Student Protests in Context: Vietnam to Israel-Palestine

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About five percent of college campuses are experiencing protests related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is different from the ’60s when students were protesting the Vietnam War. The size and scope today is smaller. However, they follow the same arc of drifting from pursuing their initial objectives to having a few with extreme views and engaging in violence that captures the headlines.

Protestors are motivated by legitimate outrage at the government’s actions. If there is little or no response, over time, impatience sets in. And for a growing number of protestors, the push for a perfect solution overshadows more achievable solutions.

Experiencing the 60s Student Protests

I was a 1960s protestor at my conservative public university in Ohio. The anti-war protests were peaceful for a couple of years, and eventually, protestors briefly occupied the administration office. There was no violence on that campus.

I also was living in Berkeley in 1970, the year the National Guard killed four students at Kent University and two students at Jackson State University in Mississippi who were protesting the war. I witnessed multiple protests on the University of California campus. Days of teargas in the air and students arrested. Still, violence perpetrated by both police and protestors was limited.

Thirty years later, when the World Trade Organization held its conference in Seattle, I marched with 50,000 others to protest its economic globalization policies. It was an organized, peaceful march until a small faction suddenly broke off from the designated route, breaking store windows and damaging cars. The media covered the violence, not the protestors’ organized open forums with knowledgeable speakers discussing how WTO policies were trampling on workers’ rights and human rights and would harm the environment and developing nations.

In addition to those experiences, I traveled to other campuses and talked to student activists. Overwhelmingly, they supported our democracy, yet a few attacked it as the enemy, as I describe in Student Power, Democracy & Revolution in the Sixties.

When I compare how student protests are unfolding now to the ’60s, I see that each reflects the growth of extremist beliefs and aggressive strategies. 

The Growth of Extremism

Extremism results from a zeitgeist shared by the left and the right, which continues today. It is the spirit of achieving absolute success at any cost. (Protests moving in this direction are fueled by the media’s coverage of a savage war that America either is directly engaged in or contributes to.)

Barry Goldwater could be credited with ushering in the attitude that saving the good sometimes demands extreme measures. In his 1964 acceptance speech as the GOP presidential candidate at the Republican National Convention, Goldwater included the now famous line attributed to his speech writer, Karl Hess, a libertarian and self-declared anarchist. Said Goldwater: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Extremism is not limited to one side of the political spectrum in believing that the ends justify the means. In the 1960s, the largest American activist student organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was born out of the desire to extend the democratic process to multiple facets of life.

Less than 10 years after its founding, SDS was torn apart not by outsiders but by its leaders arguing how best to achieve a perfect solution. Today, if extremist messages are protestors’ banners, a similar dynamic could develop.

The loudest and most aggressive protestors against Israel’s invasion of Gaza ignore the advice of Ahmed Fouad Akhatib, a Gaza-born Palestinian Analyst. He criticizes those exercising “maximalist activism” as doing nothing positive. He recently tweeted: “Use your Western privilege to actually help Palestinian people and promote a pragmatic path forward by engaging Israeli and Jewish audiences.”

A Slow Student Response

All Americans were stunned by Hamas’s brutal incursion into Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 –almost all civilians –and kidnapping 252 others. Hamas was not capable of conquering Israel. They knew this action would invite a retaliation that Israel had long promised if attacked.

The personal brutality that Israelis suffered was soon overshadowed in the world’s eyes by their retribution. As Israeli bombs and ground troops tried to destroy Hamas in Palestine’s Gaza, Americans saw collapsed buildings and bodies strewn. According to Gaza’s Health Ministry, at least two-thirds of the dead are children and women.

Although Israeli troops and tanks invaded Gaza two weeks after Hamas violently attacked Israel, it was only after many thousands of Palestinians had been killed during Israel’s six months of occupying and bombarding Gaza that the student protests erupted.

This slow student response on campuses was probably due to two factors.

First, in the days following the Hamas attack, there was initially strong American sympathy for Israel. In the first 10 days of the war, the Crowd Counting Consortium, an academic project tracking and sharing data on political crowds in the United States, recorded 180,000 demonstrators across roughly 270 events in solidarity with Israel and 200 protests in support of Palestine.

Second, the few campus protests before mid-April were limited to demanding a ceasefire and an end to the Israeli occupation. They also criticized US military and diplomatic support for Israel’s invasion of Gaza, but they were not focused on attacking Israel as a nation-state or supporting Hamas.

About two months after Israel’s invasion of Gaza, public support dramatically shifted from supporting Israel to protesting Palestinian civilians from being killed. By December, more than 1 million Americans had participated in protesting the war, with the events sympathetic to Palestine outnumbering those that were pro-Israel by a margin of five-to-one.

Some of those carrying placards with anti-Israel slogans may be antisemitic. Still, by far, most protestors at rallies or occupying school buildings are just angry at the US government for not responding to their pleas to try to end the war.

Deconstructing Student Protests

I’ve found that the activist students consist of two major clusters regarding political issues that initiate protests. The extremists promote far-reaching demands, reject flexible strategies, and confront authorities through leading direct actions, from destroying property to fighting police. These folks are most likely to embrace violence.

Another cluster, many times larger than the extremists, are those who sympathize with many of the first cluster’s demands. But they are strategically more flexible and support non-violent disobedience to avoid violence.

