Mass student protests demand urgent ceasefire in Gaza - GulfToday

Mass student protests demand urgent ceasefire in Gaza

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Jill Stein

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein (center) links arms with others while surrounding pro-Palestinian protesters as police show up to their encampment on the campus of Washington University. AP

Mass student protests against Israel’s Gaza onslaught rolling across US university campuses from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans are the first ever demonstrations against a war not involving US troops. Demonstrations against the 1960-1975 Vietnam war, the 1991 US-led war in Iraq and the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq opposed US troop deployment in foreign wars.

Israel’s ever loyal ally President Joe Biden has not, apparently, made this distinction and has verbally upheld the protesters’ guaranteed freedom of speech while university presidents have called in the police to break up sit-ins, encampments, and rallies and arrest participants. At least 700 have been detained. Biden should have been warned by the fate of Lyndon Johnson who did not run for a second full presidential term in 1968 due to his unpopularity over failing to bring the Vietnam war to an end.

While the Gulf war temporarily boosted the approval rating of President George H.W. Bush, he lost the 1992 election because of his domestic policies. His son, George W. Bush took office in January 2001, waged a highly unpopular, unprovoked war on Iraq in 2003, and was, nevertheless, elected in 2004. He has been widely condemned and shunned since he left the White House in 2009.

Seventy students at New York’s prestigious Columbia University launched the ongoing movement on April 17th by setting up an anti-Gaza war encampment. More students joined the demonstration before the Columbia president Minouche Shafik called on the New York City police who arrested 108 without ending the protest. Students followed suit at the other eight top Ivy League universities of Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Pennsylvania and other prestigious universities of California (Berkley), and Southern California (Los Angeles), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Organizers behind the political movement to vote “uncommitted” in Michigan’s Democratic primary election to punish Biden for his supine support for Israel’s Gaza war joined protesting students at the University of Michigan.

Faculty, alumni and supporters of Morehouse, the pre-eminent US Black college, have criticised its invitation to Biden to deliver the commencement address. Moorehouse is particularly sensitive as it is the alma mater of Black rights campaigner Martin Luther King. Biden is also slated to address graduates at the US Military Academy at West Point, where he would be unlikely to face flack from anti-war activists.

Before giving his total backing to Israel, Biden should have realised that a majority of pro-Palestinian students are not only 18 years old but also not Trump voters. He may believe they dislike Trump so much that they could vote for him but they could simply boycott the November election. This would harm Biden and fellow Democrats running for the House of Representatives and Senate.

Gaza war protests not only mushroomed across the US but have also embraced the movement at the Institute of Political Science in Paris, the University of Sydney in Australia, Sapienza University in Rome, and the universities of Warwick, Leeds, and Leicester in Britain. The original focus of the Columbia students was the Gaza war, which has driven 1.7 million of 2.3 million from their homes and devastated the narrow coastal strip. Israel mounted its ongoing offensive following the October 7th raid on southern Israel by Hamas which killed 1,139 and abducted 250. The movement born at Columbia also embraced sweeping demands adopted by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) campaign founded by Palestinian activists. While varying from campus to campus, the demands include divestment from firms arming Israel and carrying out weapons research benefitting Israel, halt investment in Israel by university endowments, and ensure transparency for money invested in and by Israel.

Students at some universities have called for suspending academic and cultural exchanges with Israel.

University administrators have suspended classes, cancelled graduation ceremonies and called upon police to dismantle encampments and disperse protesters who have been  handcuffed, beaten, detained and suspended. The right to protest has been challenged by the right, including Congressional Republicans, who have called for swift and tough responses, including deployment of National Guard units in states where demonstrations are taking place. Although many Jewish students are taking part in the protests, pro-Israeli organisations and their supporters have labelled the demonstrations “antisemitic,” anti-Jewish. This accusation has gained credibility with some as there have, unfortunately, been a number of antisemitic incidents on protesting campuses. Consequently, Donald Trump has dubbed the protests “antisemitic” and “far worse” than the 2017 white racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Biden has also condemned “the antisemitic protests” and “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

After Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu castigated the campus protests as “antisemitic,” US Senator Bernie Sanders stated. No, Mr Netanyahu, it is not antisemitic or pro-Hamas to point out that, in a little over six months, your extremist government has killed 34,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 77,000 – 70 per cent of whom are women and children.” As far as protesters are concerned, they “understand” all too well and relate to what is happening to the Palestinians in Israeli-occupied Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Palestine Legal - an organisation defending Palestinian rights - lodged a complaint calling on the US Education Department to investigate Columbia for discrimination against Palestinians. Members of the American Association of University Professors accused right-wing Congress members and university officials of violating “the fundamental requirements of academic freedom” and carrying out an assault on students’ rights.”

The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association and its Committee on Academic Freedom issued a statement in which they expressed “increasing alarm (over) the growing number of attempts to intimidate, repress and criminalise campus protests against the ongoing Israeli state violence against Palestinians and the US diplomatic, military, and economic support for it.” University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole pointed out on his Informed Comment website that he knew only one US university president, Wesleyan’s Michael Roth, who has condemned the situation in Gaza despite the devastation wreaked on Gaza’s educational infrastructure. Cole quotes Reliefweb which has reported that 14,500 of Gaza’s one million children have been killed and the education sector has been devastated. “As of 30 March, the Education Cluster estimates that 87.7% of all school buildings in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed. Every university in Gaza has been destroyed.”


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