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Could protests on American university campuses signal a shift in public opinion?

Could protests on American university campuses signal a shift in public opinion?

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Back in late October of last year, my feelings of disenchantment and disappointment towards my adopted nation were at their highest, due to the continuous, unprecedented, and unrivaled military, monetary, emotional, and psychological support the USA was granting Israel. At the time, two thoughts monopolized my mind. Firstly, how far will Israel go before the U.S. does anything to stop it? And secondly, what will we Americans do about it?

I recently asked these questions to an American historian, who was in town to lecture on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the role of the U.S. in it. This was before the U.S. decided to postpone a decision on aid to Israel as a reaction to an Israeli battalion that was identified over abuses against Palestinians. This sort of “punishment” was later retracted by the U.S. When questioned about the timing the US would be reprimanding Israel, even slightly, in the form of the gentle slap on the wrist, the historian explained that the U.S. is driven by public opinion, and that when the people decide that it is enough, then the U.S. will utter a reprimand. Could we be witnessing a shift in the American Public Opinion?

Polls found that younger Americans were more likely to sympathize with Palestinians than with Israelis, were generally less supportive of a U.S. role in the conflict, and especially opposed to military aid to Israel. This is remarkable considering the strength of the Israeli lobby in the U.S., American mainstream media propaganda, and the systematic and long-practiced stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood.

Little by little, but especially since April 18, a wave of strong pro-Palestinian public opinion has been building. After a shy and short-lived movement at universities, more people have changed their opinions about long-held beliefs, like the supposed unwavering relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Polls found that younger Americans were more likely to sympathize with Palestinians than with Israelis, and that, more importantly, more young Americans were generally less supportive of a U.S. role in the conflict, and especially opposed to military aid to Israel. This is remarkable considering the strength, wealth, scope, and persistence of the Israeli lobby in the U.S., American mainstream media propaganda, and the systematic and long-practiced stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims, specifically Palestinians, in Hollywood.

This change was accompanied by young people unofficially mobilizing, causing a shift in opinion as more young people started to view the Palestinian issue through a more empathetic lens, started following social media accounts of on-the-ground journalists, and began to take responsibility for their own biases. People began to feel emotional fatigue and started to share in our emotional burden and collective guilt. Some young Americans have and are experiencing feelings of depression, guilt, insomnia, and fatigue, mounting into excessive disappointment due to feeling helpless. Protests remain one possible avenue for people to act and make demands, to make their voices heard, a core aspect of the democracy held dearly and constitutionally by the U.S..

Some young Americans are experiencing feelings of depression, guilt, insomnia, and fatigue. Protests remain one possible avenue for people to act and make demands, to make their voices heard, a core aspect of the democracy held dearly and constitutionally by the U.S..

At university campuses across the country, protestors are demanding divestment from Israel, disclosing financial ties to organizations that support Israel, and the acknowledgement of hardship for Arab and Muslim students. Some protestors are even asking for a cease of Birthright programs. Birthright Israel is an international organization which partners with Jewish institutions to take Jewish young adults (participants are eligible if they identify as Jewish) on a two-week, all-expenses-paid trip to Israel. According to the program, young people on the trip are joined by Israeli peers who offer their local perspectives. This trip, seen by many as sheer propaganda, is designed to crystalize the Jewish identity of these young people and to blur the lines between Judaism and Zionism.

That said, many pro-Palestine protesters at American universities identify with the Jewish faith or belong to Jewish organizations.

Blurring the lines of democracy when it hits too close to home

Intimidation flourishes where information lies. This is why young protestors are intentionally hiding their faces behind face masks and/or the keffiyeh. They are refusing to identify themselves willingly, out of fear of retaliation for their opinions and protesting, something most American young people have not previously faced. This smart tactic is necessary to combat the behemoth powers of data-driven computer intelligence in identifying people. It is still baffling to many how an American is free to cuss the president of the US, but not to publicly denounce Israel. Some students are treading carefully, in order to avoid suspension or getting barred from taking in-person exams or attending their graduation ceremony.

There should also be great awareness towards harnessing the power of young people without invoking more fear and division, without extremism. The outcomes of this wave of nationwide protesting will unfold soon, and the U.S. will show its truest colors. 

This comes after a strong campaign to redefine antisemitism which brought “from the river to the sea” to the political mix making it the new “battle cry” as one news site dubbed it. Stripped of its original meaning and use, the slogan became highly politicized and quickly labeled as antisemitism. Where does freedom of speech end, and why is the Palestinian issue redefining what is allowed and what is not, why now? All these circumstances and their dimensions might give a clue.

The coming days will prove that the people’s voice cannot be silenced and that protests will continue, as they should, to open the floor to discussions on topics that the US has taken for granted. There are many worries at this time especially since speech is being associated and sometimes even equated with violence. This is also danger in grouping pro-Palestinian people under certain categories to facilitate an us versus them approach. There should also be great awareness towards harnessing the power of young people without invoking more fear and division, without extremism. The outcomes of this wave of nationwide protesting will unfold soon, and the U.S. will show its truest colors. 

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