Campus protests continue in US as students demand realignment of Israeli ties

It could affect Biden's reelection prospects

US-GEORGE-WASHINGTON-UNIVERSITY-STUDENTS-CONTINUE-TO-PROTEST-AGA Study and struggle: Student demonstrators at George Washington University in Washington, DC | Getty Images

More than 35,000 people have lost their lives and around 80,000 have been injured in Israel’s military offensive in Gaza since Hamas launched a dreadful attack on Israel last October 7. An entire population of refugees is now stranded in their own territory, starving for food and lacking medical supplies. Yet lightning bolts of weaponry continue to rain on the beleaguered Palestinians. And Israel does not seem to stop its retaliation against Hamas, which killed around 1,200 Israelis and took hundreds hostages.

Biden faces an erosion of support from students and also from Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, who formed a key support bloc for him in the 2020 elections. It could hurt him in battleground states.

Events in Gaza have triggered a reaction in many parts of the world, particularly among the youth. The pro-Palestine protests, which have erupted across American campuses, have transfixed the world. The students, forsaking education and regular campus life, have set up encampments on the greens and even barricaded themselves in buildings. Thousands of students have been arrested, their tents torn down, and yet they stand undeterred, insisting on an end to the war in Gaza and for colleges and universities to divest funding of the war, which means eliminating investments in businesses that operate in or otherwise support Israel.

Yet, nothing is simple regarding the protests or the cause. It is a complex, many-layered conflict which has come to a head through many, many generations. Nothing is black or white―it is a grey area where there is right on both sides, a complex morality play.

Today’s youth have no idea of Israel’s past, of how it was birthed from the inhumane injustices to the Jewish community through the ages and how it struggled for selfhood and survival, after the Nazi pogroms. The Palestinians also have their own stories of loss, struggle for their lives and homeland.

This young generation of protesters, which has been maligned as being of no consequence, is trying to enter into a global conversation about good and evil in how the world operates. In fact, the pro-Palestinian protests first started at Columbia University in New York when the students stormed the Hamilton Hall, which was the site of a historic protest against the Vietnam War in 1968.

In spite of Columbia’s long history of student activism over the years, the new president of Columbia, Nemat Minouche Shafik, called in the police to tear down the encampment. After that, protests sprung up in universities across the US, including Yale, MIT, the University of Southern California, George Washington University and Emory University.

Another conflict on these campuses is the ongoing counterprotests by Jewish students who are a visible part of many universities across America. Antisemitism is the unacknowledged elephant in the room, and for months, Jewish students have faced threats and even physical assaults on campus and these have escalated in direct response to the events of Gaza.

A new survey conducted for Jewish groups found that antisemitism is a threat for Jewish students, with one in three students personally experiencing antisemitic hate directed at them. In the last academic year, incidents on college and university campuses spiked by a staggering 321 per cent to 922 incidents, most of which occurred after the October 7 attacks.

TOPSHOT-PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-CONFLICT Battle for existence: A woman and a boy fleeing from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip as Israel pushes deeper into the region | AFP

There are also a number of Jewish students taking part in the pro-Palestinian encampment, but they are a minority. Pew Research data shows that a majority of American Jews are emotionally supportive of Israel, but support differs among generational divides, with younger Jews less supportive.

The education committee of the US House of Representatives has been investigating campus antisemitism for the past few months, focusing on how universities are combating hate. The committee held a hearing in December questioning the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania about antisemitism. The testimony was so disastrous that within weeks, the presidents of both Harvard and UPenn had to step down.

All this is happening against the backdrop of the upcoming presidential elections, and how President Joe Biden handles America’s long-established pro-Israel stance in the light of the Gaza war. The president told students: “Dissent is essential for democracy, but dissent must never lead to disorder. There is the right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos.” As the war continues, Biden faces an erosion of support from students and also from Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, who formed a key support bloc for him in the 2020 elections. It could hurt him in key battlegrounds such as Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Biden’s Republican rival Donald Trump favours police action and the ejection of protesters from campuses. He said it “was a beautiful thing to watch” NYPD officers raiding a Columbia University building occupied by pro-Palestinian students. Trump asked officials to crack down on campus protests across the United States. The staunchly pro-Israel New York mayor Eric Adams is convinced of an outside hand in the protests, and readily sent in the police to fix the situation. The mayor as well as the administration insisted that bad external actors had infiltrated the protests and so it became a crime scene, raising the temperature and causing protests nationwide. From a peaceful protest it turned into something much more menacing.

