A campus at war over Gaza: Who sets right from wrong?

The current wave of student discord has captured the world’s attention with images of hundreds of police smashing up encampments and making arrests.

A protest encampment on the University of Chicago campus on May 4, 2024, against Israel's war on Gaza. Students are calling for the university to divest from companies complicit in the war.
A protest encampment on the University of Chicago campus on May 4, 2024, against Israel's war on Gaza. Students are calling for the university to divest from companies complicit in the war.

A campus at war over Gaza: Who sets right from wrong?

The October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and its aftermath have fundamentally transformed university campuses worldwide, both as physical and abstract spaces. These institutions have grappled with the ethical and political implications of the Hamas attack and the subsequent Israeli response.

The recent student protests across numerous leading US campuses and the ensuing controversies are a testament to this. Over the years, university campuses have evolved from ivory towers for economically privileged adolescents and classical scholars to centres of activism and proactive movements.

My journey as a student activist and current faculty member at the American University of Beirut—one of the oldest and most prominent centres of higher learning in the East and beyond—has provided me with insights into the evolution of student activism. However, the campuses currently embroiled in debates over Gaza mark a significant departure from past experiences.

The unfolding events across leading academic institutions in the United States and Europe require sober analysis and a strategic plan for the future if the liberal educational model is to survive.

Witnessing students and faculty protesters being manhandled by riot police across university campuses is a ghastly sight. Such tactics should never be used against peaceful demonstrators, especially those attempting to end violence against civilians.

Surely, this does not include those promoting violence or using intimidation tactics across the political spectrum to bully and label others as unfit for self-expression. Although these campus wars, important and well-intentioned as they may seem to many, are merely a reproduction of previous youth protests and are projected to peter out.

A key element in any campus protest is the students, whose activism is framed by their need to attend classes and pass exams. Thus, any student protest mobilised a few weeks before final examinations or during the reading period is doomed to fail, as the majority of students—many of whom are realistically apathetic to all protest demands in general, not specifically the Palestinian cause—will simply take their exams and graduate.

Meanwhile, other students will take their much-awaited summer vacation, leaving a few hundred zealous activists to face a disgruntled university administration concerned solely with its primary function of education, which simply cannot proceed with students planning the occupation of buildings and harassing those wishing to attend class.

In the spring of 1971 and 1974, the AUB campus was the site of large strikes opposing a 10% tuition increase, led by the pro-Palestinian student movement at the time—a protest that turned into an occupation of the campus and the subsequent intervention by Lebanese security forces to end a movement swept up by the new left and its ideas of perpetual revolution and the ultimate destruction of authority.

While the current campus wars globally are reacting to the massacre committed against Palestinian civilians, these young adolescents have adopted the same rhetoric that existed during the Cold War—a dogma that framed the struggle as a never-ending confrontation with the "White colonial imperialist North" and the global South, whose problems, they claim, will end once this occupation is lifted.

Ironically, such ideas were not born in the global South but in Western elite institutions such as Columbia University, where renowned Palestinian-American literary critic and activist Edward Said and his critique of Orientalism have intellectually evolved over time, going out of their way to purposely neglect any criticism of autocratic regimes such as the Soviet Union, China, or, in the ongoing war in Gaza, Iran.

Axel Rangel Garcia
Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said was a steadfast voice who championed the Palestinian cause and afforded it a space in Western discourse.

Read more: Revisiting the legacy of Edward Said, the voice of the Palestinian cause in the West

Coincidentally, many of the students chanting for the Freedom of Palestine "from the river to the sea" have no idea that such a slogan is alien to the people of Palestine and the region as well, who aspire not to live in the past but in a future where they can live in dignity and peace—a reality which the protests across these Ivy League campuses will never positively influence.

Even when Norm Finkelstein, the author of the famous yet controversial book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, warned the Columbia protesters against using this chant and to avoid being caught up in their ego and to remember the juvenile, boorish organisers of the protest rudely dismissed their true aims, his words of wisdom and advice.

Unpacking archaic slogans and Che Guevara shirts is not political activism, nor is hosting the banner of Hezbollah and Iranian militias, which are responsible not only for the killing of US citizens but also for the destruction of countries across the Levant, including my country of Lebanon.

Other than the naivety and the senselessness of such an act, it provides the so-called Zionists, whom these student protesters are trying to discredit, with more pretext to dehumanise and justify the ongoing bloodshed in Gaza and soon Rafah.

Carrying the banner of Hezbollah, known for killing its political opponents and fighting alongside the Syrian dictator at a rally demanding justice and an end to the genocide, is identical to brandishing a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) outfit at a Black Lives Matter event—both unsavoury and dangerous.

It's perhaps educational and enlightening for those students and their mentors who have adopted the metanarrative of the axis of resistance to scan through many of the countries under the hegemony and occupation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which in some circles has replaced Guevara as an icon, starting with Lebanon all the way to Yemen and Iran, to realise that those who claim to champion Palestine have done nothing to protect its people or to improve their conditions other than promoting antisemitic rhetoric and empowering right-wing fanaticism within the Israeli anti-peace camp.

Ever since its inception, the Palestinian cause has been utilised by Arab autocrats to paint over many of their local debacles, starting with Egypt’s despot Gamal Abdel Nasser, who found it befitting to dissolve his opponents in acid or to place Oxbridge scholars in concentration camps so as not to distract the masses from their march towards the liberation of Palestine—a march which Iran has supposedly taken upon itself to continue.

