The Gaza encampments and history: Is this the "right" kind of protest?

Politicians and the public largely oppose the student protests. But activists say that's missing the point

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published May 20, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Hundreds of Pro-Palestinian protesters and students gather at the UC Berkeley encampment area outside of Sproul Hall to demand end to Gaza war, divestment from Israel, in Berkeley, California, United States on May 7, 2024. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Hundreds of Pro-Palestinian protesters and students gather at the UC Berkeley encampment area outside of Sproul Hall to demand end to Gaza war, divestment from Israel, in Berkeley, California, United States on May 7, 2024. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Students opposed to Israel's war in Gaza have spent nearly a month escalating their protests on college campuses across the country, frequently erecting encampments on their university greens, occupying buildings and even demonstrating on their graduation stages.

Colleges caught in the throes of the wave of encampments, largely sparked by the one at Columbia University that drew national media attention and an aggressive police response, have offered varied responses. These have included barring students from campus and applying university sanctions to summoning local police to quash the demonstrations, resulting in nearly 3,000 arrests at 60 or so campuses, according to The Associated Press.

Some universities have instead reached agreements with students, avoiding the massive controversy caused by Columbia president Minouche Shafik, who called upon New York City police to clear encampments twice last month, resulting in student injuries, more than 100 arrests and a rebuke from Columbia's faculty. Some other institutions have simply allowed the encampments to continue without much incident.  

Support for the students among the general public appears to be slim, even as Americans’ overall support for Israel’s actions in Gaza continues to diminish. Opposition to campus protests appears to span the political spectrum, with nearly 50 percent of respondents to an early May YouGov poll strongly or somewhat opposing them. 

“We are not doing this for praise or because we want people to agree," said Ember McCoy, a graduate student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in an interview with Salon. "It's more just trying to get the visual out there. We are very aware that in the moment, the favor might not be on our side. That doesn't mean that we're not doing the right thing.”

The wide range of institutional responses and dissenting opinions about the method and significance of this wave of protests and their methods have dominated the discourse such as to frame a larger question: What is the right way to protest on an issue one feels passionate about? 

"If you want to answer that question, you first need to be sure that you understand the goals of the protest," said Angus Johnston, a professor and historian of student activism at Hostos Community College in New York. "You need to understand what the protesters are trying to achieve, and what their theory of how to achieve that is.” 

*  *  *

More than 34,500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the start of Israel's offensive, according to the Gaza Health Ministry (which is affiliated with Hamas but largely regarded as reliable by international observers). Israel's attack came in response to the Hamas attack last Oct. 7, in which about 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 200 were seized as hostages. 

Campus demonstrations began last fall, with students largely demanding that their colleges and universities call for a permanent ceasefire. Many activists warned that Israel's operation could amount to a genocide. Now, the rising Palestinian death toll and worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza leads many to declare that it has become one. 

After eight months of war, as the Israeli Defense Forces invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah, students have rallied behind an additional demand: divestment from companies that they believe profit from Israel’s invasion of Gaza and its occupation of the West Bank. 

Other demands vary by institution but have included calls for universities to institute greater transparency around the school’s investment portfolio, to cut ties with Israeli colleges and to end alleged land grabs in neighborhoods adjacent to college campuses. Many students see the latter issue as part of a broader neocolonial project. 

If passing referendums and other procedural actions weren’t enough to convince university leaders, then student campers were “willing to risk everything to stay here until the university we attend is no longer profiting off the genocide,” in the words of a Columbia graduate student who wished to be identified only as Jared. That was the “visual, guttural” message Columbia protesters wanted to send, he continued. (Jared said members of his family had received threats over his previous remarks quoted by the media.) 

Student campers were “willing to risk everything to stay here until the university we attend is no longer profiting off the genocide,” in the words of a Columbia graduate student.

Many Republican elected officials have latched onto the unrest, safety concerns and perceived antisemitism on many campuses to characterize the protests as a reflection of higher education's "woke" indoctrination of students. Many Democrats have also deplored perceived antisemitism, admonished the demonstrators as overly disruptive and bemoaned the threat they may pose to Joe Biden's prospects of re-election. 

