Why Student Protesters Focus on Divestment and Gaza Rather Than Ukraine

What if a generation of students who burned draft cards and demonstrated to end the war in Vietnam limited just made sure their schools were not accepting defense-funded research?   This week, protests and police actions swept campuses across the US, but these seem inwardly focused on addressing campus issues rather than changing the course of conflict in the Middle East.

Here in Boston, 118 students from around Emerson College were arrested for erecting an encampment to protest the war in Gaza. This was in reaction to protests and arrests at Columbia, and since then, protests have spread across the US. The unifying demand of these protests is that colleges divest of arms makers doing business with Israel, along with other steps their schools can take to isolate Israel, such as ending exchange trips.

Yet in this same week, Congress voted on a vast aid package for Israel, one which could have, yet did not, contain provisions to protect civilians in Gaza. The Massachusetts delegation is often so aligned with left-leading students that petitioning them can be preaching to the choir. But in this case, about half the delegation was onboard for aid without added provisions. RepresentativesNeal in the 1st, Moulton in the 6th, and Trahan in the 3rd all voted in favor.

So, what gives? These students had a remarkable line of influence through Congress as it debated sending aid and weapons to Israel. So, why did protesters focus on getting their schools to change investments rather than leading on legislators to change their votes?

Did you hear any calls to ‘defund Israel’? I didn’t.  But that’s precisely what the US did after allegations that UNRWA staff had Hamas connections and may have supported the killing or kidnap of Israelis. Even though recent reporting suggests this concern was overblown, that defunding remains. It was swift and had devastating effects in spreading starvation in Gaza, as the organization feeds 1.7 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. So, why was divestment rather than defunding their unified focus?

Divestment may be the start, not the end.
University divestment would be an unlikely driver of geopolitical change, but this may be beside the point. Students may have become engaged with this issue because they see their school’s investments morally linking them to injustice. Students may seek divestment because their school’s investments indirectly benefit them. Their school’s investments link them to the conflict, so their focus begins more on investments than geopolitics.

Unlike the Vietnam protests, which called to end a war, these students’ calls were simply for their schools to not benefit from it.  Divestment both washes away concerns of profiting from war while suggesting further possible changes on campus to treat Palestinians and Jews with greater parity. A skeptic may say those in Gaza urgently need more than symbolism and change on American campuses. But consciousness starts somewhere, and the rest of the world may also need to do its part as it grows.

Why Do Students Respond More to the Plight of Gaza than Ukraine?
I’ve struggled to answer why Gaza is a more compelling issue for students to take up than Russia’s war on Ukraine. After all, civilian deaths in Ukraine are routinely estimated as ten times higher, which seems to outstrip even worst-case scenarios in Gaza.  Further, the war in Ukraine has a starker moral clarity – there’s a clear aggressor who attacked civilians without provocation.

The late Israeli writer and peace activist Amos Oz wisely described the plight of the Israel/Palestine conflict as tragically a clash of right vs right. Two peoples with deep wounds, howling with grief, fated to share the same small piece of land. So how do those without cultural ties, separated by distance, language, and culture, come to find one side of this conflict as their own?

Many of these students became politically aware during the Black Lives Matter movement, and I suspect see the war in Gaza in perspective to that. In short, Palestinians are opposing a colonial settler state, which, in their view, dispossessed a people of color with the support of capitalist imperialists. With such a frame, Israel can appear more as a colonizer than plucky farmer migrants forming kibbutzes. This change in the generational lens may apply to other issues. But it is especially apt for explaining how liberal youth have so dramatically shifted away from Israel.

Intractable leaders, divestment, or mutual destruction won’t fix this conflict. However, it may be improved if these young protesters invest time and treasure in fixing this part of the world left broken by their predecessors for over sixty years. It’s okay that their agenda is insufficient and lacking nuance. I would be inclined to focus on Ukraine and legislative actions, but that’s not the point.

Caring enough to stand up may be enough to start and hope. And find some inspiration to stand for what you care about. I’m not cheering for one side in this conflict. Rather, that new thinking may take us where now seventy-five years of looking at this problem has not. To begin is to hope.

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