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Jewish World Review Nov. 7, 2002 / 2 Kislev, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Too Late for the 60s

Campus opposition to Iraq war is driven by nostalgia and animus for America | For many of us whose college experience took place in the mid-to-late-1970s, there was a sense of having just missed out on something really big. We had arrived on our campuses just a few years too late to get in on the anti-war "student revolution" of the late '60s and early '70s.

My own school, Columbia University, had famously been the site of sit-ins, student strikes and even a police riot several times. While these incidents did grievous harm to the university, for many of those who had been there, the memories of those times seemed to center most on the carnival atmosphere surrounding everything that happened and the joy in exploiting a situation where, for a time, the rules no longer applied.

Upperclassmen and graduate students would tell us of the excitement that accompanied the struggles. Even professors had their "war stories" of 1968 and 1972 to share.

Several agencies have shown interes But there was only disappointment for those of us expecting similarly unscheduled holidays to interrupt the grim rigors of our academic lives sometime during our stay on campus. There would be no student strikes or upheavals in our time. With the same irrational envy that those too young to participate in wars sometime display toward their elders, we were sorry to have not been there when history was made.

Some of us busied ourselves with other causes such as the struggle on behalf of Soviet Jewry. But though that issue would define many of us, it wasn't the same. Whether we shared in the beliefs of the rabble-rousers or not, there was a general feeling that we had missed all the fun.

Is it the same for those who followed us?

In sporadic visits to campuses and in conversations with students, my impression has been that the zeitgeist of that long past "revolutionary" period was as remote to most contemporary students as the raccoon coats of the 1920s. The passions that once animated college life seemed to have been replaced by a concentration on career goals.

But as President Bush's planned campaign against the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein inches closer to reality, there are those who would like us to believe that the campuses are seething with anger and about to erupt as they did against Vietnam long ago.

Last week I went to Temple University here in Philadelphia to take part in a day-long forum on the Iraq issue sponsored by that school's Debate and Discussion Club and decided to see for myself if students there were ready to take to the streets en masse. As panelists and students spoke on Iraq, it was clear that some were pretty riled up about it.

While there are reasonable arguments to be made against the idea of a war to effect "regime change" in Iraq, or even whether or not it is sufficiently important to justify the use of force to achieve it, most of what I heard that day seemed to speak to issues far broader than whether or not Saddam Hussein deserved to stay in power.


Indeed, the core of much of the opposition to Bush's plans seemed to have less to do with the threat posed to the region by Iraq than with the perception that it was the United States itself that was the principal threat to world peace.

When a moderator innocently posed a question about what would occur when "we" - meaning the United States - went into Iraq, one panelist, Temple History professor Arthur Schmidt, stridently corrected him by asserting that neither he nor others present wanted to be any part of that "we."

While other speakers such as Joseph Schwartz, the chair of Temple's political science department, were able to make a credible argument that the regime in Iraq was marginal to the war on terrorism, the spirit of his remarks betrayed a visceral animus for the administration and its presumption that America had the duty and the right to defend the country's interests on the world stage.

The articulate and affable Schwartz may have betrayed his mindset when he note d that though he opposed this war, he was not a pacifist. He said he supported the war in Vietnam - that is to say the side that fought the United States there.

When I said that it seemed as if Schwartz and other left-wing speakers were trying to relive their youth, they dismissed my comments as an off-base gibe.

But this theme of recapturing the spirit of the Vietnam era was certainly in the air. The combination of graybeard left-wing professors and impressionable youth seems to be as potent a combination today as it was three decades ago.

Indeed, most of the day seemed to be devoted to examining not the Iraqi record of violations of international norms but alleged American misdeeds. A visiting professor of political science from Germany discussed the war as an attempt to impose American "hegemony" while students asked seemingly scripted questions about the proposed "American war on the Iraqi people."

To the extent that the other bete noire of the academic world, the State of Israel, was mentioned, it was treated as a fellow offender with the United States. Schwartz put forward the preposterous notion that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would use an American attack on Iraq to effect a mass "transfer" of all Arabs from the territories.


But the main enemy of much of the audience remained America. No comments I uttered drew as much disagreement as my assertion that, despite our faults, the United States was a force for good in the world. My belief that the best rationale for war on Saddam - not the Iraqi people - was the fundamentally liberal one of bringing democracy to an Arab world where it was unknown, was greeted with hoots of disbelief. The popular leftist myth of U.S. perfidy - a faith that has apparently been handed down lovingly from generation to generation on campus - was all they wanted to hear.

There was some dissent from this trend. At the end of the day, one young man approached me, almost surreptitiously, to express his thanks that someone had the temerity to come and speak the truth. My remarks had encouraged him to think for himself, and that alone justified my presence.

Unfortunately, far more typical was one very irate young woman who accosted me, saying that it was an outrage that anyone who could express such views should be heard there. Using scatological language, she promised me that when "the students got organized," the oppressors and their lackeys would get their just desserts.

Hearing jargon that echoed so strongly with the rhetoric of a bygone era almost made me laugh, but I felt I had to respect her self-conscious solemnity, if not her point of view.

I almost felt sorry for her. All dressed up and with no Vietnam war to protest, she has to settle for opposing a punitive expedition against one of the worst despots in the world.

If I'd been too late for the '60s, what about her?

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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