Should students stick to studying?

Amidst the wave of student activism sweeping across university campuses, we must remember one simple truth – students are (almost) always adults, capable of making their own decisions and being accountable in the eyes of the law, and they should be treated as such. We must also remember that for most of them, the war that they are protesting is taking place in a land they’ve never set foot in, where those killed – 35,000 and counting – are known to them only through what they have read or seen online. Yet this does not seem to have restricted their appetite for action. While the protesting students’ suffering pales in comparison to the plight of the Palestinian people, many of them are still risking whatever they have, including their position at an elite educational institution.

Authority figures have been quick to question the legitimacy of the protests, based mainly on two key features: who is protesting and how they are doing it. However, it appears to be a lose-lose situation for the protestors, with the story being spun regardless of the truth. If it is students who are taking action, they are considered naive and ignorant, whereas non-students are agitators and trespassers. Wherever the action is non-disruptive then it is being labelled as performative and lacking conviction, but as soon as it becomes disruptive there are incessant accusations that it is violent and illegal. 

We should of course be hesitant to condone illegal protest, but I believe that Martin Luther King Jr. describes the principle behind protests perfectly: “When one breaks the law that conscience tells him is unjust, he must do it openly, he must do it cheerfully, he must do it lovingly, he must do it civilly — not uncivilly – and he must do it with a willingness to accept the penalty.” The vast majority of what has taken place in the past few days falls into this category, with the action being civil and students accepting their punishment. It is unacceptable, however, that police forces and the authorities have taken this as a chance to weaponise their power and use excessive force on unarmed protestors, as has been reported and even shown online.  

The current protests are by and large none of these things and are instead clearly focused on the horrors taking place in Gaza

Alongside the questions of who and how they are protesting, precisely what is being advocated for is closely scrutinised. While the majority of protests, particularly on US college campuses, have been pushing their institutions to divest from Israel as their primary aim, much focus has been on the use of rhetoric including the use of the word “intifada”.  

Originally an Arabic word meaning “shake off” – in the same way that a dog might shake off water from its back – it has since evolved to mean “uprising” and has become synonymous with the two Palestinian intifadas of 1987 and 2000. While the First Intifada was largely peaceful during Palestinian attempts to break free from their Israeli shackles, the Second Intifada grew increasingly violent, characterised by suicide bombings and rocket attacks targetting Israel. Authorities such as the White House have declared the word as “hate speech”. It must be noted, however, that the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia has also been dubbed an intifada, despite being widely acknowledged as completely peaceful. As a result, the meaning has become conflated and a source of contention. 

If there is an unsavoury minority that is using the word to intimidate Jewish students then they should be sanctioned appropriately for their unacceptable actions. However, contrary to claims that it has anti-semitic origins or violent predispositions, we must be clear that a call for an “intifada” could simply outline a desire for the Palestinian people to shake off their brutal and unjust Israeli occupation. Regardless, the contention surrounding the word’s use highlights the underlying problem that faces student protests, since their message is often subject to high levels of scepticism, and at times, does not stand up to severe scrutiny. 

Students seem to find themselves on the right side of history every time

As a wider concern, it has also sparked debate over the role of universities and the extent to which free speech can be protected in modern society. Universities have long been considered the premier breeding ground for new ideas and providing opposition to unpopular and unjust policies. However, as they become increasingly politicised and campus culture wars dominate the headlines, university leaders must decide how to move forward or risk repeating the chaos and calamity that is visible at the moment. Standing up and speaking out for what you believe in is rightfully protected by law in most countries and universities, but as ever when the issue at hand becomes divisive the line begins to blur.

Without advocating for inconsistency, when the subject is as sensitive as Israel-Palestine is and emotions are strong on both sides of the debate, it is of utmost importance that clear boundaries are defined and respected, and inflammatory remarks are kept to a minimum. Anti-semitism, calls for violence and other inappropriate demands must obviously face consequences. However, the current protests are by and large none of these things and are instead clearly focused on the horrors taking place in Gaza. Students are well within their rights to bring up this issue and should continue to display courage and conviction in supporting the Palestinian cause that they are currently doing. 

It is often quipped that history might not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Students seem to find themselves on the right side of history every time: the Vietnam War in 1968, South African apartheid in 1985, or a whole host of other international social justice causes. We would do well to take notice of the issues that have captured the imagination of students at such a scale. This may ironically sound hypocritical, but as media coverage continues to centre on university protests it is obscuring our view of the real issue at hand – the genocide that is currently occurring in Gaza.

Image Credit: Cameron Samuel Keys

Image Description: the Gaza encampment protests in Oxford.