American Campus Protests Reflect a Nation at Odds Over Middle East Policy

Otis De Marie
FILE PHOTO: People gather at the University of California Los Angeles, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas continues, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 1, 2024. REUTERS/David Swanson/File Photo

Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper), The atmosphere at several prominent American universities has shifted dramatically over recent weeks amid escalating protests against Israel’s military actions in Gaza. The campuses of Columbia University and New York University (NYU), for instance, have seen the rise of tent camps that symbolize a deepening divide among students.

These protests, while initially peaceful, have taken a turbulent turn since mid-April. At NYU, the situation escalated when university authorities called in the police to dismantle one of the encampments, which resulted in the arrest of several protesters. Those detained were taken to police headquarters in southern Manhattan while their peers followed along and demanded their release. During this confrontation, the students did not shy away from making poignant comparisons that likened the tactics of the New York police with those of the Ku Klux Klan and the Israeli military.

The drama at Columbia University unfolded similarly but with its own unique fervor. Protesters there took a more audacious step by occupying a university building. The university’s response was swift and severe, with police moving in to evict the occupiers in an event marked by considerable force. Officers had to break through barricaded doors, and in a particularly alarming development, an officer discharged a firearm. Fortunately, there were no injuries reported.

Minouche Shafik, the President of Columbia University’s board, expressed a deep sadness over these events. In a heartfelt communication to the university community, Shafik lamented the dire necessity of maintaining a police presence on campus to ensure safety and order.

Last week alone, similar scenes have unfolded across various states, including California, Wisconsin, and Texas, with the number of arrests mounting dramatically. According to the Associated Press, over 2,100 protesters have been detained across 40 educational institutions since April 18. The protests reflect a broader national conflict over the Middle East, particularly the young Americans’ passionate advocacy for Palestinian rights and their urgent calls for President Biden to intervene and stop the hostilities.

The repercussions of these protests are complex and far-reaching, affecting the very fabric of university life. There have been lawsuits issued by Jewish organizations alleging that universities foster a climate that permits discrimination, particularly anti-Semitic incidents, which have left many Jewish students feeling unsafe. The response from university administrations to these incidents has been criticized for not being sufficiently decisive, a sentiment echoed by donors and political figures, especially conservatives.

Republicans have scrutinized the role of university administrations in handling these protests, accusing them of tolerating an anti-Semitic environment. This scrutiny culminated in dramatic political actions, including the resignation of top university officials and legislative moves such as the passing of the Antisemitism Awareness Act by the House of Representatives. While supported by many, including Democrats, critics argue that the act is more about exerting control over universities than directly addressing the issues of anti-Semitism.

The student protests on American university campuses can be traced back to an escalation of violence in the Middle East following an attack by Hamas on October 7, which resulted in significant loss of life. This incident deepened the schism in U.S. public opinion and student activism concerning Israel’s subsequent military responses, which, according to Palestinian sources, have led to over 34,000 deaths in Gaza.

This stark divergence in perspectives has resonated particularly among younger Americans. Recent research from Pew Research highlighted a significant shift: since 2019, the sentiment of Americans under 30 towards the Israeli people has declined by 17 percentage points. In contrast, older demographics tend to view Israelis more favorably than Palestinians.

The voices of academia have not been silent in this discourse. Controversial comments by faculty members at prestigious institutions like Cornell and Yale have ignited further controversy. For instance, Russell Rickford, an associate professor of history at Cornell, described the Hamas attack as “exciting” and later regretted his remarks. Meanwhile, Zareena Grewal, an associate professor of anthropology at Yale, faced backlash for her severe critique of Israeli policies, which she defended despite widespread criticism.

As these protests spread, university administrations found themselves in a precarious position trying to navigate the fine line between fostering a space for free speech and addressing accusations of anti-Semitism. The situation at Cornell, where Professor Rickford was put on leave, contrasts with Yale’s decision to retain Professor Grewal despite a significant petition for her dismissal.

One of the core issues fueling the campus protests has been the demand for universities to sever financial ties with companies that support Israel. This call for divestment is not unprecedented. Historical parallels can be drawn to the Vietnam War protests, where students also demanded that their institutions divest from business interests linked to contentious military actions. Today, students are pressuring institutions like Columbia University to end collaborations with companies like Google, which reportedly has significant contracts with the Israeli military.

However, the potential for such divestment actions seems limited. Columbia’s board chairman, Minouche Shafik, mentioned an “accelerated timeline” to review ethical investment proposals but noted the constraints imposed by state laws that prevent public institutions from boycotting Israel. The complexity of these issues increased when House Speaker Mike Johnson called for Shafik’s resignation, criticizing the spread of what he termed an “anti-Semitic virus” within universities due to a lack of adequate intervention from the administration and the government.

Amid these institutional and political battles, the broader implications of these protests are not lost on the national political stage. The Democratic Party, in particular, is keenly aware of the influence of young, educated voters. The support of this demographic may be crucial for Biden as the presidential election nears, but despite mounting pressure, when asked about adjusting his policy stance on the war, Biden’s response was a firm “no.”

The unfolding events at American universities reflect a deepening divide in the United States, as the nation struggles to navigate the complexities of international conflicts. With students at the forefront demanding changes in policy and questioning historical alliances, these protests are pivotal in indicating the evolving opinions of young Americans. The outcomes of these debates are keenly observed by political leaders and may significantly impact future national policies and electoral strategies.

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Otis De Marie is a journalist specializing in the intersection of politics and economics and has an in-depth understanding of geopolitics and foreign affairs.