Some Reflections on the Campus Protests

The ongoing pro-Palestinian protests at American universities are more than just youthful expressions of speech freedom. Rather they exemplify the informed views of students repulsed by the genocide in Gaza, which they see every day on television and in the social media.  They are motivated by a desire to end the continuing complicity of their universities, with the U.S. and Israeli governments, and the arms industries. The student and faculty protesters are willing to face academic retribution, arrest, and even police brutality in order to express their calls for a Gaza ceasefire and an end of U.S. weapons transfers to the IDF. The protests are wake-up calls for the rest of the country.

Here are some reflections on the protests based on media reports of protests at the tent encampments at Columbia, UCLA and other universities.

1. The protests are generally peaceful. In a May 8 article in Counterpunch, Dr. Helen Benedict, a Jewish professor at Columbia, observed, “I’ve been struck by the decorum of the protesting [Columbia] students, as angry and upset as they are on both sides.” According to ACLED (Armed Conflict Location and Event Data), “U.S. Pro-Palestine demonstrations remain overwhelmingly peaceful” Yet the major media seem reluctant to describe the student protests as “peaceful.”  Instead, they tend to focus on the more dramatic confrontations between the protesters and the pro-Israel protesters and the police.

2. It’s the pro-Israel-counter-protesters and police that bring the chaos and violence.   According to the New York Times, more than 2,800 arrests have been made nationwide between April 18 and May 10. Videos of disrupted encampments at various universities show students and faculty members being wrestled to the ground, zip-tied and loaded into police buses. At Dartmouth, a 60-year-old Jewish professor was injured and arrested at she monitored the protest with her cell phone camera.  The media have reported similar episodes of violence elsewhere when police appear on campus.  At UCLA, pro-Israel counter-protesters violently attacked a pro-Palestinian encampment on April 30-September 1, causing numerous injuries while the protesters waited three hours for police protection.

3. The protests are not antisemitic. The charge of antisemitism by President Biden, the Anti-Defamation League, and others is without foundation. Instead, there appears to be a deliberate effort by pro-Israel interests to discredit the student protesters and shift public attention away from the Gaza genocide. The war protests are focused on Israel’s scorched earth attacks on Gaza and America’s complicity through arms transfers. Closer to home, students demand university divestment in Israel and in companies that supply weapons to the IDF and they want the university authorities to withdraw charges against arrested students and faculty.

4. Jews and Jewish organizations play a leading role in the pro-Palestinian campaign. At Harvard for example, Jews for Palestine joined with several other groups in a walkout “in solidarity with Columbia students.” The Brown Divest Coalition included Brown U. Jews for Ceasefire Now.  Until  Columbia President Minouche Shafik suspended them, the Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine were two of the most vocal groups at Columbia protesting Israel’s war in Gaza.

5. Negotiation works better than police intervention.  At the insistence of some members of Congress, university trustees, and wealthy donors, a majority of universities has called in police to dismantle encampments and arrest student protesters.  Such overreaction has not only degraded free speech but has also demonstrated unimaginative leadership. At universities that have brokered agreements with protesters (including Brown, Rutgers, Northwestern in Illinois, the University of Minnesota, and Evergreen State among others), protesters have cleared their encampments without police involvement. On the other hand, police violence at the encampments has engendered more violence at protests, and even beyond the universities. In New York, a man drove his car into a crowd of people holding signs and chanting.

6. Protests against the Gaza genocide are likely to continue. The police action at Columbia inspired similar tent encampments coast-to-coast and in Europe. Except in the few cases where university administrators have listened to the students and agreed to reconsider their investment policies, the protest movement remains active. Until University authorities and the Biden White House show that they are willing to listen to the students, change their unconditional pro-Israel policies, and call for a ceasefire, the protests will likely continue– even after their university encampments are dismantled by police. This month’s graduation ceremonies at Duke, Emerson College and other schools have been interrupted by student walkouts and calls for a ceasefire and release of  hostages.

Overall, the pro-Palestinian protests with their colorful tent encampments around the country and beyond have served as wake-up calls to Israel’s brutal genocide in Gaza and to the complicity of the Biden White House in supplying weapons that have killed more than 35,000 Palestinians in Gaza. As increasing numbers of Americans pledge to vote “uncommitted” in the upcoming November election, the continuing protests pose major political risks for the Democratic Party.

The young people who demonstrate their commitment to peace and justice by protesting the Gaza genocide deserve our respect and admiration. Exercising their right of free speech, they stand behind the First Amendment.  The weaponizing of antisemitism and the weakness of university administrators who bow to wealthy donors should no longer threaten brave student activists.

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.