The fight for justice ignites elite university campuses

The fight for justice ignites elite university campuses

The fight for justice ignites elite university campuses
Student protests over the Gaza war have popped up on an increasing number in the US. (Austin American-Statesman via AP)
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Long running pro-Palestine demonstrations at some of the most prestigious universities in the US, including Yale, Columbia and Princeton, have given way to mass sit-ins and demands for a halt to investments in Israel and in arms manufacture. Protesters at Columbia declared: “We will not rest until Columbia divests from apartheid Israel, Palestinians are free, and liberation is achieved for all oppressed people worldwide.”

Hundreds of students and academics have been arrested at campuses throughout the US for peacefully exercising their democratic freedoms. State troopers in riot gear swarmed through the University of Texas, arresting dozens on the orders of far-right Governor Greg Abbott, who declared: “These protesters belong in jail.” A police purge against Columbia University’s “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on April 18 inspired a host of copycat sit-ins elsewhere. “The irony is that in trying to quiet things down and assert control over the encampment, the administration unleashed this firestorm,” one professor remarked. Parallel protests are springing up in France, Britain, Germany, Austria, Canada and elsewhere.

These students’ passion and the impact of their demostrations prompted an unnerved Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take a brief break away from plotting mass murder and angrily denounce the protests as “reminiscent of what happened in German universities in the 1930s”. US Senator Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, forcefully hit back: “Do not insult the intelligence of the American people by attempting to distract us from the immoral and illegal policies of your extremist and racist government … it is not antisemitic to hold you accountable for your actions.”

Media commentators have patronisingly derided students as naive and misled, with political views shaped by TikTok. Others glibly portrayed demonstrations as fronts for “radical Islamists.” But these Ivy League students are defined by disproportionate intelligence, with attitudes toward Palestine shaped by intense, conscientious debate. With the death toll of Palestinians in Gaza heading toward 40,000, the real question is why anybody is NOT out protesting.

When I was a high-school and university student in Beirut, many of the defining and empowering moments of my adolescence were spent in protesting about the full spectrum of global causes: I probably spent more time marching in the streets than in my classes. Participation in these events cemented my views on the importance of freedom of speech, assertively putting ourselves on the right side of history. Students may have an evolving comprehension of global politics, but they habitually possess an enviably precise moral compass in defining right from wrong. Students’ ability to exploit technology and social media to mobilize and disseminate their message confounds the reactionaries who seek to silence them.

Demonstrations are denounced by right wingers as antisemitic, but this ignores the substantial Jewish contingent within these protest movements. Intimidation of both Jewish and Muslim students has been regrettably frequent, but there are countless examples of students banishing those using antisemitic slogans, counterpointed with countless examples of pro-Israel agitators provoking violence and disruption. At Boston’s Northeastern University the media widely reported a chant of “kill the Jews” — until video evidence showed that the offensive chant emanated from pro-Israel provocateurs seeking to rile up the crowd.

What we are witnessing around the world is nothing short of a battle of good vs. evil, and justice vs. injustice, as students, workers, lawyers, educators and civil servants rediscover political engagement.

Baria Alamuddin

Observers carp that student activism is unlikely to improve anything in Gaza, but historians say these protests are among the most consequential of modern times, comparable to the civil rights movement and student activism of the 1960s. Student-led protests shook the planet, from Tiananmen Square to the Arab world, from Latin America to apartheid-era South Africa. Nobody should be writing off these protests as irrelevant.

Yale, Harvard and Columbia are a conveyor belt into the top levels of US politics, the civil service, business and the legal profession, and campaigners from these top-ranking global universities are the elites of tomorrow. If these elites were previously defined by kneejerk pro-Israel sentiments, what should we expect when veterans of the 2024 pro-Palestine protest movement swarm into the top levels of leadership, in a wider society horrified by Israel’s brazen flouting of the rules of war? The Democratic Party’s Progressive wing is defined by its pro-Palestine tenor, with outspoken figures such as Pramila Jayapal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib. In an increasingly diverse America, they are the future of US politics.

Seven months into the Gaza conflict, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators continue to turn out on the streets of London, Paris, New York and elsewhere. Despite constitutionally enshrined freedoms being a central tenet of European democracies, right-wing politicians have sought action against what they demonize as “hate marches.” But the right to debate and protest must be protected for all, including pro-Israel voices. Nancy Pelosi last week remarked that campus protests were a way of life in the US and that there was complete justification for objecting to the Gaza slaughter: “What's happening in Gaza challenges the consciousness of the world,” she said.

Vested interests, partisan voices and entrenched elites have always hated student protests, because they relate directly to what is right and what is wrong — impassioned young people acting upon their consciences, short-circuiting convenient desires to stifle the cries of oppressed peoples. Justice and human rights are universal, they cannot be monopolized by one party in a conflict.

What we are witnessing around the world is nothing short of a battle of good vs. evil, and justice vs. injustice, as students, workers, lawyers, educators and civil servants rediscover political engagement.  After decades in which students were routinely accused of being apathetic and apolitical, we can be deeply proud of this generation — our leaders of tomorrow — as they risk arrest, blacklisting and expulsion from academia in order to stand up for the rights and common humanity of those facing genocide, oppression and injustice.

Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.

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