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Pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrate outside the Columbia encampment where students and their allies have barricaded themselves inside Hamilton Hall on April 30, 2024 in New York City. Alamy Stock Photo

Larry Donnelly Campus protests are squeezing Biden from left and right

Our columnist looks at the recent college campus protests in the US and what they mean for students and elections.


I AM GLAD that I was not alive to witness the protests against the Vietnam War at colleges and universities throughout the United States. They were the by-product of a tortured moment in American history when the country of my birth was prosecuting an equally unwise and unjust war in Asia in which innumerable innocent people and often reluctant soldiers were slaughtered.

Campus unrest reached its nadir when four students were killed and nine others were wounded at Kent State University in Ohio by the National Guard. The young activists were unarmed and posed no serious threat. This horrific tragedy led to additional upheaval and a strike that effectively shut down hundreds of higher education facilities for a time.

file-in-this-april-9-1969-file-picture-a-student-leader-speaks-from-steps-of-the-harvard-administration-building-at-cambridge-mass-as-part-of-a-protest-against-reserve-officers-training-corps-pr April 9, 1969 file picture, a student leader speaks from steps of the Harvard administration building at Cambridge, Mass. as part of a protest against Reserve Officers Training Corps program at the university. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Despite one key distinction – there are no American boots on the ground today – parallels have been drawn in recent days between the happenings of more than half a century ago and the mobilisation of students from New York to California. They are aggrieved by the Biden administration’s generally pro-Israel policy and the alleged complicity of their own institutions in the ongoing human suffering in Gaza.

Pushing back

The claimed malfeasance runs the gamut from benefitting from investments tied to Israeli owned or associated businesses and corporate entities to the failings of presidents, deans and provosts to adequately condemn Benjamin Netanyahu and his government for an objectively disproportionate reaction to the revolting deeds of Hamas on 7 October. Jewish students and staunch allies of Israel have mounted counter-demonstrations.

There have been some extremely ugly scenes, with the two sides shouting epithets and slurs at one another, while many students and faculty members stand in the middle calling for peace. Based on footage, things have been made worse in some instances by the heavy-handed tactics of campus and local law enforcement officials.

pro-palestinian-protesters-demonstrate-outside-the-columbia-encampment-where-students-and-their-allies-have-barricaded-themselves-inside-hamilton-hall-on-april-30-2024-in-new-york-city-police-arrest Pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrate outside the Columbia encampment where students and their allies have barricaded themselves inside Hamilton Hall on April 30, 2024 in New York City. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Attempts to label the pro-Palestinian, pro-Israel or security factions as most culpable for the chaos in an overarching sense are foolhardy. No two places are the same; no two sets of circumstances are the same; no two responses by relevant institutional and police personnel are the same. In truth, there is plenty of blame to go around.

new-york-united-states-30th-apr-2024-nypd-police-officers-remove-and-arrest-pro-palestine-protesters-who-occupied-the-hamilton-hall-building-the-campus-at-columbia-university-in-new-york-city-on-t 30th Apr, 2024. NYPD police officers remove and arrest Pro-Palestine protesters who occupied the Hamilton Hall building the campus at Columbia University in New York City. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

One hopes that the impending conclusion of the academic year if nothing else, will bring an end to these unfortunate events. That said, the following are three broader takeaways from what the world has watched unfold.

Sign of a shift?

First, although the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution thankfully grants extensive protection to speech, those exercising their corollary right to protest are not the only individuals on campuses who have rights. Much of the media discourse has focused on who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Assessments on this front are invariably shaped by whether the commentator’s sympathies lie with Israel or Palestine.

To be blunt, my thoughts, during this end of semester period, are with the students who may have strong views about the Middle East, yet who aren’t sufficiently motivated to form encampments or barricade buildings. They are, instead, burning the midnight oil to do as well as they can on final essays, projects and exams. One can imagine the impact of this tumult on their efforts. And the reality is that this group and their parents are more likely to be struggling to pay their staggering tuition bills than the protesters who, for whatever reason, apparently have the luxury of temporarily shrugging off their studies at a vital juncture.

april-28-2024-george-washington-gw-university-washington-dc-usa-hundreds-of-students-and-faculty-from-gw-georgetown-university-american-university-and-george-mason-university-set-up-an-encam George Washington (GW) University, Washington, DC, USA. Hundreds of students and faculty from GW, Georgetown University, American University and George Mason University set up an encampment at GW. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The hierarchy of colleges and universities has come under sustained attack, especially from advocates for the vocal opponents of Israel’s war, for dealing too harshly with agitators. But their fellow students and the employees who make their educational experience possible – from those who maintain the grounds to those conducting funded research in the lab and the library – have rights, too. Respecting speech rights and simultaneously respecting the rights of others to study and work without undue disturbance is tricky.

Second, notwithstanding the plaintive suppositions of some here that Americans are pivoting toward the Palestinian cause and that the current initiative of brave young people will accelerate a change in hearts and minds in the US, the evidence of a shift simply isn’t there. If anything, the backing of Israel has solidified in the past few weeks.

For example, a Harvard CAPS-Harris survey in late April shows that 80% favour Israel over Hamas in the war. That may be unsurprising, even if the question would be answered dramatically differently by the Irish citizenry.

Crucially, however, 61% would only endorse a ceasefire if Hamas is removed from power and all hostages taken on 7 October are freed first. Republicans are aware that a substantial swathe of the electorate tuning into the news every night regard the pro-Palestinian demonstrators as a mix of ungrateful foreigners and entitled rich kids. They are skilfully exploiting this sentiment, albeit of dubious origin and veracity.

Political pressure

Third, all of this is bad for President Joe Biden. Campus turmoil highlights the friction in his party’s progressive wing on the Middle East. He cannot afford any slippage in support from those aged 18 to 35. They are the demographic most critical of his administration’s pro-Israel posture and could either stay home on Election Day or cast a dissenting ballot for a long shot candidate, such as Robert F Kennedy Jr, Cornell West or Jill Stein.

president-joe-biden-speaks-as-missy-testerman-bottom-left-the-2024-national-teacher-of-the-year-and-first-lady-jill-biden-bottom-center-listen-during-a-state-dinner-at-the-white-house-in-washingt President Joe Biden speaks as Missy Testerman, bottom left, the 2024 National Teacher of the Year, and first lady Jill Biden, bottom centre, listen during a State Dinner at the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 2. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Further, prominent conservatives are utilising the situation to their advantage – decrying the anti-Semitism they say is omnipresent in this and cynically playing to the popular scorn for elite colleges and universities that is widespread across the ideological spectrum. Biden is being squeezed from the left and the right.

The octogenarian is old enough to remember the disorder prevalent on campuses in the late 1960s and 1970s. He knows that there was outrage in the wake of the Kent State massacre, but that the turbulence ultimately damaged the Democratic Party. Perceptions of protests and protesters helped the GOP keep a stranglehold on the presidency for decades, with the exception of a post-Watergate election in 1976.

As one report put it, “Biden has spoken rarely, and carefully, on the campus protests.” This is a headache he absolutely did not need. Team Biden cannot wait for the summer.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with

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