The summer of student protests against Gaza war

Anti-Israeli protests are now expanding to the European capitals — Paris, Brussels, London and Amsterdam


Dr Moonis Ahmar May 14, 2024
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Science, University of Karachi and can be reached at amoons@hotmail.com

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The summer of 1968 witnessed massive student protests at the American and western universities against Washington’s involvement in the Vietnam War. It was the beginning of the protests that expanded to the entire West. In 2024, it seems that history is repeating itself. This time the focus is on the blatant American support to Israeli attacks on Gaza that have killed 35,000 Palestinians, injuring thousands and displacing millions.

The May 1970 killing of a few students at Kent State University in the firing by Ohio National Guards triggered anti-war protest by US students, and gave impetus to popular demonstrations in America and rest of the world. France and other European countries became known for their anti-Vietnam war movement — now being repeated in the form of student protests against the war in Gaza. Like pro-Vietnam war demonstrations on the US campuses during late 1960s, today pro-Zionist protests under the pretext of anti-Semitism are also being carried out with the connivance of the Biden administration. A write-up in The Guardian headlined ‘Echoes of Vietnam Era as pro-Palestinian students protest roil U.S campuses’ says: “Student protests on US university campuses over Israel’s war on Gaza showed little sign of letting up over the weekend, with protesters vowing to continue until their demands for US educational bodies to disentangle from companies profiting from the conflict are met. In what is perhaps the most significant student movement since the anti-Vietnam campus protests of the late 1960s, the conflict between pro-Palestinian students and university administrators has revealed an entire subset of conflicts.”

Starting from Colombia University New York in the east coast to University of California Los Angeles in the West Coast, American campuses witnessed massive anti-war protests and the deployment of police and security forces to prevent demonstrators camping inside the campuses and arresting hundreds of them. New York Mayor Eric Adams blamed the NYU protests on “professional agitators” and the university fenced off the square where students customarily gather. The bogey of anti-Semitism, used to quell protests in American and other western university campuses, has proved counter-productive as the genocide of Palestinians cannot be equated with the Nazi era Holocaust of Jews. Some of the university presidents, particularly Minouche Shafik of Colombia University, called police against protesters which enraged students and they demanded her resignation. Several graduation ceremonies in American universities were cancelled because of the student protests.

The only American Senator with a Jewish heritage who openly supported anti-war demonstrations on the US campuses is Bernie Sanders. Thrice elected as an independent Senator from the state of Vermont but rendering support to the Democratic party on most of the issues, Sanders proved his principled stance on the Gaza war when he made it clear that, “Israel had the absolute right to defend itself against this terrorist attack, but it did not and does not have the right to go to war against the entire Palestinian people which is exactly what it is doing. This may be Biden’s Vietnam.” In 1968, which was the election year like 2024, anti-Vietnam war protests forced President Lyndon Johnson to quit presidential race. Will Biden follow Johnson?

Anti-Israeli protests are now expanding to the European capitals — Paris, Brussels, London and Amsterdam. It is the West which despite its relative tilt towards Israel, has risen against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s genocide against Palestinians. According to France 24, some 100 students at Sciences Po Grenoble blocked a tramway and staged a sit-in on the platform, demanding of the school to “suspend its partnership” with Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev. A public research university located in Beersheba, the university “grants special scholarships and financial aid to students in the army”, the head of the Grenoble student union, Robinson Rossi, told Le Monde. Military service is compulsory in Israel for all men and women over the age of 18. Sciences Po Paris has exchange-programme partnerships with Ben Gurion University, the private Reichman University in Tel Aviv district and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Furthermore, the student union Syndicate Alternative Paris at Sorbonne University — where a fresh protest is set to take place Friday afternoon — called for “the end of partnerships between Paris-based and Israeli universities” as well as “the end of repression of those bringing the voice of peace”.

The student protests against the Israeli war on Gaza is a major challenge for President Joe Biden and other supporters of Israel’s unjust war. One can compare the current anti-Israeli campus protests with those in 1968 on two counts.

One, unlike 1968 when information technology was not used to disseminate information, things are different in 2024 due to the use of electronic and social media. Within minutes, action taken against the students of Colombia was reported and spread to the entire world. The use of mobile technology is playing a decisive role in mobilising anti-war demonstrations. Social media restrictions cannot be imposed in the West. When students demand that they have a right to protest under the first amendment of the American constitution, the Biden administration could not impose restrictions on their legitimate assertion against the Israeli aggression in Gaza and occupied West Bank.

Two, unlike 1968 when ethics and morality mattered in compelling the US administrations to end their war in Vietnam, things are different now. In 1968, only a couple of hundred students were raising slogans against the Vietnam war but there were several hundred pro-war demonstrators. However, there was a paradigm shift when the US started receiving hundreds of dead bodies from Vietnam and the Nixon administration — coming under the moral pressure of anti-war demonstrations from 1969 onwards — decided to end the American military involvement in Vietnam in 1973. A lot of water has flown under the bridge since the anti-Vietnam war protests of late 1960s and early 1970s. There is a paradigm shift in 2024 with the erosion of ethics and morality which is a source of Netanyahu’s confidence in sustaining the policy of genocide against Palestinians. If Biden loses 2024 elections, it will primarily be because of his relentless support to the Israeli war on Gaza.

The power of students against the war in Gaza is tested and if the anti-war movement continues in the West, the Biden administration will be compelled to withdraw its support to the Jewish state.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 14th, 2024.

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