How Palestine is shaping the West's next leaders

The furore over Gaza at Eurovision, celebrities facing social-media pressure to speak out on the war and university protests in the US point to a new generation that wants to see social justice

Two people pose during a rally against the participation of Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest, in Malmo, Sweden on Saturday. EPA
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In his 2016 book Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnamese Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen claimed that all wars “are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory”.

Indeed, the war on Gaza looks set to mimic America’s disastrous campaign in Vietnam by sticking in the memories of those young people who will go on to form society’s next leaders and opinion makers, particularly in the US and Europe. A quick glance at recent events reveals that a cultural tipping point has been reached when it comes to Israel and the continued occupation of Palestine.

The furore that characterised this year’s Eurovision Song Contest is a case in point. What is often presented as a somewhat kitsch musical celebration of European unity was met with fan boycotts, angry allegations that acts with Palestinian sympathies were being censored and the booing of the Israeli entrant.

Elsewhere, other high-profile cultural events in the West have felt the pressure of public anger over the Gaza war. Last week, several celebrities attending the opulent Met Gala in New York found themselves the subject of an online campaign dubbed social media “guillotining”. Activists have posted lists of stars deemed to be insufficiently vocal about Palestine, and urged fans and the wider public to unfollow or block them online.

Meanwhile, a more consequential campaign in academia, particularly in the US, is taking place. Yesterday, The National reported that several US universities have negotiated Israel divestment with Gaza protesters. For weeks, student protesters on campuses across the country have demanded that their universities disclose financial investments and cut ties with companies or academic institutions connected to Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Turning points such as the Vietnam War protests in the US, the May 1968 Paris student riots and the push in many countries to oppose apartheid in South Africa were, for many people, the moment that they became politically committed citizens and campaigners

What unites all three developments is the fact that they have been driven by people who are – on the whole – young, tech-savvy and educated. Palestine in 2024 has become the issue of the age, one of social justice, for many of these people who will eventually go on to wield major influence in their chosen fields. There is plenty of precedent for this; turning points such as the Vietnam War protests in the US, the May 1968 Paris student riots and the push in many countries to oppose apartheid in South Africa were, for many people, the moment that they became politically committed citizens and campaigners.

In addition, many of the old Israeli narratives that once blunted western criticism – accusations of anti-Semitism, for example – clearly do not deter this new generation from calling out injustice when they see it. The fact that so many of the Gaza protesters at US universities are of Jewish heritage has undermined claims that to be pro-Palestinian is to somehow harbour violent antipathy to Jews. That is not to say there are no saboteurs, and a minority of trouble makers have tried to influence the protest movement. Nor is it to discount the fact there are instances of anti-Semitism that should not be tolerated.

The hard work of trying to stop the war, end the occupation and secure Palestinian rights, which can lead to peace in the region goes on; on Friday the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favour of Palestinian statehood. But no one can deny that Palestine has become the defining issue for a generation of young people, particularly in the West, many of whom have no personal connection to the Middle East.

Nguyen was right: wars are indeed fought twice. In the case of Gaza, where the October 7 attacks by Hamas were rightly met with international condemnation and need for action, Israel’s leadership has gone on to badly lose the battle for public opinion.

Published: May 13, 2024, 3:00 AM
Updated: May 14, 2024, 7:18 AM