Life & Culture

Why we shouldn’t shut down student protests for Palestine

The more oxygen these protests are given, the more ordinary people see through them


People rally on the campus of Columbia University which is occupied by pro-Palestinian protesters in New York (Photo by Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

One of my strongest held beliefs is that every university student deserves the chance to be a f**ing moron. It’s a foundational part of growing up, transitioning from a child to an adult, developing thoughts and opinions that will haunt you for years to come. Usually the way this transformation from puerile to mature happens is in clubs and bars and parties. You date the wrong people, have sex with even worse and bumble your way through stupid capers that teach you that actions have consequences. I, for example, was disciplined by my university for throwing water balloons out of my fourth-floor flat window at foreign exchange students returning from lectures. Antisocial? Sure, but hardly criminal.

Today we have a vocal but very small minority of students who, on both sides of the Atlantic, have decided to cosplay Palestinians and barricade themselves on their campuses. The ensuing chaos has created scenes so ripe for satire that Armando Iannucci could learn a thing or two. There was the keffieyeh-ed protest leader at Columbia who demanded the university catered their violent takeover, the groups who erected their borders and checkpoints in protest of borders and checkpoints, and the “Jewish” group that wrote Hebrew backwards on a seder plate. It was all sadly hilarious.

Obviously I don’t endorse damage to property, and Jewish students feeling intimidated on campus is horrible, but these people have a fundamental right to embarrass themselves — it’s what university is for. And, the more the world sees of their shallow politics, their narcissistic obsession with making themselves the stars of the show, the more that normal people are turned off to their cause. When they’re given the attention they crave, the lack of critical thought is laid bare for everyone to see.

The intersectional aspect of their arguments, the idea that all leftist causes are part of the same struggle is the most obvious example. The ludicrous spectacle of Queers for Palestine, LGBT marchers in support of the Houthis, is obviously stupid. But it’s not until they dominate the headlines that people can see through the academic-speak and realise the arguments’ inherent and abundant failures of logic. 

But these protests have also been a reminder that the majority of students are not a) this lame or b) this stupid. At the university of North Carolina, members of the school’s fraternities not known for their politics took it upon themselves to defend their campuses’ American flag from anti-Israel protesters intent on tearing it down. A picture of the incident went viral and a gofundme to throw them a party in thanks reached half a million dollars in about two days, with thousands of small donors. It was nice to remember that the majority of Americans look at scenes of campus chaos and see them for what they are: violent for the sake of it, violence masquerading as social justice.

This isn’t just true for the onlookers, it’s true for the majority of students. As the encampment movement tiptoes its way across the pond, I say we let it run its course. Do you think there are bigger queues for nightclubs or to join Gaza protests? Are more students buying keffiyehs or Jäger bombs? If you think about it for more than a second, the idea that a handful of students is seen as representative of a campus’s politics is really quite silly. Bristol has an undergrad population of more than 60,000. At the time of writing, there were no more than a dozen tents in their encampment.

It sounds like a cliche, but the right to protest is important, and should be protected, even the ‘cause’ is stupid and contradictory. But it should not come at the expense of the normal students who deserve to not be accosted and Jewish students who should be free to look identifiably so at a university they pay far too much money to attend.

But at the end of the day, if a few Warwick undergrads want to camp in this resolutely wet May then let them. If the good people of Bristol want to further demonstrate their disdain for showers then I say go ahead - it will only diminish their cause for people to see what they actually believe.

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