The Nicholas Kristof Theory of Social Change

The New York Times columnist encourages protesters to stop atrocities by, uh, studying abroad.

Nicholas Kristof, the pro-sweatshop New York Times columnist,1 has written a critique of the Gaza solidarity movement, arguing that protesters are Hurting The Very People They Are Trying To Help.™ Kristof, who does not appear to have any background engaging in protest movements, offers suggestions for how protesters can “actually help Palestinians,” arguing that their current tactics are counterproductive. He says that while he sympathizes with the protesters, he cannot support their methods, and they are actually not helping the people of Gaza. (The people of Gaza themselves do not appear to agree, but Kristof plainly seems to think he knows their interests better than they do.) 

Kristof’s professed sympathy for Gaza solidarity protesters is obviously fake. If he cared about them, as he says he does, he would at least not misrepresent the facts about them. Kristof says he worries “about how peaceful protests have tipped into occupations of buildings, risks to commencements and what I see as undue tolerance of antisemitism, chaos, vandalism and extremism.” An honest interlocutor would point out that the occupation of a building is, in fact, a classic example of a peaceful protest. It’s also known by a different name: a sit-in. It’s a tactic where protesters occupy a space and refuse to move. To describe it as non-peaceful is absurd. It can be non-lawful, but it’s a peaceful form of civil disobedience that hurts nobody. If Kristof were in any way honest, he would point out that antisemitism is an outlier at these demonstrations (many of which are heavily populated by Jewish students, a fact the Times noted and then deleted) and that much of the “chaos” has been instigated by police repression and aggressive pro-Israel counterprotesters

So we cannot take Kristof seriously when he says he is in sympathy with the protesters. One does not lie about people one is in sympathy with. But how does Kristof propose that protesters do a better job helping Palestinians? He suggests that instead of sit-ins, they should write “letters to the editor” or call their member of Congress. His primary suggestions are that they should “raise funds for organizations actively helping Gazans, like Save the Children, Gisha or International Rescue Committee,” and that they should study abroad in the West Bank. 

I am serious. The passage has to be read to be believed:

[H]ow about raising money to send as many of your student leaders as possible this summer to live in the West Bank and learn from Palestinians there (while engaging with Israelis on the way in or out)? West Bank monitors say that a recent Israeli crackdown on foreigners helping Palestinians, by denying entry or deporting people, has made this more difficult but not impossible. Student visitors must be prudent and cautious but could study Arabic, teach English and volunteer with human rights organizations on the ground. Palestinians in parts of the West Bank are under siege, periodically attacked by settlers and in need of observers and advocates. Those students returning at the end of the summer would have a much deeper understanding of the issues and how to help. It would be life-changing, an education as rich as any you’re getting on campus. It would also be activism that isn’t performative but that can actually help Palestinians live better and safer lives.

Let’s note a few things about this. First, he is right that going and being personally attacked by Israeli settlers might indeed deepen the understanding of what it is like for Palestinians in the West Bank. But what, precisely, does he think students need to know about the conflict that they do not know? Seeing gruesome images of dead and dying and dismembered Gazans on social media isn’t enough to be horrified by what is happening? I have seen other critics of protesters arguing that they don’t know very much about the issue, but I rarely see them identify what knowledge in particular they think students need to gain. Kristof’s suggestion is similar to weird comments recently made by Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert, who posted on X just yesterday: “I get a strange inkling that all these Columbia and UCLA students running around yelling “Free Palestine” would not be jumping at the opportunity to do a semester abroad in Gaza.” The most generous interpretation of this hostile commentary is that a person has to be willing to drop themselves into a genocide in order to be against a genocide. 

Next, Kristof is encouraging students to care more about themselves than Palestinians. They’re supposed to raise money so that they can go and have a trip to Palestine? They’re supposed to get a “life-changing” and “rich” experience? They’re trying to stop the slaughter of Gazans. This isn’t about them! Incredibly, Kristof elsewhere faults the protesters for drawing more attention to themselves than to the people of Gaza (which I would argue is largely the fault of organizations like the New York Times, which is more interested in the Columbia campus than Palestine, and is a coverage pitfall I tried to avoid in my recent radio documentary on the subject). But then he encourages them to pursue personal life-changing experiences that do not, in and of themselves, do anything whatsoever for the people of Palestine.2

Kristof’s encouragement of the students to focus on fundraising for relief organizations also shows that he does not share their priorities. The students are trying to stop the violence from occurring, a far more important goal than providing aid after it happens. Why is Save the Children even needed in Gaza? It’s because the U.S. is providing bombs to Israel, which it is using to wipe out Gaza. The protesters rightly focus on creating political pressure that will reduce Israel’s power to attack Gaza in the first place. 