Widespread criticism of the protest movement as antisemitic has become a painful and divisive issue, as Salon recently reported. This concern is rooted partly in undisputed but isolated instances of hate speech, in the fears of Jewish students who say they’ve been targeted on campus since October and in the longstanding debate over whether anti-Zionism — that is, opposition to Israel's identity as a Jewish state — constitutes de facto antisemitism. 

Pro-Palestinian protesters have frequently derided Zionism and accused Israel of being an apartheid state that systematically oppresses and marginalizes Palestinians, often driving them from established villages in the West Bank to expand Jewish settlement. For many protesters, a "one-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the only fair remedy. 

Controversial chants like “globalize the intifada” and “From the river to the sea,” which have ambiguous connotations — to some, simply a call for Palestinian resistance, but to others a call for genocide against Jews — have become rallying cries at numerous demonstrations. 

Mikael Rochman, a Jewish rising senior at Columbia and IDF reserve soldier, told Salon it seemed “pretty clear" that the protesters' agenda was "using the suffering of Palestinians, which is genuine, to attack Israel." He added, “If people actually cared about Palestinians, they need to also care about Israelis. They need to push us together, not bring us further apart.”

Tyler Gregory, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, said the loss of civilian life in Gaza is tragic but that the protesters have crossed the line into antisemitism with demands that seek to hold Israel to a standard that other nations, including the U.S., cannot meet.

If universities divest from Israel, he said, it would harm Jewish student life on campus far more than it would damage the Israeli government. "Israel doesn't care what Brown University or whatever university does with their investments,” said Gregory, who supports a two-state solution that would include an independent Palestinian nation. “But Jewish students do — because it looks like the university is now taking a position on the conflict."

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Student organizers, however, reject the claims of antisemitism and maintain their targets have always been the universities, not Jewish fellow students or the Jewish community.

Many Jewish students, in fact, have also participated in encampments and demonstrations and risked arrest. Jared, the Columbia student quoted above, is Jewish and explained that during the Columbia encampment, student protesters held a Passover seder as well as weekly Shabbat dinners. 

McCoy, the Michigan student, said any antisemitism expressed around the Ann Arbor encampment came from outsiders. When student protesters have made inflammatory comments, as when a Columbia protester called for the death of Zionists, student organizations have condemned that behavior and advocated for education on antisemitism.

“I'm deeply concerned about the safety of the Jewish people. I want my family to be all right. I want to be safe,” Jared said. He described the state of Israel as "a political entity that is just using my religious identity as a cover for shielding itself from any criticism — I don't like that. I don't like that there’s a country that's willing to do that.”

*  *  *

This will be the fourth week of the student encampment on the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus. It has held hours of programming each day, including rallies, teach-ins, craft workshops for protest art and visits from guest speakers.

Protest actions have largely been peaceful, said McCoy, a spokesperson for the pro-Palestinian student coalition known as TAHRIR (Transparency, Accountability, Humanity, Reparations, Investment, Resistance). The encampment, McCoy said, has attracted strong support from the community in the form of donated meals and a volunteer medic team, among other contributions. 

"Israel doesn't care what Brown University does with their investments. But Jewish students do — because it looks like the university is now taking a position on the conflict."

The atmosphere is tense because of police presence and surveillance, McCoy said, along with the memory of previous clashes with police on the Ann Arbor campus and increasingly frequent drop-ins from university administrators urging students to leave. The group intends to stay, McCoy said, until university regents agree to divest a portion of Michigan's $17.9 billion endowment from companies tied to Israel. 

A recent analysis from the independent nonprofit Acled of more than 550 U.S. college demonstrations found that 97 percent had been peaceful, according to The Guardian. Those that had turned violent largely did so because of police intervention and physical dispersal tactics, the study said.  

At Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the encampment built by student protesters stood for just a few hours before police descended, resulting in injuries and arrests of 89 students, staff, faculty and community members. 

