The Fierce Urgency of Now

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

As more campuses join the protests against Israel’s continuing engagement in war crimes in Gaza, one common thread runs through the student demands – divest from supplying the Netanyahu government and the IDF with weapons of mass destruction. What compels many of these youthful demonstrators to occupy the public spaces and offices of their universities is the complicity of college portfolios with investments in US weapon manufacturers. They know that the products of defense contractors, like Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet and General Dynamics MK 84 – 2000 pound bombs, are slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians throughout Gaza.

They also understand that the US government, from President Biden to the Congress, is opposed to legislative efforts to hold Israel accountable to its violation of various on-the-books prohibitions for governments “engaged in gross human rights abuses” (Section 502 B of the US Foreign Assistance Act). Instead, they see the Biden Administration exploiting every loophole in any restrictions to supply Israel with unending transfers of bombs and military equipment. While countries, like Canada and numerous others, have stopped shipping weapons to Israel, the US seems oblivious to the suffering and devastation caused daily by the IDF in Gaza.

They are aware that Israeli state propaganda spreads constant disinformation about its war crimes in Gaza, from rationalizing its attacks on the staff and patients in hospitals to the murder of over 200 aid workers. They know that countless human rights agencies have condemned these kinds of war crimes in Gaza. (These same human rights agencies have also condemned the brutal killing of 1200 Israeli civilians and the taking of hostages on October 7). In order to justify the murder of so many innocent civilians, the Netanyahu government has insisted that they have actually killed 9000 Hamas militants. However, if they read one of the recent articles in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz from March 31, they understand this figure is reflective of what the IDF calls “kill zones” (think “free-fire zones” in the US war on Vietnam) where anything in those zones, including women and children, were legitimate targets to then be counted as Hamas militants.

They are surely aware of what Netanyahu cabinet members have said about the Palestinians in Gaza and on the West Bank that they are just “human animals.” The Israeli Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, has bragged about destroying the “electricity, food, and fuel” in Gaza. One of his advisers, a former IDF General, reflective of the targeting of aid workers, including those murdered seven from World Central Kitchen, acknowledged that “in order to make the siege effective, we have to prevent others from giving assistance to Gaza.” Such mass murder and wanton destruction of property in Gaza is part of a campaign of killing that one UN official has cited as “probably the highest kill ratio of any military killing anybody since the Rwandan genocide of 1994.”

When students see and hear about all of this, they are obviously motivated to express their moral outrage. On one hand, these expressions may not always comport with so-called civility. On the other hand, they are not prepared to remain silent and/or passive in the face of an unfolding genocide. In their adherence to Dr. King’s reference to the “fierce urgency of now,” they are committed, as Dr. King was, to disturbing the peace.

Indeed, we need to be reminded of another quote from Dr. King that was central to his famous Riverside Address (“A Time to Break Silence”) from April 4, 1967. He warned prophetically that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Beyond the horrors in Gaza and the long tragic history of the oppression of Palestinians, these student protestors are trying to save their own nation from its bloated “defense” budget (now approaching almost one trillion dollars) and death-dealing spiral. What their protest ultimately signifies is their commitment to an authentic advocacy for peace and justice abroad and at home.

Fran Shor is a Michigan-based retired teacher, author, and political activist.