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Student sit-ins for Palestine are not naive American imports – they are part of a radical European tradition that achieves results

May 11, 2024 at 12:31 pm

George Washington University students disperse after DC police threatened to arrest them when they attempted to set up a new encampment in front of the school administration building in Washington D.C., United States on May 10, 2024. [Celal Güneş – Anadolu Agency]

Apologists for the Israeli military use numerous methods to demonise those opposed to its ongoing mass slaughter of the Palestinian people. They try to make out that those who accuse a force largely funded by the West of carrying out genocide are somehow stupid, dishonest and even pro-terrorist.

Many of the most absurd attacks are currently directed at the young, particularly students who are staging highly publicised blockades and other university demonstrations.

As their counterparts in Gaza are slaughtered and colleges reduced to rubble, they are continually assaulted – physically by law and order forces and verbally through the media – for trying to do something about it.

One of the most common accusations made by blustering reactionaries in European countries is that the young are importing tactics associated with a divisive culture in the US. Traditional values are particularly threatened by the occupation of educational institutions, it is argued, as if the practice is inherently American.

As UK Education Secretary Gillian Keegan put it: “We do not want our universities and campuses to be like those that we see on our television screens in other parts of the world, like the US.”

The problem is all about le wokisme, suggested French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who claimed that such blockades represented: “An ideology from across the Atlantic.” He also pilloried a “dangerous minority” while failing to mention that he, himself, had taken part in blockades when he was an undergraduate. Attal is only 35 years old, but his extreme hypocrisy highlights a long history of European student protest that belies the “imported from America” deceit.

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The 1968 student uprising in Paris – one of the most famous in living memory – started in the suburb of Nanterre on 22 March of that year. Around 150 men and women occupied an administrative building in the Sorbonne University’s overflow annexe before police surrounded them. Millions went on to rally across France during a period of civil unrest that lasted almost two months. There were fears of a full-blown revolution, with demands including an end to the Vietnam War. President Charles de Gaulle secretly fled France for West Germany for a brief period, presumably because he anticipated the worst.

France’s so-called “Movement of 22 March” had certainly gathered before a similar occupation of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in New York. Students there had discovered institutional links between their place of learning and the US’ prosecution of the war in Vietnam. Other key issues that were there to be raised and were successfully influenced by the young throughout 1968 and beyond included civil rights and feminism.

Plenty of occupations took place in Britain – from the London School of Economics to the Hornsey College of Art in north London. Universities, such as Essex, greeted visits by extreme right-wing politicians such as Enoch Powell with sit-ins. An initially peaceful march against the Vietnam War led to widespread rioting around the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square.

The fact that such events are still being talked about today is evidence enough of their international impact. Idealism and energy are on show today at all the pro-Palestine demonstrations I have witnessed in cities including London and Paris. I have talked to students in keffiyehs and kippahs, all of them calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and for their universities to divest from Israel.

Goals are clear and attainable – Leeds University is being asked to sever its connections with aerospace company BAE Systems, the British arms manufacturer supplying Israel. An organisation called Cambridge Jews for Justice in Palestine set up tents on the front lawn at King’s College – one of the most prestigious in the city – as part of a so-called “liberated zone”.

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A member of the group told me: “We want universities across Britain to stop giving financial and moral support to Israel. We are committed to peace and justice, and yet opponents threaten us, and even try to make out we do not know what we’re talking about.”

Such highly articulate, well-informed demonstrators vehemently reject claims that they are guilty of anti-Semitism or making life difficult for other Jewish students.

“The tactic is to manufacture a crisis around our protests,” said another protester in Cambridge, who asked to be referred to as “Jo”. “This is to draw attention away from the war crimes and human rights abuses associated with the Gaza genocide.”

Hilary Clinton is typical of the old warmongers who desperately try to smear young people, claiming they: “Don’t know very much at all about the history of the Middle East or, frankly, about history in many areas of the world.”

In fact, there are plenty of students who are actually from the Middle East at the demos, including members of the worldwide diaspora of Palestinian refugees – one created by decades of forced evictions and other forms of violence by the Israelis, including ethnic cleansing.

If Clinton wants to know about ignorance, she should talk to David Lammy, Britain’s shadow foreign secretary. He even claimed that the late South African President Nelson Mandela would have opposed the university protests, disingenuously saying: “There is a difference between peaceful protest of the kind Mandela would have advocated, and violence and rioting.”

Lammy perhaps doesn’t know that Mandela spent 27 years in prison after initially advocating armed resistance against white supremacists. Mandela also once said: “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”. If Lammy had spent a bit of time with the current protesters, he would soon also have discovered that most are entirely peaceful anyway, unless attacked by the police or rival demonstrators.

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The entire concept of a liberal education should, in fact, involve dissent – it is a time of life when activism should be as important as the exchange of ideas. Free expression should certainly be prioritised, especially in an era of social media, when the smallest act of defiance can be broadcast across the world instantly.

This has not stopped police from intervening and actually adding to a global sense of outrage. Repressive tactics undoubtedly make a cause more popular with many of those watching. Heavy-handed policing is seen as a violation of justice, and – as in previous generations – it angers and mobilises those who might otherwise have remained indifferent.

Despite the thousands of arrests, some college managers have been far more enlightened. “The protesters’ cause is important – bringing attention to the killing of innocent people,” said Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

There has been a stop-and-start feel to the pro-Palestine student protests in France so far. Blockades at Paris universities such as the Sorbonne and Sciences Po – alma mater of both President Emmanuel Macron and his prime minister, Attal – are met with an almost immediate police clampdown.

This fits in with the French establishment, condemning the protests as being as divisive as the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. US President Joe Biden, someone who has shown little remorse about supporting and enabling the killing of tens of thousands of men, women and children in Gaza, expressed similar views. Making entirely false claims about the protesters, he said: “Threatening people, intimidating people, instilling fear in people is not a peaceful protest.”

Nor is the actual massacring of innocents, Mr Biden, and that is why the demonstrations will continue. They are part of a long and proud European tradition and are evidently working because power players like you are paying attention.

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