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MITCH GURFIELD: Hail to the students

"We Will Not STOP. We Will Not REST." — A student protestor’s sign in Chicago, May 5, 2024

I was a civil rights worker in Mississippi in the summer of 1965. I had made the decision to go south the previous August after reading about the gruesome “Freedom Summer Murders” of the three civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. I remember being so incensed that I knew it was something I just had to do; there was no other choice for me. The following June, I boarded a bus in Washington, D.C. and arrived in Jackson, Miss. the next day. Minutes after getting off the bus, I joined a demonstration, and shortly after that, I was arrested and jailed for 10 days.

I was proud to be in jail, because I was part of such a righteous cause.

Fifty-nine years later, many students of roughly the same age as I was then are demonstrating all across the United States. They are motivated by the same moral outrage that shook me to the core. The cause is different (Israel’s genocide against the people of Gaza), but the fire that burns inside them is exactly the same. Just as with the civil rights workers of the 1960s, nothing will deter these students. Not the threat of arrest nor of suspension nor of expulsion.

The thousands of students who are protesting are the conscience of our nation, and they deserve our heartfelt thanks and admiration. They make us proud to call ourselves Americans when there are so many reasons not to be proud.

By contrast, our political and educational leaders are shameless. Biden has no spine. At the first sign that Israel was committing genocide he should have cut off all military aid to Israel. But apparently losing votes in November was more important to him than the slaughter of thousands of innocent Palestinians. Not to be outdone by his rival, Trump has urged Netanyahu to finish up his all-out war. So much for the moral rectitude of the two leading candidates for president!

The university presidents and their boards of trustees are hardly better. They are more worried about alienating wealthy donors—millionaires and billionaires such as Robert Kraft—who are staunch supporters of Israel than taking the correct moral stance, which is divestment. In the face of the many thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians who are being brutally killed, maimed, and starved, this should be an easy decision for colleges and universities. But this is not the case, because their future endowments—which in many cases are in the billions of dollars (Harvard’s is $51 billion)—mean more to them than human lives. Their gutlessness is appalling.

Unable to oppose the protestors on moral grounds, colleges and universities have turned to law and order as their justification for sending in police to break up the protests. One after another, they have cited the threat to the safety of their students, faculty, and staff. This has largely been a canard because few campuses have seen any violence until the arrival of the police. The one notable exception was UCLA. But there, as reported by The New York Times on May 3, it was the counter-demonstrators and not the demonstrators who instigated all the violence by attacking the encampment.

At Columbia University, whose protestors sparked the nationwide movement, President Shafik twice called in the police, asserting that the safety of the university community demanded it. But this view has been challenged by many of Columbia’s faculty. On one of her recent programs, “Democracy Now” co-host Amy Goodman interviewed two professors who painted a very different picture. The first one emphasized how nonviolent the demonstrators were, while the second one drew a crucial distinction between being safe and feeling safe. She stated that some Jewish and Muslim students might feel unsafe in the midst of such a charged atmosphere but that their feelings, however authentic, did not correspond to reality.

Large demonstrations draw all kinds of people; they are never completely homogenous or pure. This is undoubtedly true of the current student protests. There are likely some students who support Hamas’ vicious and unjustifiable attack on Israeli citizens on October 7, others who are antisemitic, and still others who are prone to vandalism. (It is also true that a small minority of people who have joined the protests are not students.) But from my reading of many accounts, my sense is that the overwhelming majority of campus protestors are none of these things. They are simply outraged at the genocide being carried out by Israel’s government, and they want it to stop immediately. And so they are doing the only thing they can do, which is to pressure their universities to end financial ties to Israel, in the hope that this will contribute to the worldwide effort to end the mass murder.

The noblest moments in any country’s history are when ordinary citizens take collective action against injustice. This is happening in our country right now. The student protestors could be going about their normal lives—studying for finals, socializing, and completing their summer plans. Instead, they are dropping all these activities for something infinitely more important: the survival of Palestinians. They are our true leaders, for they are the conscience of the nation.

Hail to the students!


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