In this respect, Iran and its fellow travellers, some of whom are members of the US educational system, are condemning the suppression of these campus protests but are equally silent about the protests of young men and women in Iran or the September 2022 killing of Mahsa Amini, who was killed by Iran's morality police for merely not wearing a hijab.

Supporting Hezbollah at a rally to end the genocide in Gaza is like supporting the Ku Klux Klan at a Black Lives Matter event.

If we are to disregard these double standards, the student protests, perhaps unknowingly, are acting as red herrings and distractions from the war in Gaza, as news and footage of the arrest of Noëlle McAfee, the chair of Emory University's philosophy department, have simply diverted attention from the real plight and death of innocent Palestinian lives, just like the wokeness of images of multifaith prayers of protesters, which adds religion to an already volatile predicament.

Moreover, it is hard to fathom, even for the ardent proponent of the Palestinian cause, how pulling down the United States National flag and hoisting the Palestine one on the Harvard campus is a good idea or how such a dedication to a noble cause can be manifested in the most egotistic, ghastly manner.

In the same sense that the Iranian missile attack on Israel a few weeks back and the light show that accompanied it took the killing of the Palestinians from centre stage and turned the spotlight on Iran.

Noticeably, the majority of the student leaders and instigators of these riots hail from families of immigrants and are themselves second-generation Americans who have never lived in their countries of origin except perhaps during summer vacations to taste their grandmother's homemade hummus.

In this respect, it is interesting to note why many of the countries from which the student leaders' parents fled are not taking to the streets to protest for Palestine, nor are the student campuses experiencing the same ruckus that some US universities are trying to handle.

Merely brushing away this lack of action as related to the authoritarian regimes in many of these countries is not enough. Rather, the people of these impoverished nations know well that such populist theatrics can only weaken the Palestinian cause and empower Iran, which has systematically eroded all the infrastructure of statehood that could serve to support the Palestinians with actions rather than just words.

Moreover, contrary to their parents' past lives, which they have escaped, these second- or third-generation immigrants have no notion of what it is to live under a dictatorship, nor to be denied access to basic services such as education, healthcare, and above all, human dignity, and thus they have no constraint in demanding the destruction of the alleged colonialist white system which is oppressing them as they sip on their lattes.

Along this line, coupling demands for more student participation in university governance and demanding free education for all remains a worthy cause, yet they should not be conflated with the Palestinian issue, nor should these demands fail to observe that many of the problems of the Arab world and that of Palestine is that the Arabs themselves are partly at fault for failing to build nation-states capable of liberating the mind before liberating the land.

Having researched and written about the student movement at AUB and Lebanon in my first book A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut 1967-1975, I am not really surprised that the current activists are merely replicating the actions of their predecessors, which have failed to achieve many of their demands.

REUTERS/Nuri Vallbona
University of Texas at Austin Anthropology Professor Craig Campbell leads chants with other university faculty members during a pro-Palestinian protest on the campus.

In essence, the framing process within the social movement they are championing has placed ideals, parlance, and mannerisms essentially elitist, which coincidentally only make sense to them and not necessarily to the public at large.

The protests' insistence that their movement will muster numbers is also perhaps one of its downfalls. Interestingly, while hundreds were maintaining their sit-in at Columbia University campus, merely a short subway ride to Union Square, thousands of New Yorkers had gathered to watch an orange-masked man consume a jar of cheese balls, which, unfortunately to them, is more important than peace and justice.

The refusal to acknowledge that the University, despite its political influence, remains a bubble restricted to intellectual elitism and financially privileged individuals and that political action on its campuses cannot be as potent as the scholarly and knowledge production it yields is one of the main pitfalls of these student protests.

In this respect, thousands of publications on the Palestinian cause by reputable scholars and university presses have helped more than any student or faculty sit-in or occupation of campus buildings. Books, studies and classes given by Rashid and Walid Khalidi, Laila Parsons, Avi Shlaim, Rosemary Sayigh, Leila Farsakh, and other renowned scholars have given the Palestinians more than Qasem Soleimani, the slain commander of the Quds Force, responsible for the killing of civilians and children across Syria and Iraq, or by the empty promises of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah to pray in Jerusalem.

Oppositely, the opponents of these protests, mainly those who support the Israeli state's version of events, have brushed away these demonstrations as merely juvenile and unworthy of introspection yet have also contributed to making an already bad situation even worse.

These young men and women might have acted blindly on some matters, and the vehicle that they have chosen to deliver their message might be questionable or disagreeable to many, yet the demand for peace and the stop of bloodshed is not something that should be disregarded as antisemitic and foolish.

Consequently, anyone who claims their desire to protect and preserve Israel and its Jewish population should labour to give the Palestinians their rights in any form or way possible, either through the one- or two-state solution, and understand well that Hamas and the Iranian regime's influence and potency rest in allowing for these rights to linger.

Merely adopting the historic narratives shared by the proponents across the borders and weaponising them in the ongoing war over legitimacy and the justification of violence will not bring stability to a world gone crazy—the war in Sudan and Ukraine and any future conflict is another sober reminder.

It is perhaps impossible to reason with the spirited youth, at least at this stage, but once the dust has settled and the bodies have been counted, it remains prudent for them to look back at their protest movement, learn, and move on. Until then, my advice to them is to beware of some faculty and zealots bearing gifts and to not only learn from the past but also wager on the future.

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