The arrest of Dr. Annelise Orleck, a history professor at Dartmouth, went viral precisely because of its brutality. A video of the incident showed the 65-year-old woman, formerly the chair of Jewish Studies at the school, being shoved to the ground and dragged away by police who zip-tied her hands.

Orleck, who said she attended the peaceful demonstration to support the students, told Salon that police officers had knelt on her back and ignored her complaints that she was having trouble breathing. “We were transported in Dartmouth vans, taken to a series of different jails and holding cells," she said. "I had taught the civil rights movement that day, so we sang civil rights songs and labor songs in the van and the holding cell.” Orleck said she had sustained nerve damage from having her wrists tightly bound. 

Protesters have also faced occasional violence from pro-Israel counter-protesters, most notably in a bloody clash at UCLA's pro-Palestine encampment in late April. Such incidents have been rare, according to the Acled study. 

“We have to change the narrative, because if we demonize these kids, then it's OK to brutalize them," Orleck said, referring to remarks made by some right-wing political figures. “That's the narrative — you compare them to 1930s Nazi youth on campuses in Germany, and then it's OK to brutalize them. That's a very dangerous slippery slope.”

*  *  *

The First Amendment broadly protects speech and peaceful assembly, with two main exceptions, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. The first exception applies to threats intended to make someone believe they are at real risk for bodily harm. 

But even the most hateful of hate speech is not generally recognized as an inherent threat. Whether and when such speech crosses into a true threat has to be weighed on a case-by-case basis, explained Lindsie Rank, FIRE’s director of campus rights advocacy. 

"We have to change the narrative. If you demonize these kids, if you compare them to 1930s Nazi youth on campuses in Germany, then it's OK to brutalize them."

Even a patently offensive remark such as “I want to kill all Zionists," Rank said, is "a little bit more rhetorical hyperbole" or a political statement, not a direct threat. "That isn't them saying to a specific person, or even to a specific small group of people in front of them, ‘I'm going to kill you right now.’" Rank told Salon. 

The other exceptions are rules regarding reasonable time and place, and in the case of protests, those restrictions must be content-neutral, equally applied and adequately justified. Universities may institute noise restrictions on amplified protests during exams, for example, or implement tent rules barring camping in order to allow students and faculty to traverse the campus. 

Public universities, such as Michigan and other state-owned schools, are subject to the U.S. Constitution. Private universities are not, and remain relatively free to decide how large a commitment they make to protecting free speech on campus. Many of them, including prestigious Ivy League schools like Columbia and Dartmouth, have generally agreed to make broad commitments, Rank said. “We do hold them to the same standard that we would hold a public institution to,” she explained.

But how students reconcile their desire to have their grievances heard and their demands met with the rules set by their respective institutions is a different matter altogether.

At Michigan, protesters with TAHRIR and other aligned student groups went to the homes of university regents early last Wednesday morning to post a list of demands on their doors, even holding a protest at the home of board chair Sarah Hubbard and decorating her lawn with faux body bags. 

In a social media post, students claimed that protest organizers have yet to meet with university leaders, and urged regents to sit down at the negotiation table they established at the encampment.  

Regents disputed that assertion in Wednesday’s board meeting as “short of what the actual truth is,” saying students had opportunities to engage with the board, the university president and staff both virtually and in person. The university’s public affairs office condemned the students’ “intimidating behavior” as “dangerous and unacceptable” in a statement

“A lot of what we're seeing is civil disobedience, and part of the potential power of civil disobedience," Rank said, "is that those who are engaging in it are willing to accept the consequences.” 

*  *  *

Until the first crackdown at Columbia in mid-April, the pro-Palestinian student protests had not seemed particularly significant in either scale or impact, said historian Angus Johnston said.

It was the Columbia president's decision to escalate that changed the dynamic, he continued, raising the chances that students would “come back stronger” and “gain more support on campus.” What inevitably occurred after that, he said, “is that media attention, social media attention, is going to shine a spotlight on your campus, and it's going to spur other students on other campuses to respond as well.”

