The solution provided an opening for students coming from a pro-Israel background. Miriam Aranoff, a prepossessing woman with thick, dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses, told me she’d been active in Hillel because of its social nature: bringing Jewish kids together (so they’d make Jewish families) over pizza and ice cream. But Miriam had gravitated to the coalition because of the intellectual atmosphere: “Awesome.” She’d read about these kinds of idea-fermenting places but never experienced one on campus, even in classes. It was like a salon. “People come in with basic political assumptions, and they’re never discussed,” she said. “Here, they’re discussed.” On Palestine, she wasn’t sure of her own ideas; she just knew they were changing. At least here she could listen and be listened to.
The coalition’s navigations didn’t please everyone on the left. Tina Musa had co-founded a new group of mostly Palestinian students called Filasteen. After the coalition downplayed Palestine, Tina decided not to co-sponsor the rally.
When Noam Chomsky visited campus in February, he did as he had promised Anusar and endorsed the strike, though he also scolded the student audience. They had the power to stop the war. “That’s really in your hands.” Students in countries with far less freedom had done much more, he said crankily.
Even with Chomsky’s backing, the rally was something of a bust. The radicals had been flyering the campus like crazy, but when they struck classes at noon, it didn’t have the gong effect they had hoped for. It was a cold day. Most students just kept going to classes. Student journalist Armin Rosen snickered that more kids had walked out of his suburban Maryland high school at the start of the war. The coalition had dreamed of 1,000 students; standing at the microphone, sick to her stomach with adrenaline, Blair Mosner of the coalition announced that 400 people were there. Others said only 200. Some walked away when they heard the word Palestine—Tina Musa had agreed to speak after all.
“Goddamn self-important protesters,” an anonymous commenter said on the gossipy blog boredatbutler. “They think the world gives a shit … guess what—it doesn’t. If they actually want to change things, maybe they should use their brains for a change.” Of course in ’68 the protesters were also self-important, and the masses had ultimately moved. Though it took a year and a half of organizing.
The new radicals tried to reach out. They formed a Committee About People’s Opinions and went up to kids on campus to ask why they hadn’t struck. Students said it’s not like they support the war, but there’s nothing they can do. And they question the idea that troops should come out now. Wouldn’t chaos result?
The radicals took that as their greatest challenge. “People are overwhelmingly stuck on ‘troops out now,’” Blair said at a meeting. “We need to answer the question. I think we can win the debate. But we have to have a debate.”
They invited the College Dems to debate the question this month. They wanted Chris Kulawik to come, too, and to get someone to say that the U.S. should stay the course.
The radicals were casting about for speakers. One of their best weapons was Rahel Aima, a freshman in the group who grew up in Dubai of Indian-immigrant parents. She knows the Arab world, she knows how repressive even liberal Dubai was when it came to her doing “hard politics” there. She also understands the Arabs’ feelings of injustice.
“The view of Americans is, ‘Why do they hate us so much?’” she says. “What a question! There is such a disconnect between how Americans think they’re seen in the world and how they are seen. Americans will never be greeted as liberators in Iraq. No matter how much help you give, America will be seen as an occupying force. Iraqis will always view America as, ‘What are you trying to get out of us?’ Iraqis would welcome a U.N. force or a force from fellow Arabs.”
To watch her was to watch an intelligent, privileged international fall in love with Western freedom. “I feel so excited, I have four years in front of me,” Rahel said. “People tell me, ‘Columbia has been dead for years, and you are so lucky, you’re getting here and it’s starting.’”
In one way, the radicals’ strike had been a success: It got attention. It was on the front page of the Spectator for days on end in a fairly positive light. If Iraq was a horrifying meat grinder, at least the antiwar coalition was morally engaged. The College Dems seemed jealous. They organized their own show of anger on Iraq. They started a campaign to collect a penny for every life lost in Iraq (an idea that Jake, who still had a passport to both radical and mainstream, gave them), and they went with the figure widely cited on the left: 655,000 Iraqi civilians. The Dems were working within the system, giving the money to UNICEF.