Shortcuts / 16 May 2024

University campus protests

Aren’t universities meant to be full of young people debating different points of view?
Yes, that’s usually celebrated and encouraged, but lately, protests between opposing groups of students at colleges right across the US have turned violent.

Why do the 2 sides feel so deeply about the issue?
It’s helpful to have a quick recap of the war in Gaza, which is why they’re protesting. On 7 October last year, Hamas militants from Gaza crossed the border with Israel and attacked Israeli citizens and some foreigners, killing about 1,200 people and taking 252 hostages. 

That’s when the war began?
Yes, Israel declared war on Hamas and began an invasion of the Gaza Strip. That has seen an estimated 35,000 Palestinians killed in the 7 months since. And because of border closures, it’s been difficult for international aid workers to get food and medicines into Gaza – and that’s caused widespread famine and brought about what the United Nations is calling “a humanitarian crisis”.

It’s a horrific situation and there’s a lot of anger and deep trauma on both sides…
Yes. Almost immediately after 7 October, protestors took to the streets in major cities around the world. On one side, Israel’s supporters were demanding that Hamas release the hostages. And on the other side, pro-Palestinian supporters were calling for a ceasefire and for the world to recognise Palestine as its own state.

What’s happening with the hostages now? 
Reports about the numbers are conflicting but according to Israeli authorities, 88 have been returned to Israel and 128 remain unaccounted for. Of those captives, 36 have been confirmed dead – and the families want the bodies of their loved ones back. 

How is that impacting the protests?
College students in America have taken up the cause on both sides and started demonstrating. And as the death toll from the war has risen and conditions in Gaza have worsened, tensions between the opposing groups have been building.

So when did things turn violent?
In the past few weeks, tensions have spilled over into violent clashes between the students – and also with police – at 45 colleges across the US. Reports say the protests have now spread to at least 30 more universities around the world – including here in Australia… 

That sounds worrying?
Protests started in the US in mid-April when dozens of pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University in New York built an encampment – which is a group of tents – and began sleeping on campus. They also took over a building and refused to leave when asked by college staff. Jewish students reported being targeted by antisemitism, so leaders at Columbia resorted to calling in police – who arrived in full riot gear to forcibly remove the protestors… 

What happened to them?
All up, over 100 students were arrested in the raid, and on the same night, another 100 were arrested at the nearby City College of New York where a similar flare-up was unfolding.

And then others joined in?
Yep… Within days, the protests had spread across the country and violence between the 2 camps began spiralling out of control. One of the most explosive nights was at the University of California’s LA campus – known as UCLA – where pro-Israeli supporters attacked the pro-Palestinian encampment. Police were called there to stop people from hurling fireworks, tear gas and even spears at each other… 

Sounds horrendous…
It was… Reporters on the ground said it was “like a war zone” and it was lucky no one was seriously hurt. In addition to New York and LA, there have also been protests at colleges in Arizona, Texas, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, California and Ohio, which have seen 2,500 people arrested and dozens of students expelled from Ivy League schools.

Ivy… what?
Ivy League colleges are some of the most prestigious in the US – and the world – and are heavily involved. That’s significant because it ties in with what the pro-Palestinian students are trying to achieve…

Which is…?
They want the unis to “divest” or stop investing the generous endowment funds they’re given through donations to companies with links to Israel and to axe any research partnerships with Israeli companies. They also want America to stop supporting Israel with money and weapons, and they’re calling for US President Joe Biden to take a stronger stand against the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the world stage.

And what do the pro-Israeli group of students want?
They’re calling themselves “counter-protestors to hate speech” and they want people to remember that Israelis were the ones originally targeted by Hamas on 7 October last year. They also want Hamas to release the remaining hostages.

It sounds like this is a significant moment…
Yes, to put these protests into context, academics and political commentators are calling this recent wave of student activism the most significant youth movement since the Black Lives Matter cause in 2020. It’s even being compared to the anti-war campaign waged by tens of thousands of students protesting the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.

So what has Biden done about it?
The number of students involved now is massive, so, with the protests making headlines all over the world, Biden has been forced to weigh in. Many say he’s been put in quite a tricky position because he’s trying to balance being a good ally to Israel while also protecting Americans’ right to free speech…

But surely he doesn’t endorse violence?
No, Biden has condemned the outbreaks of violence, saying that while students have the right to protest, they don’t have the right to “cause chaos” and take over buildings. He’s also said the wave of protests won’t influence the US’ stance on Israel – which is its closest ally in the Middle East. Its position is to lend military and financial support and also to act as a political ally on the world stage. 

What about Netanyahu?
The friendship between Biden and Netanyahu has been tested lately, with the Israeli PM continuing his mission to “eradicate Hamas terrorists”, which has been condemned by the United Nations because it’s come at the cost of so many Palestinian lives. Even Biden has said Israel’s latest ground assault in Rafah has “crossed a line”.

