Mises Wire

What the Campus Protesters and Their Critics Get Right and Wrong

As the academic year draws to a close, protests have broken out on college campuses across the country. Students are protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza. Generally, they are calling for the United States government to stop arming and funding the war and, in the meantime, for their universities to divest from Israeli businesses.

The current spate of protests can be drawn back to April 17, when the president of Columbia University was brought before Congress to testify about antisemitism at the school. At the same time, about a hundred Columbia students set up a “Gaza Solidarity” tent encampment on campus.

This small protest would likely have dissipated after a few days or weeks, like many similar campus protests in the months since October 7. But instead, the next day, Columbia’s president announced that the protesting students had previously been suspended (they had not) and were therefore trespassing on campus. The police responded and arrested one hundred students that afternoon. The arrests were then used as cause to actually suspend the students.

But the crackdown backfired, leading more Columbia students to join the protest and students at other universities to start their own encampments. Two weeks later, the size and intensity of these demonstrations have only grown.

Despite how these protests are being portrayed in the political media, there is a fair amount of nuance that is important to work through with this story.

First, what’s happening in Gaza right now is utterly horrific. Any decent person should oppose the manner in which Israel has chosen to conduct this war. Instead of prioritizing the rescue of hostages, the Israeli government has carried out six months of heavy bombing and imposed punishing food and medical supply blockades. So far, over thirty-four thousand Gazans have been killed—a number reported by Gazan authorities but considered reliable by the Israeli military—many of them women and children. Israel is burning through the international sympathy it garnered on October 7, and American taxpayers are being forced to pay for it.

Students across the country are right to call for an end to that. And, in the meantime, it’s completely reasonable for them to focus on bringing about that change on the campus level through boycotts and divestments.

That said, it’s not as if the students protesting are a homogenous group of stalwart students focused on effectively agitating to end the war. In fact, a sizeable portion of them do not appear to be serious about stopping the war at all.

For most people at most times, political beliefs are not the result of logical thinking or the scrutinization of policy arguments but social calculations. People tend to adopt the political beliefs of their social milieu and use discussions about politics not to try and convince others of their beliefs but to signal to their tribe that they belong.

That’s why we’ve seen videos like this in which two students partaking in the protest admit that they are not actually sure what they are protesting about. On these campuses right now, there is social pressure to join in and speak out in favor of the Palestinians. And there is a social cost to staying silent or dissenting. That is the big motivator for many participants, which, it’s important to note, is true for any popular political movement—not just these protests.

To their credit, some student protesters are clearly serious about staging effective demonstrations. They’re avoiding unnecessarily divisive chants and slogans that do nothing but close the minds of people not already reached. And they encouraged and even participated when Jewish protesters broke for Seder in the encampments on the first night of Passover to help counter the ridiculous assertion that opposition to what Israel is currently doing in Gaza always stems from a hatred of Jews.

But for every intelligent student activist who is serious about making these demonstrations as effective as possible, there are many who seem to see this as an opportunity to loudly and obnoxiously signal to their fellow students how much they support the current campus orthodoxy. Starting chants with historically mixed connotations, physically blocking people for no real reason, changing out American flags, and masking up with keffiyehs might be great ways to show your fellow protesters that you’re super pro-Palestine. But they’re counterproductive for reaching the unconverted, which is what needs to happen if the demonstrations are going to make any progress toward the ends participants claim to desire.

The strategic ineptitude of these students can seem almost astounding until you remember what they are being taught at these schools. Universities like Columbia have gone all in on identity politics and social justice. A more accurate name would be trait-based collectivized justice. The dominant historical narrative that permeates almost every department and class curriculum considers the world to mostly have been in balance until white, western Europeans decided to get rich by stealing and expropriating resources from the rest of the world. Putting aside how economically and historically delusional that is, by framing history as a series of injustices committed by an entire identity group on other identity groups in their entirety, adherents conclude that justice can only be attained on a collective, group level.

And so, when students see the horrific images and videos coming out of Gaza of mostly brown, mostly Muslim people being blown up, crushed, and starved by white-looking descendants of European immigrants, it seems to fit neatly into their learned worldview. So even though, in this case, it leads most of them to the correct general conclusion, it shouldn’t be a surprise that an imprecise, historically flawed narrative leads to imprecise, strategically flawed activism.

Many on the right consider this a day of reckoning for the universities. And it is. It’s not worth shedding a tear when those who fan the flames of identitarian fanaticism slip up and find themselves on the receiving end of the very anger they wanted to direct elsewhere.

Some right-wingers and Republican politicians have even come out in support of cutting off federal funding for these universities. That is overdue. These schools are pushing highly politicized, ahistorical, often outright immoral dogmas that many Americans find abhorrent. We shouldn’t be forced to fund that.

Where many of these right-wingers go wrong, however, is in ignoring that bigger picture to instead push the narrative that all these students who are speaking out against what Israel is doing to Gaza are solely motivated by a learned hatred of Jews.

There will always be at least some people saying unseemly or outright awful things in any sizeable political movement. And there have been reports of people saying antisemitic things. But the characterization of these protests as mobs of monstrous college students seething with Jew hatred does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

The most publicized anti-Jewish incident involved a student who was allegedly stabbed in the eye with a handheld flag. This made national news. But when a video of the incident came out, it became clear that, even if the contact was not accidental, it was not the vicious attack it was made out to be in the press.

This and other incidents where attacks on Jews are reported that are later easily disproven by video wreck the credibility of those trying to push the antisemitic mob narrative. If that narrative were accurate, there would be no need to fake or embellish student hostility to Jews. Doing so only weakens the righteous effort to cut off federal funding from these universities.

To sum up, the students at Columbia and other American universities are right to oppose US support for the war in Gaza. But many are being steered wrong by an emphasis on status-seeking and in-group signaling. If these students are serious about helping the people of Gaza, they should stop speaking only to the converted and try to reach those who are not yet on board.

And while many right-wingers are correct to attack the universities for instilling ahistorical narratives and immoral frameworks in their students, promoting easily disprovable exaggerations of antisemitism only serves to undermine any effort to seriously address the problem.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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