The Hamas-Israel conflict and campus protests | Guest Column

By Susan Martin,

Donald G. Herzberg Professor Emerita of International Migration, Georgetown University

Protests have been popping up on university campuses throughout the country. There is good news and bad news in these actions. The good news is that students are doing something concrete to express their concerns about human suffering in Gaza and trying to bring greater attention to it. As someone who protested in college against the Vietnam War and for civil rights for Blacks and women, I can applaud those efforts.

Having been a professor for much of my career, I am distressed, however, by the one-sidedness of the protests, the rhetoric that smacks of antisemitism, the naivety of the protesters who seem to know little about the history of Israeli-Palestinian relationships, and the violence and disruptions that are impeding the safety of students, faculty, and staff. Too often, they are also impeding the educational imperative of the universities and are already preventing students from attending their graduations. Universities are meant to be places in which learning takes highest priority and civil discourse is cherished. These protests are, instead, creating greater friction between Pro-Palestinian and Pro-Israeli supporters. They have little to do with ending the conflict or addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Rather, some protesters are calling for further violence and are seeking sanctions against Israel but not saying anything about the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas on Israelis and Palestinians.

Universities are also at fault when they do little to turn protests of this type into educational opportunities. The Hamas-Israel conflict is complex and simple solutions are unlikely to be sustainable. Unfortunately, theirs is not a unique situation. Conflict and crises in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and elsewhere are largely ignored. Universities have an obligation to ensure that students have an opportunity to learn about these complexities, the barriers to overcoming them, and what could be done to ensure longer-term peace between the warring parties. They also have an obligation to ensure that all students, faculty, and staff are safe physically and from hate speech. Protecting freedom of speech is a core tenant of universities. However, universities are obliged to ensure that speech is buttressed by facts and evidence, not prejudices. As the oft-stated adage goes, everyone can have their own opinions but they cannot have their own facts.

The most strident protesters demonstrate little knowledge about the diverse populations who live in Israel when they call for blanket actions, such as divestment, or use terms such as settler colonialism, or call for Israelis to ‘return to Poland.’ They ignore the fact that more than half of Israel’s population is made up of descendants of Palestinians, Bedouins, Druids and others who remained in Israel after the 1948 conflict and descendants of Sephardic Jews who left Syria, Iraq, Iran and others Middle Eastern and North African countries after 1948, often in fear for their lives. Only an estimated 32% of the population is Ashkenazi Jewish, who trace their ancestry to central and Eastern Europe.

Perhaps most disturbing, the protests do not acknowledge Hamas’ role in the past and current conflicts. By contrast, an increasing number of Gazans are expressing their dismay with Hamas, which they see as having precipitated a deadly conflict without sufficient consideration of the impact on the civilian population. They cite Hamas’ stifling of free speech, use of violence and incarceration against opponents within Gaza, and corruption. Whatever one’s views of Israel are, ignoring the flaws in its enemies is irresponsible at best and certainly plays into the hands of Hamas.

For student protests to be effective, students need to be well-informed about all of the facts, eschew hate speech and behavior that disrupts learning, ensure their actions do not lead others to be fearful for their safety, be realistic in their demands, and make sure those demands will lead to more peaceful outcomes rather than continued conflict. Criticism of the Israeli government for its response to Hamas’ attacks is well within the boundaries; antisemitic tropes are not. University administrators also have responsibilities—to prepare early for potentially disruptive protests, be consistent in applying their own rules regarding protests, use caution in calling on law enforcement except as a last resort, and listen to the concerns of student organizers without bending on essential provisions aimed at providing a safe and secure environment for all students.

U.S. universities could learn a lot from Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Israel. Faced with demands for a Pro-Palestinian rally on this campus just miles from Gaza, Daniel Chamovitz, President of the university, brought Palestinian and Jewish students together to define rules for the rally. As he recounted, “Only when protesters from across the spectrum understand their speech rights are being protected within firm boundaries of public order and mutual respect can academic communities move beyond the current polemic.”