Creating new perspectives since 2009

Gaza protests on US campuses: Truman, TikTok, and time

May 2, 2024 at 7:02 pm

Hundreds of students are gathered at San Francisco State University (SFSU) to protest Israeli attacks on Gaza, in Stanford, California, United States on April 29, 2024. [Tayfun Coşkun – Anadolu Agency]

Israeli writer and academic, A.B. Yehoshua’s short story, “Facing the Forests”, is an allegory about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Controversial when published in 1963, Yehoshua exposed the reality that Israel was constructed on territory taken from others: the “forest” of the story represents the Israeli state and society, and the story’s unnamed Israeli protagonist is tasked with making sure that no fires emerge in the forest. The Palestinians in the story are referred to only as “Arabs”, and late in the story, the forest turns out to be constructed on the ruins of an Arab village.

After 75 years as one of the globe’s most contentious conflicts, we now seem to be witnessing the turning point for the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Israeli state’s horrific and bloody destruction of Gaza, and the intransigence shown by both the Israeli and United States political leaderships, has sparked not just widespread protests on US campuses, but worldwide outrage and a formal case brought by South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

OPINION: Revisiting Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, and the similarities to events in Gaza

This reckoning has taken a long time to arrive. As I mentioned in a previous commentary, US President Harry Truman’s need for votes in 1948 motivated him to establish the US policy of supporting Israel. That support led to many subsequent compromises in US foreign policy towards the Eastern Mediterranean, to numerous wars and disasters and, ultimately, to the current crisis and protest movement.

Gaza and TikTok: The US and Israel lose control of the narrative

The protests now sweeping across the US campuses immediately brought to mind the turmoil on US campuses that erupted in the late 1960s. Notably, those protests were fuelled by the new communication media of the era: television. The Vietnam War was the first war filmed on the battlefield and presented to citizens through television the same day; the result was that public perception of US policies in Vietnam turned negative and intensified opposition to the war.

The long-term consequence was that the US government, in later conflicts, gave intense attention to controlling the media narrative. That gave rise to the various techniques, such as the “embedding” of reporters with soldiers that featured so prominently in the 1st Gulf War in 1991, intended to ensure that the messages and images desired by the US government were those encountered and digested by media consumers. When the Internet was opened to public use in the early 1990s, new opportunities for information dissemination and control appeared, and the US remained at the forefront of what commonly became known as “information warfare”.

TikTok seems to have brought us back to the situation with television in the 1960s. TikTok is outside of the US government’s control, so it has long sparked calls to ban it. Israel’s actions in Gaza over the past 6 months have been broadcast to the world unfiltered over TikTok, which played a major factor in turning world opinion against Israel. Unsurprisingly, the US Congress’s efforts to ban TikTok sped up considerably amid claims that the Chinese State was using TikTok and Gaza to foment disorder in American society. Students are using a variety of social media apps to organise their protests, but TikTok remains the focus of attention from pro-Israeli groups.

South Africa and international protest movements

The international campaign against South Africa’s former apartheid regime is the other protest movement that comes to mind while observing the current worldwide protests against Israel’s actions in Gaza. Little nuance was displayed in the coverage of South Africa’s ICJ case against Israel, but the significance of South Africa’s intervention stems from the long fight to end the racist apartheid regime that dominated that society for decades. Many South Africans see a parallel between the Palestinians’ struggle for rights and self-determination and the extended struggle by Black South Africans for their rights and self-determination.

OPINION: America’s logic for supporting Zionists

In fact, the figure associated with that long struggle, Nelson Mandela, and the Party he was associated with, the African National Congress (ANC), were once armed militants. South Africa’s apartheid regime received support from the US during the Cold War because Mandela and the ANC received support from the communist bloc. Mandela and most of the ANC’s leadership were imprisoned from the 1960s until 1990. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, the surge in international activism against the apartheid regime made South Africa a pariah regime and Mandela an international hero. The same is now happening in regard to Gaza and, once again, despite the efforts of the US government.

Truman’s ghost

Yehoshua’s story ends, after the unnamed Arab burns the forest, with the simple statement: “And so it will be all the days and nights after.” Maybe that’s how the situation looked to a conscientious Israeli intellectual in the early 1960s but, as Heraclitus stated 2500 years ago, nothing remains the same forever. Eventually, the Palestinians would develop the means to assert their rights and claims to self-determination; eventually, the fact that Israel was founded on land taken from other people would rise to prominence; eventually, the consequences of the choice that Truman made for votes in 1948 would materialise.

Now, with a national election only 6 months away, Truman’s Democratic Party is starkly split between an older generation that stubbornly maintains a willingness to tolerate the Israeli State’s flagrantly criminal behaviour, and a younger generation appalled that anyone could have ever accepted such actions. And Donald Trump appears to be the main beneficiary.

OPINION: What has Israel gained after 200 days of aggression against Gaza?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.