According to Jared, the Columbia activists galvanizing students at other campuses was always an important goal — though to a different end. If a prominent school like Columbia could be convinced to divest, Jared said, other universities would follow suit. One obvious model was the anti-apartheid protests of the 1980s, which saw students erect “shantytowns” on many campuses.

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Columbia activists also modeled their most controversial action — occupying a campus building and temporarily renaming it for a Palestinian girl killed in the Gaza bombings — after the actions of Vietnam War protesters during a famous campus rebellion in 1968, 56 years earlier that same week.

Student protests of the Civil Rights Movement offered another early model showing how students could exact change, said Aldon Morris, a professor emeritus of sociology at Northwestern University. Students staged a now-legendary 1960 sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, starting a movement that eventually spread across the South, mobilizing young Black people and their white allies against Jim Crow and demonstrating the power students held.

Those protests would influence numerous other student actions of that decade, in which campus protesters railed against war, the draft, university involvement with the military-industrial complex and university acquisitions of land, Johnston said. 

The current wave of demonstrations, Johnston added, have been far less radical than many seen in the '60s, when property destruction, building takeovers and physical violence were not uncommon.

"The student movement of the '60s was really, by the end of the decade, a pretty violent revolt. There's nothing even vaguely similar to that happening now.”

One of the first incidents of the 1964 Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, for instance, saw thousands of students swarm a police car after a former student was arrested for passing out flyers without permission. Students surrounded the car for 32 hours, demanding that the young man be freed and delivering speeches from the car's hood, Johnston explained. By the end of the decade, student protests had escalated to full-scale campus rebellions, violent exchanges with police and, in the most extreme cases, firebombing and burning down campus buildings.  

“The student movement of the '60s was really, by the end of the decade, on many campuses a pretty violent revolt,” Johnston said. “There's nothing even vaguely similar to that happening now.”

Most Americans didn't much care for the peaceful demonstrations of the 1960s either, as Gallup polls from those moments show. Respondents to one 1963 survey said that mass demonstrations were more likely to hurt than help the chances of Black Americans obtaining racial equality. 

Characterizing the current wave of protests as antisemitic or influenced by radical outside agitators, according to Morris, the Northwestern sociologist, represents an effort to delegitimize students' moral convictions and to distract attention from the actual cause of the protests.

“All of a sudden you're not talking about the possible genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. You're not talking about babies being starved to death,” he said. “You’re not talking about 35,000 people that have been killed, including entire families and so forth.”

Morris continued, “Protest is designed to create discomfort. So when the authorities, the school administrators and political leaders want to tell the students how to protest, that doesn't work. The point of protest is to discontinue doing business as usual, to create a disruption." Canceled commencement ceremonies, remote classes and faculty walkouts are signs of that disruption, he suggested. “And it is through doing that, that they get the leverage to push for what they want to see happen.” 

*  *  *

While the Michigan encampment has not yet achieved its goal of negotiating on divestment with university leaders, McCoy said protesters can also measure their success in other ways, like the growing turnout seen at rallies and the support they have received from others.

“Even if the encampment ended today, you would see multiple successes in the ways in which we've brought community together and built relationships and seen community solidarity,” McCoy said, noting that the campers have received messages of support from children in Gaza. “Sensing they feel heard, I think, are also successes that we celebrate along the way.”

Most universities hit with protests, including Michigan and Columbia, have rejected student demands for divestment. Whether those that have agreed to discuss the matter or to vote on divestment will follow through seems unclear, and the practical impact of any such divestment from Israel is uncertain. Whether the students are protesting the way others feel they should be is also likely to remain a subject of heated debate. 

Still, McCoy says, understanding the history of previous student protests, and how they are remembered today, helps ground today's activists in their convictions.

Many institutions that have been the site of historic student movements, including Columbia, Berkeley and Michigan, have later acknowledged and even commemorated those student movements because of their long-term effect on American public opinion and the world's perception of American democracy and America's global role. 

“We tried our damn hardest to raise awareness and change things,” Jared said. "Hopefully, this will be remembered as the time we accomplished something, and not the time we almost did." 

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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