Pro-Palestinian student protests in the US aren't going to leave Biden unscathed

As repression against student demonstrators continue, their effect on the presidential election is growing evident

Students and faculty members of various American colleges show their support for Gaza during a rally in Chicago last week. AFP
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Protests of university students in the US against America’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza have spread like wildfire. There have been sustained demonstrations on more than 200 campuses. More recently, students have taken to establishing protest encampments in the centre of some campuses. This began last week at Columbia University in New York. Ten days later there were encampments at almost four dozen universities.

What’s been most striking is not only the way this effort has spread, but also the amazing diversity of the students involved in the demonstrations. There are Arab-American students, to be sure, who’ve been joined by fellow students of every race and creed.

The leadership of the protesting students have been disciplined and eloquent in their demands for a ceasefire and an end to the genocide in Gaza. Many have also called on their universities to divest funds from entities contributing to the Israeli war effort.

The protesters were peaceful, though purposefully disruptive. At times they’ve occupied central locations on campus. They’ve also chanted, as demonstrators are wont to do. Yet, as noted by respected observers, who’ve visited the sites, the protests have been peaceful and orderly.

Goaded by Republican congressional leadership and a few pro-Israel Jewish organisations, there’s been an effort to paint these demonstrations as anti-Semitic and a threat to the safety of Jewish students. The members of Congress have latched on to this, exploiting it as a wedge issue and portraying the protesting students as liberal elites, captive to anti-Israel groups.

Both the Republican leadership and the small but influential group of Jewish leaders have used their respective platforms to repeatedly argue that chants used by some of the students are inherently anti-Semitic. For example, they’ve said that “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is actually a call to commit genocide against Jews in Israel. They recently passed a Congressional resolution making that very point. Using such deliberately distorted interpretations of the slogans used by the students in support of Palestinians, they've pressured some university presidents to resign and have made life uncomfortable for others.

It is a dangerous miscalculation for the Biden White House to dismiss polls showing the President losing support among young and 'minority' voters

What’s been ignored is that in most of the encampments, a disproportionately large number of the protesters are Jewish students. Ironically, while one Jewish leader was advising Jewish students at Columbia University to stay home and not come to campus because it was unsafe for them and was urging New York’s governor to call in National Guard units to restore order on campus, the Jewish students in the encampment were holding an interfaith Passover Seder.

Later, New York City police were ordered on to campus to disband the encampment. This was followed by similar police actions in Texas, California and Georgia where disturbing levels of violence (tear gas, rubber bullets, tasers and baton beatings) were used against the peaceful protesters.

Instead of dampening the students’ commitment to continue the protests, the actions by the police, elected officials and university administrators have hardened their resolve of protesters. And so, the day after the encampments were forcibly disbanded, the students returned, re-establishing their protest sites.

With the ire of the young directed not only at Israel’s behaviour in Gaza, but also at how the Biden administration has enabled this war to continue, the way these campus protests are playing out does not bode well for the President during this election year.

Comparisons are being made to the 1968 anti-Vietnam War protests and the role they played in costing Democrats the presidency. Having been a participant in the protest politics, both in that period and the current one, I can attest to the similarities, as well as some important differences.

Vietnam was the first war that was televised, bringing it into American homes. Americans saw the impact of napalm on civilians and learnt of the use of torture against prisoners. In addition to opposition to the war for moral or political reasons, there was the more personal and unsettling concern of the national draft that required young people to register for military service.

The Vietnam era was also a time of broad national ferment that witnessed the emergence of several other protest movements: civil rights, environmental concerns, women’s rights, and so on. There was limited overlap in the participation in these diverse movements.

Today is different. There is a significant overlap in the movements for women’s rights, black empowerment, environmental justice and now, opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza. And because of the impact of social media, today’s young people, whom my brother John Zogby calls “the first globals”, are experiencing the war in Gaza non-stop, up close and personal, and are deeply disturbed by what they are seeing.

There were no Vietnamese students on campuses in the 1960s, but today empowered and organised Arab-American and progressive American-Jewish students have taken the lead in mobilising opposition to Israel’s Gaza war – with the former saying: “Not to our people”, and the latter saying: “Not in our name.” Because they have found allies in the other movements in which they too were participants, the anti-war effort has grown.

Through it all, the Biden White House has demonstrated only limited concern, apparently convinced that they’ll weather this storm and still defeat Donald Trump in November. They dismiss polls showing the President losing support among young and “minority” voters. This is a dangerous miscalculation. As primary elections in several states have demonstrated, there is a haemorrhaging of support for the President’s re-election. And as repression against student demonstrators continues, that opposition is solidifying.

Should the war continue for several more months and the scene at this summer’s Democratic Convention in Chicago be as ugly as it was in 1968, many young voters will be hard-pressed to vote for Mr Biden. They won’t vote for Mr Trump. Most likely they’ll either vote for a third party or not at all.

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Published: April 29, 2024, 2:00 PM