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The Angry Campuses

These campus protests are, of course, far removed from those in 1968 against the Vietnam war
12:00 AM May 04, 2024 IST | Vivek Katju
the angry campuses

There have been ongoing protests and demonstrations in a number of US universities’ campuses, including prominent institutions such as the Columbia University in New York, against Israel’s continuing attacks in Gaza. These terrible operations have, till now, led to the deaths of around 34000 men, women and children.


The protestors are also angry with the Biden administration’s pro-Israel policy in the current Israel-Palestinian conflict which, they believe, has contributed to the hard and unrelenting attitude of the Netanyahu government of National Unity. These demonstrations are also significant because they signal a shift, howsoever, limited and tenuous in the hitherto almost complete support for Israel across US society and politics.


The shift is important because it may impact the presidential elections which will take place between president Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump, in November. Unless some completely unforeseen development takes place the re-match between these two contenders is certain and will be close; hence, even small electoral movements away from Biden in the crucial ‘battle ground’ states will not be good news for the incumbent president.

Hence, over the past weeks the Biden administration has been attempting to bring about a package deal between Israel and Hamas. The deal will include the release of Israeli hostages held by the Palestinian group in exchange for the release of some Palestinians in Israeli custody and a ceasefire.


While US secretary of state Anthony Blinken has been in the region seeking to promote the deal, he and the Arab countries which are assisting him—Qatar and Saudi Arabia for instance—have not achieved success as these lines are being written.


The fact is that there was great initial sympathy for Israel on account of Hamas’s October 7, 2023 brutal terrorist attack which led to the death of 1200 Israelis. Prime minister Netanyahu’s comment that October 7 was the worst day for the Jewish people since the holocaust resonated in a large number of persons. These persons supported Israel’s action against Hamas and had sympathy with its determination to finish it off Hamas.


However, those sympathetic to Israel did not imagine the enormous cost in Palestinian lives that the Israeli action has involved. No one had also anticipated that Israel’s military campaign would go on for over six months, reducing Gaza to rubble and compelling the UN agencies to give details of its humanitarian crisis in Gaza. A combination of these factors led important sections of international opinion to conclude that Israel could not act with impunity in response to the Hamas terrorist attack.


The US students who are showing their anger against Israeli action on the campuses are reflecting this opinion—that action against terrorism cannot be such that it causes great suffering and that the deaths of innocents be treated as collateral damage.

In other words, the principle of proportionality has to apply to anti-terrorism actions as against other acts of violence. US authorities are clearing campuses. The pro-Palestinian protestors who had taken control of some of the university’s administrative buildings were removed from them on April 30. Action has also been taken on other campuses too.

These campus protests are, of course, far removed from those in 1968 against the Vietnam war. Those protests became far more than against the war and spread to Europe as well. They came to represent a movement of youth against the restraints and conventions of the times. The objective and scale of these protests are limited but they reveal fault lines in US polity and society which have come to the fore.

They indicate that the pervasive fear of being dubbed as antisemitic if Israel was opposed is being challenged. The Israeli lobby in US public life has been influential and effective. It is still so but Biden’s actions are showing that the votes of US nationals of Arab and Muslim origin cannot be ignored. Hence, his public disapproval of some of Netanyahu’s policies and actions. However, he cannot go too far against Israel; therefore, Biden’s dilemma will not end soon.

Normally, Israeli governments, after chafing at the bit, fall in line with US advice. However, Netanyahu is in a predicament. He has to finish off Hamas. If he does not do so all Israeli effort and the loss of global reputation it has involved will be in vain.

This is because in time Hamas, perhaps in a different avatar, will again slowly grow and Israel’s security will continue to be endangered. Hence, even though US secretary of state Blinken who is in the region was quoted by the media as saying on April 30 “No more delays. No more excuses. The time to act is now. We want in the coming days this agreement coming together”.

The agreement is, as mentioned, regarding a cease fire and release of some Israeli hostages with Hamas. On the same day as Blinken was making this categorical comment, Netanyahu told the media “The idea that we will halt the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question. We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there—with or without a deal, in order to achieve total victory”.

These are hardly the words of a leader who is willing to compromise. It remains to be seen the kind of pressure the US is able to bring on Israel now to make it bend to its will. Biden would be banking on Blinken to make Netanyahu see reason but it will not be easy.