And what’s happening with the ceasefire?
Biden’s been trying, with the help of Qatar and Egypt, to bring about a ceasefire between the warring parties. He really needs this to happen because there’s a US election coming up in November…

Yes, I’ve heard just a little about that…
Right, so as we know, it’s going to be another showdown between Donald Trump for the Republicans and Joe Biden for the Democrats. There’s been a lot of commentary on their ages, so we don’t need to get into that, but we do need to talk about young people because a lot of them are unhappy with Biden’s policies right now – and to put it bluntly, in a close race for the presidency, he’s going to need their votes. 

So is Biden distancing himself from Israel?
No, for the moment he’s still standing by Israel, and in addressing the protests, Biden’s also raised concerns about what he’s called “a ferocious surge” of antisemitism in the US and across the world. That’s a mood that has also been reported in Australia.

How is the antisemitism manifesting?
Since the 7 October attacks, Jewish students in the US have noted a rise in antisemitic incidents and the advocacy group, the Anti-Defamation League, has reported a 321% rise on university campuses. That’s also reflected in reports here in Oz since the protests spread to our unis.  

What’s going on here?
In the past 2 weeks, protest encampments have sprung up at at least 9 Australian universities, and tensions between groups of students are running high. They’ve happened on the campuses of our most established unis, like the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland, the University of Melbourne, RMIT and ANU… And more have held marches and demonstrations.

But they’re not as bad as the US protests?
No, they’re not on the scale of the American protests, but dozens of students have set up tents out the front of their universities’ main buildings, and they’re vowing to stay put until their demands are met.

What do they want?
The demands from the Aussie students echo those of the US students. So, while some of our unis have reverted to online classes, they’re mostly happy for the students to protest as long as it’s peaceful and doesn’t break the law. In fact, 250 academics have signed an open letter in support of the encampments.

So the Aussie protestors are pretty chill?
For the most part, the Aussie protests have stayed under control – with a couple of exceptions – but no arrests have been made… However, the use of antisemitic chants by pro-Palestinian protestors has put some unis on edge. 

Which ones?
In the past couple of days, the University of Melbourne has had to cancel some classes after pro-Palestinian protestors refused to leave a university building and began staging a ‘sit-in’. Deakin University in Victoria has ordered students to remove tents from its Burwood campus for what it says are safety reasons. And students at ANU have also been told to vacate. 

Has there been any violence?
Not yet, but the Group of 8 – which represents Australia’s oldest unis – has written to the Attorney-General asking for legal advice on antisemitic slogans and chants like “intifada”, which some Jewish students have interpreted as inciting “an uprising” against them. It comes after an ANU student was suspended last week for openly expressing support for Hamas. 

So it’s exposed some ugly views?
Police are closely watching the situation, and the government has announced new funding in the Budget for a review into racism in Australian unis. PM Anthony Albanese says he’s concerned that antisemitism is being expressed more openly than at any other point in his lifetime, and he’s reiterated that it “has no place in Australia”. 

What do the Coalition say?
The Coalition has taken a hardline approach. They say the unis’ leaders aren’t doing enough to protect Jewish students and urging them to send in police to clear the camps.

How do the unis respond to that?
The unis say they’re trying to avoid inflaming the situation, and they don’t want a repeat of the violence that happened in the US.

What is any of this achieving?
The impacts of the protests remain to be seen, but even celebrities are getting involved… This week American rapper Macklemore, whose song – Hind’s Hall – is about the protests, made a cameo at Sydney Uni’s pro-Palestine camp. And in the US, dozens of students walked out of a speech by Jerry Seinfeld, who is of Jewish background and is a vocal supporter of Israel, at a Duke University ceremony.

What about the bigger picture?
As we mentioned earlier, the campus protests could have a real bearing on the outcome of the US presidential election if enough of the youth vote turns away from Joe Biden. And in Australia, the pro-Palestinian protests continue to put pressure on the Government to take a firmer stance with Israel over the war.

Have there been any definitive outcomes from the protests?
In some countries, students are claiming a win, like at Trinity College in Ireland… Last week, it agreed to divest from companies connected to Israel and suspend research and exchange programmes.

Will the protests help end the war in Gaza?
Despite the world hoping for a peaceful resolution, it seems we’re no closer to seeing one until Hamas releases the remaining hostages and Netanyahu agrees to withdraw Israeli troops. Until then, the students have said they’ll continue to protest – with more joining their ranks in Australia every day, and more protests forming at universities around the world.

So the protests could continue for some time?
Some Aussie academics say as long as the protests stay peaceful, they’re a rite of passage at universities, and they also say these latest ones have brought campuses back to life “after the bleak Covid years” – that’s their quote.

Squiz recommends:

Listening: This episode of The Daily podcast from the New York Times that gives a good account of the US protests, particularly on the night of the UCLA arrests, and what impact the activism could have on Joe Biden’s bid to retain his presidency.

Reading: This article by The Guardian is a good explainer of what’s been happening at campuses across Australia.

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