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Commentary: ‘Grandpa, tell us about Abbie Hoffman’

Religion News Service columnist Jeffrey Salkin reflects on campus demonstrations that erupted this spring and what we can learn from past protests.

(Mark Peterson | The New York Times) The protest encampment on the Columbia University campus in New York, April 24, 2024.

“But if you want money for people with minds that hate, all I can tell is, brother, you have to wait.” — The Beatles, “Revolution”

The demonstrators at Columbia and other universities have been lucky.

They were not in Chicago — August 1968.

Members of the Chicago police force might have split their skulls open.

I have been contemplating the sources of the Israel/Gaza unrest on our nation’s campuses. At the same time, I rewatched “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” about the conspiracy trial of the activists who planned the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

It is a wonderful movie — worth watching if only for Sacha Baron Cohen’s flawless performance of yippie leader Abbie Hoffman.

It is also an excellent primer on the ideological map of those turbulent times, with defendants representing particular revolutionary styles. It ranged from David Dellinger’s pacifism of the Old Left; to Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis of the radical Students for a Democratic Society; to Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers (whose case would be separated from the others); to Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the yippies who were more about madcap street theater than about serious politics (some called them “Groucho Marxists”).

I have wondered: Are the current campus protesters trying to channel the activism of 56 years ago? Are they reaching into the past to find the passions of their grandparents? Is this all 1968 FOMO?

In particular: It is one thing to weep and scream for the anguish of Gaza (though I wonder where that anguish was when it came to Ukraine), but it is quite another thing to throw your support behind Hamas and to laud its methodology.

At Columbia University, according to an article in The Jerusalem Post:

“[Izz ad-Din] Al-Qassam [Brigades], make us proud, take another soldier out,” anti-Israel demonstrators chanted on Friday night in a video published on social media by pro-Palestinian activist ThizzL. “We say justice, you say how? Burn Tel Aviv to the ground. Go Hamas, we love you. We support your rockets, too.”

Where did that come from?

Here is one of the most bitter legacies of the left: They romanticized violent revolutionaries.

It started with the Old Left and with Josef Stalin. Even after his heinous crimes were revealed — 20 million deaths — there were Stalinists who never abandoned their admiration for him.

In 1966, protest singer Phil Ochs released “Phil Ochs in Concert.” I loved Phil Ochs, and I particularly love this album (the songs “There But for Fortune” and “When I’m Gone” are treasures).

And yet, on the album jacket, Phil reproduced the poetry of Chinese dictator Mao Zedong. The poetry is beautiful. Phil’s comment: “Could this be the enemy?”

Well, yes, Phil. It could have been the enemy, and he was the enemy. Mao was personally responsible for killing an estimated 45 million of his own countrymen.

Several years later, it was Che Guevara, the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary. He was not only handsome, but he had a Jesus vibe about him as well — so much so that Esquire magazine put Che in Jesus’ seat at the Last Supper.

Che was a dashing thug. He personally oversaw firing squads in Cuba. He attempted to spread the revolution to the Congo, terrorized Bolivian peasants and died a failure.

More than this, Fidel Castro and Guevara served as role models for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Cuba was involved in training Palestinian fighters. The Cuban government decorated Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. The Cuban revolution had Jewish blood on its hands.

A colleague reminisced with me about his encounter with Jerry Rubin. Jerry had grown up in Cincinnati, in a Reform synagogue. (Likewise, Abbie Hoffman; his memorial service was in his childhood synagogue in Worcester, Massachusetts.)

In 1970, when my colleague was a rabbinical student, he invited Jerry to speak in his hometown at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. At one point in his talk, he enthusiastically cheered for Arafat.

Because, if you liked Che, you would have loved Yasser.

In 1968, 1969, 1970 and beyond, we wanted the United States out of Vietnam. Many protesters chanted: “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh; NLF (the National Liberation Front, the communist North Vietnamese) is gonna win!”

Yes, that is what too many of us hoped for, and cheered on. When the National Liberation Front did win (and when America lost), what emerged? The crisis of the boat people, sent into lethal exile by the communist victors.

And in Cambodia? After you watch “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” watch or rewatch “The Killing Fields.”

To quote Samantha Power:

“A handful of U.S. diplomats and journalists in Cambodia warned of the depravity of a sinister band of Communist rebels known as the Khmer Rouge. They were derided by the American left for falling for anti-Communist propaganda, and they failed to influence a U.S. policy that could not contemplate engagement of any kind in Southeast Asia after Vietnam. Pol Pot’s four-year reign left some 2 million Cambodians dead, but the massacres elicited barely a whimper from Washington, which maintained diplomatic recognition of the genocidal regime even after it had been overthrown.”

So, let us go back to Columbia University and other campuses.

The admiration of Hamas is the continuation of the tradition of veneration or willful ignorance of developing world and extreme leftist violence. There is a straight line from Stalin to Mao to Che to the boat people and Pol Pot — to the love of Hamas.

I can forgive the naivete of the demonstrators who would want a cease-fire in Gaza. That idea is wrong but it is understandable.

I could forgive the idealism of the demonstrators if they were calling for a two-state solution (which has not been on their lips).

What I find unforgivable is their embrace of Hamas.

This is not the legacy of the 1960s.

This is something else.

This is pure nihilism.

These are our future leaders.

This should frighten us — deeply.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)