snuck into a Fox News wet dream, I was reminded of just how fraught this opinion is becoming. Mendelsohn was invited to Swarthmore on Tuesday, Oct. 24 to give the first of a series of lectures surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict. Mendelsohn was an easy target for a pro-Palestinian protest: he was born in Israel, served in the IDF, and has written three books on Jihadi Terrorism. It is a reasonable assumption that he would be pro-Israel.

As students filed into the LPAC hall, many of whom I recognized as leaders from the pro-Palestine protest a week ago, I was increasingly excited to be there. I had expected a somewhat boring lecture followed by routine, courteous questions. As more and more students entered, it felt that this lecture could be a space for real discussion. Instead, after Professor Atshan’s introduction and before Mendelsohn could get a word out, pro-Palestine students stood up, distributed printouts of Mendelsohn’s tweets, and gave a speech about the atrocities being committed in Gaza. The speech ended with a call that all students in the audience stand up with them and walk out to show Swarthmore that its students wouldn’t stand for injustice. Nearly all of the students stood and walked out, chanting “shame,” leaving only a few other students and me with a mix of faculty and staff members. Professor Atshan got up again, apologized, and the talk began. Halfway through the talk students began to chant outside of the auditorium. Mendelsohn spoke through it. When he finished, I walked out of the auditorium and some students waiting outside the doors to the hall chanted “shame” and pointed at me. Overall, it was a fairly interesting lecture. 

My issue is that the protesters tried to stop Mendelsohn from speaking and stop students from listening. If the protestors had listened to the lecture and at the end walked out and refused to engage, or didn’t attend the lecture in the first place, I would have missed their voices but nothing harmful would’ve happened. The actions of the protestors tried to make it so there was no possibility of listening or thinking about what Mendelsohn said. The protest was not against a position that Mendelsohn held; it was against the possibility that he might speak at all. 

If we are not careful, this world can become an incredibly thoughtless place. It is far easier to be a sophist than a philosopher. It is easier to leave every argument than actually examine if you’re right or wrong. It is easier to leave and shout “shame” about an Israeli professor’s lecture on Israeli Security Policy than to sit, listen and ask questions about it. In short, it is easier to not think than to think. 

Hannah Arendt famously described the “banality of evil.” She meant that evil doesn’t come from malice: it comes from a refusal to think, listen, or talk to each other. The protest asked us to not think, listen, or talk to each other. They interrupted Mendelson before he said a single word. They asked all the students to leave the auditorium so they would not listen to him. They later tried to drown out Mendelsohn’s voice with their chanting. They weren’t asking us to think something different, to reconsider a position: they were simply asking us not to think. I transferred to Swarthmore this fall hoping to find peers that would never do the easier thing of leaving the room, peers that would always sit and listen. It made me heartbroken to find that these values could be abandoned here. 

I don’t write any of this under the presumption that Mendelsohn would be easy to listen to right now. I am blessed to not have family in Gaza. I am blessed that my interaction with this atrocious war is limited to the news. As a Muslim, I know that hundreds of my brothers and sisters are being killed unjustly each day. I know all of this to be true. I went to the lecture because I know that my ignorance is enormous. I hoped that thoughtfully listening might help me learn something. At the very least, I thought it could help me understand how the Israeli state could ever act like this or how its citizens could ever allow it. I think that the actions of the pro-Palestine protests are generally aligned towards justice and a better world. But working to silence someone is never an avenue towards justice.

I left the lecture thinking about how Mendelsohn had ended: it was becoming increasingly impossible to imagine any productive discourse about Israel and Palestine. Without discourse between the two sides — without thought — there was no hope for resolution. As those waiting outside the auditorium pointed and yelled shame, I worried that a similar problem was facing us here. 


  1. My name is Robert Small (writ1@verizon.net) and we are senior citizens residing in Swarthmore. We attended the
    same lecture and were gobsmacked by the protest. I’m old enough to have protested the US-Vietnam War and others throughout the years, though my politics are neither left nor right. This was the first time in my life I was
    handed a leaflet without contact information and also realized the protestors did not want to dialogue. What was
    their purpose?

    I said all that to say all this, thanks for the article so we knew we were not the only ones who thought that way.

  2. Before defending Mendelsohn, you should research the disgusting Islamophobic ideas he proudly endorses and affirms. So yes, he should have been rightfully silenced by protestors — in fact, Swarthmore should have never invited his racist self. So, disrupting his speech was the correct “avenue towards justice.” As a Muslim, you shouldn’t spend your time defending Islamophobes — bring awareness towards the mass killing of innocent civilians in Gaza.

  3. I was shocked by the tweets that the protesters handed out. I can’t get over the one where the speaker retweeted a post about how Israel never bombed a hospital in Gaza. That’s all I needed to see to leave the room. This is a distressing time, especially amidst the murders of innocent people, and I do understand why they were outraged.

  4. Alumnus here – like to check in on the Phoenix once every few years.

    Zayd – good for you for posting this. At such a small campus it’s easy to let a vocal minority bully everyone else into virtue signaling on whatever topic…playing along, slinging the phrases of the day, (and not thinking!) makes campus life easier.

    Shouting over others has been around forever. What’s most frustrating is that the point of a liberal arts school is the supposedly tacit acknowledgement that everyone is there to keep an open mind and be practicing their reason to win arguments. Convince yourself (and others) of the truth, not just shove it down their throats and demonize them if they choke. Colleges everywhere are struggling with this for some reason.

    Of course this conflict is grey. Killing children is evil, and both sides have committed this atrocity. “Whataboutism” is for either fools or knaves seeking to stoke more conflict. The answer isn’t cheering for one side over the other, it’s asking how we can find a way forward to resolve this endless conflict in a way that gives dignity, safety, and peace to the everyday people living in the Levant.

  5. The sentiment worldwide isn’t “kill the settlers”
    Rather, it is “kill the Jews”. Just like Leon Klinghoffer. Don’t remember? Look it up. Oh, wait, you weren’t born yet so it probably isn’t relevant.

  6. Unfortunately, thoughtless protest isn’t new. While my four years at Swarthmore strengthened and reinforced my commitment to liberal values, it (perhaps permanently) turned me off from thoughtless activism built on spinning a narrative rather than examining evidence and grappling with complex issues. Any speaker that positions themselves as squarely “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine” is going to have huge blind spots. It’s important for students (and the populace at large) to listen and find those blind spots. The activists’ impulse, instead, is to turn a blind eye to or misrepresent anything that should cause them to question or update their prior views. Instead, they’re inclined to entrench.

    What “protests” like this do is cause thoughtful observers to discount and ignore whatever nugget of truth there is in the message because the messengers are so clearly unreliable. If their goal is actually to shine light on the predicament of Palestinian people, their approach should be roughly the opposite of what they’re doing. But I suspect efficacy isn’t their goal; the goal seems to be to draw attention to themselves and yell self-righteously at people. Identical in manner, if not in subject matter, to a MAGA rally.

  7. I am very glad to have read this letter. The author shows a commitment to engaging tough issues with courage and intellect. Those students who responded with vitriol and hate risk harming themselves and others through ignorance. We all view these events through filters of politics, social media, news reports and personal experience; to think ours is the only voice worth hearing is idiotic and arrogant.

    Swarthmore students should respect community even while passionately advocating for their cause.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix