State troopers try to break up a pro-Palestine protest at the University of Texas, Austin on April 24, 2024: various confrontations with the police at numerous universities across America have led to more than 2,500 arrests | Reuters


Do these protests across US and Europe signal a change in Western grassroots sentiment about Palestine and can they make a difference?
Published May 19, 2024

“Free, Free, Palestine”, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free”, and other slogans against the continuing Israeli war in Gaza have echoed through more than 150 campuses in the United States for the last three weeks. It may be one of the largest protests since the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s, which were led mostly by students at US universities.

This protest movement, which has incorporated students, faculty, staff and other supporters, has been germinating since Israel invaded the Gaza strip in October of last year. The nationwide simmering anger in cities and universities against the genocidal violence has, over the months, led to many teach-ins, rallies and civic actions by groups such as Peace and Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

At universities across the US, the administrations have reacted with hyper surveillance of student groups and faculty members. Pro-Palestinian student groups were suspended in places such as Harvard University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and other colleges. In the first few weeks of the war, all criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza was deemed ‘anti-Semitic’ and, in some cases, disciplinary actions were brought against faculty in various universities, including the University of Virginia, Muhlenberg College, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Arizona.


The current series of protests that spread like wildfire across the country started when students set up an encampment at Columbia University’s south lawn the same day — April 17 — the university’s president, Minouche Shafik, testified to the US Congress.

Shafik was attacked by Republican legislators, who accused her of tolerating ‘anti-Semitism’ on Columbia’s campus by not doing enough to counter those opposing Israel’s war on Gaza. Her testimony came four months after a similar combative congressional hearing that led to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Perhaps learning her lesson from her colleagues, who had tried to defend freedom of speech on their campuses, Shafiq denounced anti-Semitism, saying it “has no place on our campus.”

The last few weeks have seen tumult across a large number of universities in the United States and also Europe, as students protest Israel’s genocidal actions in Gaza and demand their educational institutions divest from companies funding Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians. Do these protests signal a change in Western grassroots sentiment about Palestine and can they make a difference?

The encampments started to be put up on the lawns of Columbia University that very day. These encampments are temporary communities, consisting of tents and shelters and occupy a particular area as a form of political resistance. They are like the tents (called shanties) put up during the movement for divestment from South Africa in the 1980s (see companion piece by Hasan Zaidi).

In solidarity with the tents at Columbia, and despite being constantly threatened by university administrations with disciplinary action, the protests have now spread throughout the country. Protestors have erected and maintained camps to disrupt ‘business as usual,’ accusing their administrations of complicity in financing the continuing genocide in Gaza by Israel. In setting up “liberation libraries” and medical clinics, supplying free food, and encouraging exchange of cross-cultural resistance histories and art, they also envision and enact solidarities crucial in the pursuit of a more egalitarian future.

At Columbia, armed police were used to rout protesting students out of an occupied campus building on May 1 (Hamilton Hall, that was also occupied in 1968 and has, ironically, become part of the university’s lore that celebrates its history in the civil rights movement), and to dismantle the camps. There were more than 100 arrests on that day.

Similar tactics were used at numerous universities across the US. For example, on the night of April 30, a pro-Israeli mob of more than 100 attacked the pro-Palestine encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with rods, fireworks and pepper sprays. Faculty and students in the camp reported that the police arrived after much delay and then did not intervene to stop the mob of attackers for a couple of hours, nor did they provide protection to those barricaded in the tents. Many were seriously injured.

These various confrontations with the police at universities have led to more than 2,500 arrests (mostly on misdemeanour charges) across the country, and the repercussions against the students may continue over the long term — suspension, denial of diplomas and degrees, and more serious charges.

These actions have been largely condemned as the curtailment of free speech (an American constitutionally guaranteed right against any government action that may restrict speech) and the principle of academic freedom, which has been strongly defended during the past few months by the American Association of University Professors.


This said, there is also a palpable risk. The legitimate concerns over violence universities and states are unleashing upon their students and citizens may divert focus from the demands of the student protestors themselves.

In this charged atmosphere, the US media has pushed discussions on whether calling for an end to Israel’s aggression can be construed as anti-Semitic, while also discussing the legalities of First Amendment rights and free speech concerns. These debates, although well meaning, ironically continue to centre the US as the site of political debate and change and, at times, deflect attention from the major catastrophe unfolding in Gaza.

These media representations, at times, may reduce the politics of protest and encampments to an opportunity to reveal the hypocrisy, degeneration, or criticism of America’s domestic politics. In the process, it undermines the protest organiser’s historical and transnational political orientation. It may shift focus away from their most central demands of ceasefire, decolonisation and divestment. Instead, it entraps the discussion, both by those who are for and against the movement, as a form of US exceptionalism.

For example, in recent weeks, when international media reported on mass graves being discovered in Nasser and Al-Shifa hospitals in Gaza, mainstream American media outlets were saturated by protest coverage. As the beheaded, zip-tied, and decaying bodies of Palestinians were being uncovered in regions repeatedly bombarded using US supplied weapons, the more important question for US primetime television remained whether democratic freedoms and rights that the US prides itself on were under threat, due to either protestors ‘disrupting’ the educational process or by the police responding to them.

Interestingly, it is a privilege America has historically enjoyed; to maintain its illusory freedom from the violence and oppression that it itself in many cases orchestrates in countries across the world. This perceived separation, and its underlying rhetoric of exceptionalism, clearly shifts our focus from US complicity in devastating wars to arguments primarily on US political freedoms ‘at risk.’

However, while the media, politicians and university administrations seek to recreate this narrative of exceptionalism, student protestors have persisted in their efforts to re-centre Palestine as the source of their motivation and subject of their demands.

All distracting questions reporters have posed to protestors in these past weeks are responded to with utmost clarity of political stance and purpose. The students pivot the conversation back to demands of halting the genocide in Gaza.

 Pro-Palestine activists protest outside Columbia University in New York City: the series of protests across the country started when students set up an encampment at Columbia University’s south lawn on April 17 | AFP
Pro-Palestine activists protest outside Columbia University in New York City: the series of protests across the country started when students set up an encampment at Columbia University’s south lawn on April 17 | AFP


Within this context, one major demand by student protestors in all locations is to make transparent all university financial holdings and to divest from those companies that assist Israel in its war effort. This has been succinctly conveyed in the slogan “Disclose, divest: We will not stop! We will not rest!”

The demand is linked to the long-term Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which has been systematically attacked by US politicians, while anti-BDS Laws have been passed by many state legislatures.

For example, in demanding “divestment from death” by ending contracts with companies supplying the Israel Defence Force’s (IDF) war in Gaza, the student group Palestinian Solidarity Committee at the University of Texas, Austin (a place we know better) has called upon the UT system to sell off its stock in US weapons manufacturers such as the Lockheed Martin Corporation, Raytheon, Northrop Corporation, Boeing, General Dynamics and others that sell arms to the IDF. Further, the State of Texas has its own investments, which include nearly $100 million in Israeli bonds.

While the student protestors at US universities see the issue of divestment as a practical way to pressure Israel from continuing the war, they are also attacked for being ‘anti-Semitic’ because these protestors, according to pro-Israel forces in US politics, do not seek divestment from other countries of the world that are also guilty of human rights abuses. Further, the issue of divestment itself has become complicated due to the very nature of investments in today’s economy.

In the 1980s, at the height of the South Africa campaign, Columbia University, one of the first to respond to student pressure, sold stocks it held in companies such as Coca Cola, Mobil Oil or Ford Motors, for doing business with the apartheid regime. Today, universities in general do not openly disclose their investments and invest through complicated financial mechanisms. Brown University, for example, holds more than 90 percent of their funds through outside asset managers who, in turn, invest in general index funds, private equities and hedge funds.

These new forms of holdings make the challenge for the protestors even greater. Yet they have still succeeded in convincing some universities, such as Brown, to bring the issue to their board to vote on the divestment issue. Similarly, some universities, such as Northwestern University, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard and the University of Minnesota, have negotiated an arrangement that clears the camps (without violence) while obliging the university to consider the request for divestment from Israel. In small but sure ways, the movement is gaining traction.

This move toward divestment to pressurise Israel to commit to a ceasefire is also reflected in a shift in contemporary US popular politics. The strength of the current movement, echoing protests in the US in earlier decades (civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, South African divestment), is also based on coalition building by students who support the Palestinian cause.

Since the 1990s, the broadly connected group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has consciously worked with other activists in the environmental movement, with groups against US intervention in Latin America, with those supporting indigenous rights, with critics of the Gulf War, and with civil rights groups defending African American and minority rights. More specifically, in the past few years, SJP developed a strong working coalition with the Black Lives Matter movement.


This solidarity work, which is manifested in more than 200 SJP chapters across the US, now has the support of many such groups during the recent protest. It is a form of intersectionality that is described by participants as the coming together of a range of political causes, may it be to protect the climate, anti-racism, to critique capitalism or against settler colonialism (indigenous communities).

Hence, during demonstrations, rallies or encampments, people of different ethnicities, racial heritage, cultures and identity groups have come together to protest the war in Gaza — they are certainly not monochromatic. This is a major success of the movement, as it speaks to young people across race, religion, gender identity and class background, those who want to raise their voices for social justice and provide a critique of global power structures that discriminate against the Palestinian people.

Student action continues through the commencement/graduation ceremonies period, typically organised around this time of the year. Universities such as Columbia and USC have cancelled university-wide ceremonies fearing student protests. Other places have increased security and threatened dire actions against those disrupting events.

Some commencement speakers have also withdrawn from their commitment in solidarity with the students. There have been some protest in almost all places during the ceremonies by pro-Palestinian students, may it be a walk-out from arenas, the unfurling of a Palestinian flag, the raising of slogans, or by their turning their backs on deans or university presidents when they speak.

Eventually, perhaps, various kinds of social pressure, suppression of speech and overt violence may slow the movement. Furthermore, with summer approaching, many students and faculty may leave campus. There is also a general fear among the students that discriminatory action may be taken against activists when most eyes are diverted in the middle of the summer months.

As the philosopher Judith Butler reminds us in an exchange on political performances, bodies involved in mass demonstrations experience fatigue, exhaustion and weariness while exposing themselves to police brutality (including exposure to tear gas and rubber bullets) and repression (all of this has been experienced by the students).

Yet, surely through these negative experiences, certain solidarities are also being formed by the act of sharing, empathy, resilience, kindness and alliance.

 A tent in Rafah in the Gaza Strip sprayed with a message of solidarity with pro-Palestine protests at universities: with protests spreading to the UK and Europe, it is clear that an international movement has been triggered | Reuters
A tent in Rafah in the Gaza Strip sprayed with a message of solidarity with pro-Palestine protests at universities: with protests spreading to the UK and Europe, it is clear that an international movement has been triggered | Reuters


Based on the above, these past few weeks, and months, should be counted as an extraordinary victory for the students and their supporters, as they have shaken the university administrations and society in general in a major way, and exposed the underlying violence that these universities, the paragons of free speech and academic freedoms, can unleash and are capable of against their own students and faculty.

An international movement has been triggered, with protests spreading to the UK and Europe, and the question of Palestine linked to Israel’s genocidal ambitions is now part of mainstream discussion in the US, because it can no longer be hidden or censored to the same extent.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Charles Homans and Neil Vigdor reported that there has been an increase in sympathy toward the Palestinian cause in the last decade, from 12 percent sympathetic in 2013 to 27 percent now. They argue that the shift is reflective of how pro-Palestinian activists have worked to connect the cause to domestic movements in the US, such as Black Lives Matter.

This shift, according to them, is also generational, as those who are 18-29 years old are three times more sympathetic to the Palestinians than those over 65. How this increasing support translates in the 2024 presidential elections is not very clear.

What is clear, however, is that the US is going through a truly transformative moment, which has major international repercussions. The intensity of this moment may subside, but the students have surely made people aware of the continued colonial and genocidal policy being practised by Israel, with the support and backing of the US government.

The only way to address this impasse is not by silencing the students but to agree to an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and, eventually, through a dignified and just solution of the Palestinian cause.

Shafaq Sohail is a graduate student in the department of anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin.
X: @sohail_shafaq

Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin. He can be reached at

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 19th, 2024