They may occupy a building or set up a tent camp on the campus quad, usually not leaving until their demands are met. If they follow Martin Luther King’s strategy, they will not resist being arrested lest it distract from their central message.

Student protests were few before April 18, when 100 Columbia University students were arrested for tent camping on campus. By April 28, 77 campuses were experiencing protests.

Four of the 10 campuses with the most demonstrators were at prestigious schools; the other six were sizeable public state universities. But the protests spread to campuses across the nation. States west of the Mississippi had 26, while there were 38 east of the river, and 13 campus demonstrations in the South.

Over 2,950 protesters, including faculty members and professors, were arrested in less than a month.

The current protests have seen antisemitic views expressed, unlike the anti-Vietnam War protests. Both protest movements blamed our government for the killing of innocent civilians in a foreign land. In the 60’s, the U.S. was officially fighting an ideologically driven enemy in North Vietnam, the communists. Our ally – South Vietnam – was supposedly a democracy.  But the populations of each side were Vietnamese. It was not a tribal war.

Antisemitism

The current demonstrations are distinctly different from the 60s because they create a tribal-like attitude that could tear open this nation along ethnic-religious lines supporting two different countries.

The U.S. has always financially and militarily supported Israel. With Palestine, we have provided only humanitarian assistance and vetoed its recognition as a sovereign entity eligible for membership in the U.N.

In the Israel-Hamas war, the Gaza branch of the Ministry of Health reports that more than 35,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed by the Israeli invasion. Israel acknowledges that 16,000 civilians have died because of the war

Since mid-April, student protestors have introduced demands that universities cut their economic ties with Israel because of their military tactics. Critics see these demands as antisemitic since they could endanger Israel’s existence by hurting its economy. Advocates see it is akin to the same strategy used in the past to pressure South Africa to abandon apartheid.

Demonstrators now wave Palestine’s national flag. Critics wrongly accuse them of carrying the Hamas flag, which is different; it has no stripes and consists of white Arabic calligraphy on a green background. 

The media, and in particular the conservative outlets, tag demonstrations as pro-Hamas because of this false identification of flags that represent the Palestinians, not Hamas.

Hamas is the recognized governing party of Gaza, while the Palestine Liberation Organization rules the West Bank. These two areas comprise the Palestinian state, recognized as a sovereign state by 143 nations in the United Nations (but not the US).

Nevertheless, since mid-April, extremists have gained prominence for wanting to abolish the State of Israel, which is the position of Hamas. This is interpreted as antisemitic since it would deny Jews a democratic homeland. On the other hand, Arab Muslims have multiple state homelands where the laws enforce Islamic practices on all their citizens.

Some extremist activists verbally abuse or threaten Jewish students. Muslim students have also reported receiving similar treatment from pro-Israel activists. The most publicized threats have been toward Jewish students. This may be due in part because the pro-Palestinian demonstrations far outnumber pro-Israel ones.

Congressional Republicans, pointing to this situation, launched a national investigation into what groups are participating in anti-Israel campus demonstrations. They see a conspiracy afoot because some social justice non-profits fund advocate groups, including Jewish peace groups, with their members engaged in protests. Finding or fabricating a conspiracy that financially supports participants on either side does not help secure a peaceful settlement.  

To achieve peace and protect our democracy, political leaders and protest organizers must condemn all extremism. They need to speak above the chants and accusations by asserting that we are all American citizens with the right to free expression and the responsibility to protect others from danger. This approach will produce solutions, something that slogans cannot.

Nick Licata
Nick Licata
Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/changemakers/ Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/

6 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful commentary and, especially, for avoiding simple (and simplistic) binary distinctions that are not helpful.

  2. I was at Stanford in May of 1970 (grad school in journalism) and we shut down the campus before Berkeley — a first for Stanford, which was never as radical. I helped organize a peaceful protest that got 200 people to line up at a Palo Alto bank to turn in their U.S. savings bonds. Yeah, that’ll teach Nixon, we thought! We got publicity in the San Francisco newspapers and TV stations. But the war went on for several more years and Nixon got re-elected. But hey, we tried! Crazy days.

  3. Nick, this is the most level-headed, balanced article I have ever seen on this subject. Thank you! Taking nothing away from Post Alley News, your piece needs a much, much broader audience, and I hope you will submit this to larger outlets.

    • Thanks, Feisty, for your comments. In addition to Post Alley, my pieces are carried on Medium, Substack, CounterPunch, and LinkedIn. I also have a twice-monthly publication, Citizenship Politics, which reaches 11,000. However, most of my articles are too long for mainstream outlets, and I don’t wish to shorten them. I encourage you to email this one, or a web link to this Post Alley posting, to others you believe would find it helpful reading.

  4. I agree with Feisty Brain’s comment above.
    I’d also like to add a comment about my own frustration. Supposedly we live in a democracy. Both our senators and my own Representative support Biden’s continued support of Israel’s dropping bombs on Gaza.
    Benjamin Netanyahu’s name has never been on a ballot running for office in the United States. And yet, Netanyahu was invited by Republicans to speak to Congress about his opposition to Obama’s proposed Nuclear Arms Treaty. Our Democratic President has committed, despite most Americans’ opposition, military aid to Israel despite International calls for Netanyahu’s arrest. Voting Republican or Democrat is irrelevant. I am forced by my representatives to support a war criminal. And yes, genocide is being committed by Israel.
    This is democracy?

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