THE WEEK spoke with political theorist Mahmood Mamdani, who was named by the Prospect Magazine as one of the world’s top 50 thinkers in 2021, about the ongoing crisis. Having been exiled from Idi Amin’s Uganda, he is well-versed in the history of protest. A professor of anthropology at Columbia University, Mamdani conducted teach-ins and participated with the faculty in forming a circle around student protesters, just before the police arrived. “The students are overwhelmingly motivated by moral urgency,” he said. “This protest followed October 7, and what was happening in Gaza, and it followed the inquiry and determination by the International Court of Justice that what was happening in Gaza was plausible genocide and the students were motivated by a moral conviction. That was the event to which everybody needed to have a response and their conviction was that the university had to make sure that it was not connected with anything that supported the genocide, and therefore the demand for divestment.”

With the heightened security at Columbia, it would not have been possible for outside forces to infiltrate the campus. “The protest was itself a site of education,” said Mamdani. “I gave the first teach-in, and I was asked to talk about the origin of the divestment movement in relation to South Africa, and we showed short videos on previous protests―there was intense education going on.” He rejected the suggestion that outside agitators were needed when the students went through days of intense sleep and food deprivation to stand up for what they believed in.

The testimony of the student council representative to the university senate, which was published in the student newspaper, Daily Columbia Spectator, too, was on similar lines. “These are not people who are presumed to be mindless, that something has to be fed from the outside,” he said “They’re not infants. These are supposed to be the brightest kids as the current system determines brightness. So, it’s an insult, frankly, to find people asking this question.”

Rather than bad actors, the protesters outside the campus gates are often regular folks trying to raise awareness about the Palestinians’ plight. Manolo De Los Santos, an organiser with The People’s Forum, a Manhattan-based activists’ group, said those joining the protests alongside students were just “ordinary New Yorkers”. “The power of this moment is that it’s everyone coming together. It’s health care workers, it’s teachers, it’s city workers. It’s ordinary people who feel so strongly.

In this crisis, student journalists at the college newspapers have shown great integrity and strength in documenting the true story in papers from Columbia University’s Spectator to the UCLA’s Daily Bruin. Some student journalists are battling exams even as they report on protests. Student-run news websites at Yale and the University of Texas-Austin cover the action with innovative live blogs. The Daily Trojan’s print editions have stopped for the semester at the University of Southern California, but editor-in-chief Anjali Patel is keeping a reporter and photographer available at all hours to cover the protests. All during final exam season. “We are still students at the end of the day,” said Patel. The Pulitzer Prize Board took the unusual step of commending the bravery of these student journalists.

At Princeton, a dozen students took the drastic step of going on a hunger strike and were joined by history professor Gyan Prakash who fasted for a day with them. Prakash was one of more than 120 faculty members who signed a letter last week condemning the “criminalisation, gross mischaracterisation and harassment of nonviolent student protesters,” and calling for the “immediate resignation” of a vice president whom they viewed as largely responsible.

At Brown University in Rhode Island, the students negotiated and reached an understanding with the administrators. They ended the encampment and the university agreed that five students would be invited to meet with members of the governing body to present their arguments to divest Brown’s endowment from “companies that facilitate the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory”.

So, the facts change every day in this fast-moving tale on American campuses which is so closely linked to what happens on the world stage, and how America reassesses its support to Israel and how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responds.

Looking at the larger picture that the US has traditionally been pro-Israel, how are Americans responding to the Gaza situation? Mamdani said the real opposition was not in the Congress or elsewhere, it was within the Jewish community. “Since October 7, the big division in Columbia was inside the Jewish community–Zionist and anti-Zionist, war and anti-war,” he said. “Indeed, this is the big division in America, affecting Americans and the wider Jewish community in the US. It is a generational divide, questioning the relationship of Judaism and Zionism and discovering the anti-Zionist tradition within Judaism, which was very strong in the 1940s.”

Empathy is perhaps the most transformative and game-changing emotion there is, and the protesting students seem to be driven by it. It could be a coming of age of American youth, trying to discover a legitimate role for themselves in a crisis-torn world.

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based writer for several international publications and blogs at Lassi with Lavina.