Kristof’s encouragement of “letters to the editor” and “calling your member of Congress” is simply ludicrous. Does Kristof think that senators like John Fetterman will back down on his categorical support for Israel if his office gets more phone calls from students? And in the history of the world, has a well-placed letter to the editor ever changed anything? Most of them simply don’t get printed. Kristof even suggests that protesters should “flood the comments section of this column,” which I’m sure Gazans would be far more appreciative of. Kristof also recommends tactics that protesters are already engaged in, such as “peaceful rallies” and “circulating petitions.” (A major ceasefire petition has over 1,300,000 signatures. You can add your name if you like.) 

What fascinates me about Kristof’s column is, seemingly, his ahistorical  theory of how social change is supposed to actually happen. Kristof knows the situation in Gaza is horrific—he has even compared the situation to the Rwandan genocide! But he seems very much like a liberal who thinks things change by everyone being polite and asking nicely for what they want, at which point those in power will say “Well, since you asked so very nicely, I have decided to change my mind.” A certain number of (gentle, pleasant) letters to the editor, and Biden will stop supplying arms to Israel. 

Actually, I’m giving him too much credit here by suggesting he actually has a theory of change. For the most part, he doesn’t even offer a theory for how his proposed actions are supposed to make a difference in policy, even as he patronizingly chides protesters for their ineffectiveness. He doesn’t even try to formulate a hypothetical link between studying abroad in the West Bank and the end of Israel’s occupation, even as he says university divestment from Israel will do nothing. (He seems to demonstrate no appreciation of how a plan to try to isolate Israel economically resembles the strategy of boycotts and sanctions against South Africa, which was important in the struggle against that regime’s apartheid. But divestment from Israel will only, he warns, “mean lower returns for endowments.”) He pretends to offer them more pragmatic and effective avenues, while in fact offering them absolutely nothing of any use. (The words “pragmatism” and “realism” are often used in American politics to mean “changing nothing.”) 

Kristof’s column is in the tradition of a long series of similar “concern trolling” of protest movements by people who insist they care about an issue but recommend doing nothing that would actually address it. Martin Luther King Jr. famously blasted this type of person in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” explaining his irritation at “the white moderate” who said “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.” These people, King said, were actually worse for the movement than its outright enemies, as they were constantly telling those engaged in peaceful civil disobedience that they were Doing It Wrong. They tutted about the civil rights movement’s sit-ins just as those like Kristof today tut about the Gaza sit-ins. I think today there’s also an argument that people like Kristof do more harm to Gaza solidarity than outright reactionaries like Tom Cotton who call the protesters “fanatics and freaks” 

In fact, far from being un-pragmatic, the student Gaza protesters have a pretty good theory of power. If you can disrupt university activity, the university administration will have an interest in negotiating with you to get you to stop. (Brown University administrators did, although I suspect they actually got the protesters to accept a meaningless concession.) If you can trigger repressive responses that show the public clearly who the fascists are, you can arouse public sympathy for your cause. (The civil rights movement, by getting the Southern sheriffs to bring out hoses and dogs, exposed the hideous nature of the Jim Crow state and in doing so won public sympathy.) It’s also the case that if protesters can make it politically difficult for Joe Biden to continue his pro-genocide policies without losing support in an election year, he may have to modify those policies. Politicians respond to pressure far more than appeals to principle. Pro-Palestine protesters had to put pressure on AOC, for instance, to get her to finally use the word “genocide.” The pressure worked. In politics, you should assume that politicians are looking out for their self-interest and work to make it so that it is in their self-interest to do what you want. That is, you need to pose a political threat. Biden does not want chaos and protest in an election year, therefore it needs to be made clear that his policies will create chaos to the extent that they support Israel’s atrocities. 

The protesters are doing a noble and moral thing by demonstrating solidarity with Gaza and putting themselves at risk. Because Israel is currently threatening to invade the Gazan city of Rafah, where well over a million Palestinians are sheltering, it’s crucially important that protesters keep up the pressure on the U.S. government to stop Israel from carrying out its plans. Given the Palestinian lives at stake, I would argue that one of the most virtuous things anyone, especially in the United States, can do right now is engage in civil disobedience in support of the Gaza solidarity movement. And correspondingly, I would argue that one of the worst things one can do right now is to do what Nicholas Kristof is doing, which is to undermine that movement by lying about it and trying to convince people that the activists are foolish and misguided. 

  1. Sorry, but it’s my opinion that if you are pro-sweatshop, anyone discussing your views on any subject should first note that you are pro-sweatshop, since this morally abominable position should be central to how you are viewed and should follow you around wherever you go. 

  2. That’s the bourgeois liberalism of a NYT columnist for you. We recently discussed this in an analysis of the Times’ Ethicist column

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