Vilification and Violence Hurled Against Gaza Protests Shows They Hit a Nerve

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Sometimes a wildfire breaks out and sweeps the landscape. A tipping point is reached. A phase shift turns solid ice into a raging torrent. That’s what’s happening today.

In the brief two weeks since Columbia University students set up the first Gaza solidarity encampment at the New York campus April 17, student protests have swept dozens of campuses in the U.S. and other countries. Today buildings are being occupied on campuses from coast to coast, the latest being Hamilton Hall at Columbia, renamed Hind’s Hall in honor of a 5-year-old Palestinian girl killed by Israeli forces in January. It was renamed Nat Turner Hall when students protesting the Vietnam War occupied the building in 1968 during a campus protest wave being compared to what’s happening today.

Over 1,000 students have been arrested in brutal police crackdowns. Scenes of cops marching onto campuses clad in riot gear are filling social media, beginning with the NYPD clearing the first encampment at Columbia April 18. Texas, California, Ohio, Georgia, other places, are witnessing students and faculty being zip tied and dragged off to jail. It is just as clear that not only is the repression failing to stop the protests; It is feeding their momentum. The contrast between the genocidal actions the students are protesting and the excuses university administrators are hatching to justify the crackdowns is just too glaring.

In fact, nothing could be more telling than the virulence of the accusations being hurled at the students and the violence with which their protests are being met. We have seen months of protests since the Gaza war broke out October 7 with nothing like this reaction. Netanyahu likens the protests to Nazi actions on German campuses in the 1930s. Biden says, “I condemn the antisemitic protests,” giving carte blanche to the police repression. Opposition to genocide is being described as “hate speech.”

The Orwellian doublespeak in calling demonstrations in which Jewish students are taking a major part antisemitic is particularly astounding. Reportedly around 15 of the 100 or so in the original Columbia arrests were Jews.

“We chose to be arrested in the movement for Palestinian liberation because we are inspired by our Jewish ancestors who fought for freedom 4,000 years ago,” several of them wrote. “When the police entered our encampment, we locked arms and sang civil rights era songs that many of our more recent ancestors recited in the 1960s. We belong to the legacy of progressive Jewish activism that has worked across race, class and religious lines to transform our communities.”

Pro-Israel forces have been terrified at the loss of support among youth. Some months ago, a leaked recording of Anti-Defamation League Director Jonathan Greenblatt was released in which he said, “ . . . we have a major, major, major generational problem . . . all the polling I’ve seen . . . suggests this is not a left or right gap folks. The issue of United States support for Israel is not left or right. It is young and old . . . and so we really have a TikTok problem, a Gen-Z problem.”

The recent passage by Congress of legislation threatening to ban TikTok if it is not sold by its Chinese owners should come as no surprise. Many observers are pointing to the Israel lobby as a driving force.

Losing young people, especially at top-flight universities where future members of the elite are being groomed, is bad enough for Israel supporters. This is in the nation where continued support is vital to sustain Israel’s actions. The participation of so many Jews in the protests pushes it over the line.  I believe this is a key reason for the intensity and falsity of the accusations and the violent police response. Jewish involvement has to be cancelled, denied, vilified.

Students of all persuasions are being told, toe the line if you expect to maintain your career prospects. Suspensions are being threatened and carried out. In a society more stratified than it was during the 1960s protest wave, when rising through the ranks depends more than ever on a university education and tuitions are significantly higher, it has required significant moral courage for students to stage encampments and risk arrest. Their determined resistance demonstrates the depth of their moral outrage at what they are seeing in Gaza, and testifies to their character. For all the dissing on younger generations I hear from olders, this provides hope for the future.

Another reason for the backlash from university administrators is that students are hitting them where they live, the money. Universities have become financialized machines with large endowments invested in the stock market. Student demands for divestment from Israel hit a nerve. Threats of losing contributions from major, pro-Israel donors, and of losing federal contracts made by Pro-Israel politicians, twitch the reptilian brains of administrators whose compensation now ranks with their peers in the corporate sector. It’s just too much for them to bear.

Whether the student protests seem to have any immediate impact, it is important to remember a lesson from the late 1960s movement. It would not be until 1975 that the Vietnam War was finally concluded. But protests in 1968 and 1969 may have averted a horror scenario. Daniel Ellsberg in his last book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,recounts how the Pentagon was proposing use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. The protests convinced Richard Nixon that this would cause chaos so he shelved the plans. Doug Dowd, one the 1960s New Leftists who visited North Vietnam during the war, tells of how the Vietnamese credited the U.S. peace movement with stopping the use of nuclear weapons in his book,  Blues for America: A Critique, A Lament, and Some Memories. They thanked the peace movement, saying that was the one thing that could have defeated them.

The campus occupations of 1968 led to the absolutely mass protests of 1969, notably the autumn moratoriums in D.C. that Ellsberg wrote were the key events that persuaded Nixon. Certainly today’s protests are putting intense heat on the Biden Administration, recalling how the 1968 protests led to Democratic defeat in that year’s presidential election. Could today’s protests stop or reduce what would be an absolutely devastating attack on Rafah, the last population concentration in Gaza? Could they lead to a ceasefire? It is hard to know, but the over-the-top response to the protests shouts out the depth of their impact.

Students, Jewish and others, are practicing the essential lesson of all the world’s wisdom paths, compassion for the other. Even though most are not being directly affected by what is going on in Gaza, they are being impacted on a deep moral level, and cannot remain silent. We must all take a lesson from what they are doing, and follow them into the streets.

This first appeared in The Raven.