A Gaza Protester Who’s Willing to Suffer

The protesters on university campuses have an image problem: They look like they are having way too much fun. In tone, the demonstrations do not match the subject matter, which they allege is genocide, the least fun of all human activities. For 20-year-olds, some activities that would be miserable to a normal person—screaming hysterically, being arrested, living in ragged encampments—are in fact an exhilarating way to spend one’s time, and certainly preferable to studying for exams. Young people like to rough it, within reason. Earlier this month, the protesters at the University of Chicago begged to be resupplied with dwindling essentials such as Chapstick and dental dams.

Most universities have delayed threats of serious punishment. Even students who are eventually arrested are likely to suffer only minor blemishes to their records. And many of these blemishes are desirable: What better way to prove you were young and alive in 2024 than to have a framed mug shot from the day you were zip-tied and booked? Such mementos will have an honored place on the desks of protesters who someday follow a square occupation, like corporate law or podiatry.

Fun does not discredit a cause, but a protester who enjoys himself has a harder time demonstrating his commitment than one willing to suffer. This weekend I spoke with one of the latter. David Chmielewski, a Princeton English major from Torrington, Connecticut, along with 11 other Princeton community members, spent 10 days on a hunger strike to call for the university to divest from Israel. “We wanted to commit ourselves to making clear how dire the situation is, with the forced famine that’s happening in the Gaza Strip,” Chmielewski said. He and the others consumed nothing but water, electrolytes, and necessary medicine. “There’s something very powerful about being able to use your body to show that commitment.” He said the group stopped on Saturday after talks with Princeton administrators yielded promising results.

Many have ridiculed the hunger strikers for the short duration of their fast, and for not emerging from the ordeal sallow and hollow-cheeked. (“PROTESTER WHINES OVER SELF-IMPOSED HUNGER STRIKE,” read the chyron on a Fox News broadcast.) Ten days isn’t long, but it is nine days longer than I’ve ever gone without food, so I am not inclined to downplay the unpleasantness of the experience. In fact, I respect Chmielewski. And just as it is important to ridicule protesters who have no idea what they are protesting, or who infringe on the rights of others, or who hate Jews, one should acknowledge when others press their cause, whatever its merit, in a morally faultless way.

Chmielewski said his group was inspired by hunger strikers earlier this year at Brown (where the strike lasted eight days), at Dartmouth (where it lasted 12 days), and at Harvard (half a day). “We’re also drawing on a longer tradition of the hunger strike as a nonviolent-resistance tactic,” he told me, citing the Irish-republican hunger strikes of the 1920s and those of Gandhi and others in the movement for Indian independence. The Princeton protesters, he said, have had weeks to evolve in their tactics, without having been wiped out by clashes with police. “Other student groups may not have been afforded that luxury of time,” Chmielewski said. “We’ve had a lot of time to sit and reflect on what we can do to pressure the university but also to center Palestinians.”

The language of “centering”—borrowed from the feminist theory of bell hooks and others—refers to the practice of giving credence and priority to the views of those historically ignored or victimized. It is in my opinion misguided, insofar as history’s victims are like history’s oppressors: human, and therefore flawed to the core and wrong about most things. And in the case of the Palestinians, the practice of “centering” seems to introduce a contradiction. Was it not odd, I asked Chmielewski, that centering the Palestinian perspective would lead him to adopt tactics that have never attracted a significant following among Palestinians?

Chmielewski countered that Palestinian political prisoners have gone on hunger strikes by the thousands at various points in the past few decades. That’s true, but many of those striking were doing so only because they were in prison for violent crimes, and nonviolence had become the only option available. Nonviolent resistance as a preferred tactic remains rare—and rejected completely by Hamas—even though a growing literature in political science (particularly the work of Erica Chenoweth and the late Gene Sharp) has demonstrated that it is often very effective. It is less effective when allied with organized armed resistance. Chmielewski’s peers seem content with such an alliance. “Glory to the martyrs,” his Princeton group declared in a recent social-media post. “The empire will burn.”

The question of why Palestinians have shown conspicuously little interest in the tactic that he himself has adopted is, Chmielewski told me, “better asked of a Palestinian.” “I don’t necessarily feel qualified to speak to the exact reasons for the dynamics of what tactics Palestinians have adopted historically,” he said. He was, I should add, smart and articulate, and one reason I liked him was his willingness to admit ignorance. Another was that unlike many other protesters, he did not hide behind a mask and committed himself to his cause by name.

His conclusion from the experience was not narrowly about hunger in Gaza at all. “I’m not sure I know the right word” for what he experienced by not eating, he told me. “Spiritual? Poetic? Imaginative?” He said the hunger strike, although nominally about his university’s divestment, gave him a sense that “another world is possible, because you’re refraining from material needs. Everyone tells you you need these material things.  But then stepping away from them gives you this permission to imagine other possibilities for existing in the world. It gives you permission to imagine a better world, because it’s taking you a step back from this world of … raw materiality.”

I sensed that he was getting what one should get from one’s time at university: an education. Maybe it was the ketosis talking. (Several days of not eating can leave one giddy, even energetic.) I came away persuaded less by his cause than by his dedication and the worthiness of nonviolence as a tactic of first resort. I hope there will be more who practice it—in Princeton, Gaza, and Israel.

The Atlantic

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