Student Power

A Gaza-focused campus protest movement in the United States seems to have highlighted a generational divide on Israel with young people’s willingness to challenge politicians and college administrators on display nationwide.

The opinion gap–with younger Americans generally more supportive of Palestinians than the generations that came before them–poses a risk to 81-year-old Democratic President Joe Biden’s re-election chances.

Students at Columbia University in New York set up a Palestine solidarity encampment last week, and they have since faced arrests and other disciplinary measures after the college administration called on police to clear the protest. More than 500 students at US Universities were arrested; many of them beaten and even professors and faculty members are not safe. Students are now facing an increasingly aggressive response from the police, university administrations, and even some political decision makers.

Yet, despite the crackdown, similar encampments have sprung up across the US, as well as in other countries.

Footage of students, professors and journalists being violently detained by officers on various campuses spurred outrage but has done little to slow the momentum of the protests, which have continued to spread.

The students are largely demanding that their universities disclose their investments and withdraw any funds from weapons manufacturers and firms involved with the Israeli military. They demand complete transparency and amnesty for activists, all students and faculty disciplined or fired in the movement for Palestinian liberation.

Politicians from both major US parties, as well as the White House and pro-Israel groups, have accused the students of fuelling anti-Semitism–allegations that protesters vehemently deny.

In truth younger people are growing increasingly frustrated with the status quo on domestic and foreign policy issues.

“In American history in general, usually the big shifts in public opinion have either coincided with or been triggered by large student movements.”

For years, public opinion polls in the US suggest that younger people are more likely to be sympathetic towards Palestinians and critical of Israel.

But Americans overall have grown more critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, including in the ongoing war on Gaza.

Multiple polls suggest that a majority of US respondents back a permanent ceasefire in the besieged Palestinian enclave, where Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians since the conflict broke out on October 7.

But Biden has maintained staunch support for Israel, the US’s top Middle East ally, amid the war.

Polls suggest that Biden will need to appeal to his Democratic Party base, which is not as united in support of Israel as the Republican Party.

The student protesters are not getting involved in US partisan politics, however. They instead have stressed that their demands aim to help protect the human rights of Palestinians.

So can the demonstrations help bring about changes to US policy and achieve their divestment demands?

It is unlikely that US colleges will divest from large firms and the defence industry in the short term, but the call for transparency in their investments is reasonable.

Long-term change is possible, but it will not come overnight.

The fact is that when student organising rises to a certain level of intensity, it can have a significant effect.

College activism against apartheid in South Africa began in the 1950s and grew over the years.

Many think the anti-apartheid campus organising of the 1980s was a significant piece of what shifted American popular opinion and political opinion on the South African regime. Even if the student movement fails for the time being it would have effects in the long term.

[Contributed by Ali Harb of Al Jazeera]

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Vol 56, No. 47, May 19 - 25, 2024