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Stephen McNultyMay 08, 2024
BJ Brumley, left, and fellow University of Southern Mississippi student Vinny Halsey, hold Pro-Palestinian signs protesting the Israel Hamas war in Gaza, during an hour-long silent protest on the school's campus, Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Hattiesburg, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)  

Over the past few weeks, college campuses have transformed from places into symbols, focal points for America’s political anxieties. It is treacherous terrain, where symbols become so powerful that we forget what they are actually about. In this case, they call attention to the war in Gaza, which is at immediate risk of deadly and unnecessary escalation. 

For me, the whole experience has been disorienting. Pro-Palestinian activists set up one of the first encampments at Yale, and I know some of the organizers personally. Every night, my social media feed has been filled with video clips from Yale’s rally. I remember watching videos from the first night, as protestors sang “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a classic 19th-century spiritual that has been an anthem of civil rights movements throughout U.S. history. I cried the first time I listened.

I am a student at Yale, but this semester, I am studying abroad thousands of miles from Yale’s campus. This means that I have also experienced the protests like many others have: by watching whatever two-second clips have found their way into my newsfeed. From a distance, there is so much we do not know. 

And yet, we are transfixed by the drama of students occupying lawns and buildings and police officers in riot gear. If there is anything I am learning about the protests back home at Yale, Columbia and elsewhere, it is that they are dramatic. 

That said, I worry that we are losing the plot a little—and the fever-pitched coverage of campus protests in major media outlets is not helping. 

On the one hand, we have heard about real and dangerous incidents of antisemitism: It is alarming to hear chants calling for the destruction of Israel, the home of over 40 percent of the world’s Jews, and there is always a danger that glib talk of “Zionists” becomes a code word. We have to resist zero-sum games, and this means protecting Jewish students while pursuing peace. 

At the same time, it seems obviously untrue that a majority of the protestors are acting out of hatred for Jews or indifference to their suffering. It is worth remembering that many of the leading organizers of protests against the war are Jews, too—acting precisely because of their religious convictions. While we should avoid using this fact to tokenize them or say that antisemitism is not present because Jews are at the protests, we should also avoid dismissing their Judaism. 

Blow-by-blow coverage of the campus protests misses both what changes protesters are actually calling for and the context in which these protests arise. The organizers of these protests often have very specific demands related to university divestment from companies with ties to the Israeli military. At Yale, for instance, the encampment emerged after Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility said it would not divest from military weapons manufacturers because the investments did not meet their criteria for “grave social injury.” The student protestors find this claim absurd. For what it’s worth, Pope Francis would agree, as he has called weapons manufacturers “merchants of death.

Most of the protests are more generally about bringing an immediate and unconditional end to the war in Gaza. That motivation should be recognized in any analysis. We can and must criticize social movements when they fail to uphold their moral vision. Can we do so while at the same time recognizing that these students should not be viewed as crazy or dumb—but largely motivated by a rightly ordered sense of moral urgency?

America has published a diversity of thoughtful perspectives on the war. Some things, however, are not complicated: Israel’s military response to October 7 has killed over 34,000 Gazans. Authorities are losing track of the number killed—many have died in silence and will not have their names listed on the banners at university protests. As many campus organizers have pointed out, our discourse about protest tactics seems absurd in light of this reality. As we talk about “order” on American campuses, we should remember that there are no universities left in Gaza. Every institution of life has been targeted in this disproportionate war. 

Last week, a mass grave with nearly 400 bodies was discovered under a hospital complex in Khan Younis, a city in southern Gaza. Some bodies were found with their hands tied behind their backs. The United States and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have both called for an independent investigation. But rather than focusing on this unfolding horror, many in the American press were transfixed by Ivy League protests.

As of this writing, we are at a critical juncture. Against the warnings of a united international community, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proceeded with an incursion into Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians are sheltering. Over 100,000 people have been told to leave or face overwhelming military force. We should not mince words: The invasion of Rafah would be a deadly humanitarian disaster.

It is unclear whether this invasion will even end the war or free any hostages. Throughout an eight-month operation, Israeli military activity has rescued three hostages, while the I.D.F. has accidentally killed the same number. Mr. Netanyahu’s invasion of Rafah is being executed over and against the wishes of the Israeli hostages’ families, who have accused the prime minister of deliberately blocking a peace deal. He is also doing so with American weapons—ones that universities like Yale have claimed do not cause “grave social injury.”

These are the facts that sparked protests. I agree with many of the people who have criticisms about the protests, and there is a part of me that is tempted to throw up my hands and say that every side is in the wrong. We must resist that urge. There is a point at which nuance turns into analysis paralysis, and our desire to say the perfect thing keeps us from saying anything at all. If we are not laser-focused on doing something to bring this madness to an end, we are doing something wrong.

It is easy to find flaws—big ones, even—in large social movements, but we would do well to step back and remember why these protests are happening in the first place. Facing an urgent international crisis, students are trying to do something—anything—to stop it.

Would that we all had their moral urgency. 

May 9: Due to an editing error, this article originally described Israel’s incursion into Gaza on May 7 as an invasion. The original text also mistakenly identified the 34,000 dead in Gaza as civilians. The language has since been updated.

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