FROM THE LEFT: Seeking a civil path in Palestine protests

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By Lance Simmens

Free speech is a cherished notion that has stood at the gates of liberty for nearly 250 years and made us the shining city on the hill. However, we run the risk of foregoing our commitment to it as a fractured society simply appears to reject the time-tested method for conflict resolution: namely, the ability to air our differences in a civil, meaningful dialogue that seeks to rely upon reason and compromise not based upon partisan gains or losses.

We are a society that has accomplished social advancement through our ability to reach consensus. Our governmental system represents a solid commitment to agreement through words not warfare. President Joe Biden has made very clear that affirming the right to  peaceful protest is ultimately preferable to chaos. Our institutions of higher learning are currently the battleground for momentous debate. 

As one who has spent the past 70 years watching the Civil Rights Movement change the trajectory of how we deal with segregation and racism, fighting against our involvement in Vietnam, witnessing a president being disgraced and removed from office, living through an era that saw two Kennedys and Dr. King assassinated, and looking upon with horror students gunned down on a college campus, I am today witnessing another generation trying to cope with the atrocities in Gaza.

We have all watched with horror the events of Oct. 7 and the subsequent events triggered by displacement that has cost the lives of over 34,000 mostly women and children in Gaza. Both actions are reprehensible and have no place in a civil society. Efforts to stem this catastrophe by seeking negotiation through a ceasefire accompanied by discussion that seeks peace not persecution must prevail. There has to be a concerted effort to live in a world where peace respects differing ideologies. Antisemitism has no place in an academic or humane society. Hatred and it’s accompanying violence must be avoided. President Biden has offered the following: “this blatant Antisemitism is reprehensible and dangerous and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country.”  

There is little data to suggest whether outside agitators are playing a critical role in advancing protests on either or both sides of the equation. Hopefully there will be efforts to identify exactly who is behind the efforts to bring to the world’s attention the unrest that is simmering on college campuses. We must make meaningful changes through debate and negotiation and if indeed there is outside intervention there is no room at the bargaining table.

In a recent article published in Vox by Ellen Ioanes and Nicole Narea, they identify what exactly is behind the protests. At Columbia, the protesters belong to CUAD (Columbia University Apartheid Divest), a coalition of student organizations working towards achieving a liberated Palestine and the end of Israeli apartheid by urging Columbia to divest all economic and academic stakes in Israel. 

“Their vision is a free Palestine… The coalition’s demands for divestment are of a piece with BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement started by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005,” the authors write. “BDS cites as its inspiration the anti-apartheid activists of the 1980s who targeted South Africa’s apartheid government with boycotts.”

It seems that a core issue surrounding the activities that are currently being voiced on campuses across not only the United States but in London, Paris, and other European cities is the degree to which free speech is tolerated and encouraged in our institutions of higher learning, especially with regard to pressure on divestiture and disclosure of their investments in companies and organizations linked to Israel and its war on Gaza.

A recent news article by Al Jazeera suggests “the protesters at Columbia University, who began building encampments on campus on April 17, are calling for Columbia to divest from corporations that they believe profit from Israel’s war on Gaza,” while the New York University (NYU) Alumni for Palestine website calls on NYU to “terminate all vendor contracts with companies playing active roles in the military occupation in Palestine and ongoing genocide in Gaza, namely Cisco, Lockheed Martin, Caterpillar, and General Electric”. 

Students at different U.S. universities are calling for greater transparency about their institutions’ investments. A student who is part of the encampments at Tufts University outside Boston told Al Jazeera that one of the “biggest demands of the students” is for the university to disclose its investments. The only outstanding issue that remains is to qualify and quantify the extent to which the issue is being driven by outside sources, which is an issue that needs extensive oversight.

There is little doubt that this is a potentially dicey issue that will greatly test the resolve of higher education institutions to sustain free speech in light of a highly politicized program aimed at divestiture. Protecting the prerogative of universities to maximize investments while under pressure to also protect free speech is likely to create rough going for school administrators as they wrestle with an active student body. If this is not enough, additional efforts to protect against what appears to be an inevitable slide into the antisemite arena will only further test school administrators’ efforts in a highly political cauldron. Stop the violence!