Campus protests in USA and Europe are welcome signs of sensitizing education

Palestine US University student protest

Now Israel has killed over 34,700 Palestinians in its war on Gaza during the last seven months and taken seize of Rafah, the point from where Palestinians can go only into Egypt, where they are not welcome. It cannot be more humiliating for the Palestinians. The humanitarian aid has also been disrupted once again. The manner in which war crimes have been committed brazenly by Israel in this war by attacking hospitals, killing large number of women and children, choking off essential supplies forcing people to starve, have not been seen since the holocaust or the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. Yet, there is no outcry. So called democracies of the world, with the exceptoin of South Africa, which was conscientious enough to take Israel to International Court of Justice, have silently witnessed the ongoing massacre of Palestinians.

When I returned my Filipino Magsaysay Award, which is funded by Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and the degrees from Syracuse University, NY and University of California, Berkeley a few months back protesting the complicity of United States government in Israel’s war on Gaza I was just hoping that much louder voices will be raised against the war. As a student I’ve seen protests on Berkeley campus in 1991 against the father George Bush government’s attack on Iraq. The US has a long and vibrant history of anti-war protests beginning with the protests against the war on Vietnam. Large gatherings have been a hallmark of anti-war protests in the US.

Compared to the past this time it took a while for the protests to gather momentum. One reason could have been the possible reaction from the Jewish community and U.S. administration’s unambiguous sympathy with the Jews and Israel. The highhanded manner of dealing with student protesters on Columbia University campus where the President of the Univerisity Minouche Shafik called the New York Police and the repressive measures used became a spark for now what has become a North America and Europe wide protests on campuses. Just going through the list of campuses will give an idea of the geographical spread of these protests. City College of New York, University of Texas at Austin, Northeastern University, University of Mary Washington, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Southern California, George Washington University, Virginia Tech, California State Polytechnic University at Humboldt, Case Western Reserve University, Yale Univeristy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Washington at Seattle, University of Georgia, Emory University, Northwestern University, University of Utah, University of Minnesota, Tulance University, Univeristy of South Florida, University of Virginia and University of Michigan have been sites of visible vibrant activity in support of Palestine. Outside the U.S. Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick, Goldsmiths universities in England, Sciences Po and Sorbonne University in France, Swiss universities ETH Zurich, University of Geneva, Ecole Polytechnique Federale, Lausanne, University of Amsterdam, University of Vienna and National Autonomous University in Mexico have also witnessed protests.

A common feature of these protests was setting up of pro-Palestine encampments on campuses where students would sit in round the clock. At some of the institutions the University authorities under pressrure from their respective governments forcibly removed these encampments either with the help of campus police or police brought from outside. Thousands of students have been arrested in US as well as Europe. But the resolve of the students is very clear. They are determined to protest the involvement of companies, associated with their institutions, which invest in the Israel’s war against Palestine. They want the universities to sever their ties with such tainted companies. At some places there have been counter-protests but they were feeble compared with pro-Palestine demonstrations.

The panic among the police and administartion is inexlplicable this time around. US and Europe have been witness to large scale protests against war, against neo-liberal economic policies, against racism, etc., but never before the administration-police have appeared to be so insecure and therefore aggressive. Is it because of the Jewish element? There is no dobut a powerful Jewsih lobby in the US and Europeans, in any case, can never get over the guilt of holocaust. The governments seem to be overreacting to the pro-Palestine protests, being extra careful that Jewish sentiment is not hurt by any anti-Semitism narrative. But the pro-Israel governments of US and Europe and the Jewish population need to introspect why the sympathy of general population of their countries is with the Palestinians, irrespective of their race, ethnic or religious backgrounds? The Jews have to realise that Nazi atrocities against them cannot be a carte blanche licence to incessantly persecute the Palestinians in their homeland.

It is an irony that US university administartions have accused outsiders of instigating protests on campus although the action that they have taken is against their own students. Of course, the action could not have been without the involvement of these students. But they refuse to consider the larger question of why outsider Jews have been enroaching uopn Palestinian land and, in what is an almost every day harassment, have not allowed them to live in peace for the last eight decades. Now Israel wants to devour whatever is left with Palestinians in Gaza or West Bank by either invading these territories or forcibly setting up Jewsih settlements here.

The larger question of what students who learn about the ideals of human rights, justice, peace inside their classrooms on history, political sciences, philosophy classes are supposed to do when they see injustice being done to a population of mainly women and children and their own government and universities are complicit in the act? As a professor of Social Movements at Indian institutions of technology, management and law I’ve always encouraged my students to get involved in action whenever there is a opportunity to uphold human rights and justice. For, there is no better way to get a deeper insight of the issues then developing empathy for the marginalised. In fact, if the student doesn’t act and is merely content with theoretical learning in the classroom then there is something amiss. If the education is not being able to create the sensitivity to encourage the student to undertake an action then this education is of no use and such a student rather than becoming an agent of change will remain status quoist. A proper knowledge which prepares a conscientious individual combined with the idealism of youth is what any society needs for a desired change. Only such societies have hope. Otherwise, as human beings we’ll be condemned to live under tyranny, supressing our feelings and also frustrated about not being able to help others. Obviously, this will not be a very happy state of affairs. By design a human being finds fulfillment only when they’ve an opportunity to free and full expression of their self and ideas. Also, they possess the power of change through collective action. Education is just a means towards realising this. This is what the students on US and European campuses are doing. This is natural. Infact, if they had not been protesting then it would have been a matter of concern. That such protests have not sprung up at other institutions around the world is an indicator of the atmosphere not being conducive enough to allow the students to given full expression to their views or they are bogged down with local issues to the extent that plight of Palestinians doesn’t take precedence over the issues which are urgent to them.

Involvement of students in pro-Palestine protests on campus is a process of education which will produce students who will work to create a more humane world. Let us welcome this development.

Sandeep Pandey is General Secretary, Socialist Party (India)

E-mail: [email protected]

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