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The problem with campus protests is not cruelty but ignorance

Colleges should be treating the Gaza protests as opportunities to do what they’re best at — teaching.

A protest at George Washington University's commencement ceremony on May 19.Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

The academic year winds down. All across America, colleges are transitioning to summer mode. If you listen, you might hear a sound. No, not the cicadas. I’m talking about the collective breath, like a punctured tire, of administrations beginning now to exhale after the most fraught period of campus unrest in a half century. If they can just survive commencement (in whatever form it takes), there is a big reset button waiting for them out beyond the tents.

Not long ago, my daughter called me. She was weighing whether to join the protests over the war in Gaza on her college campus. Appreciating what she called the “responsibility” of the decision, she wanted to talk it over. I was hesitant to encourage her but hesitant as well to talk her out of it. I asked her how the protests were going, what the tenor was, and how much she understood of them. She told me that she had attended several teach-ins led by professors, including one who was an Algerian Jew and another of Palestinian descent. This, to me, was deeply heartening. The administration, as I imagined it, had conceived of a project to gather the students in this moment of crisis and do what it does best: educate.

The next morning, I learned my mistake. The teach-ins were in fact a much more ad-hoc affair. Professors dropping by, in or near the occupation space, offering their expertise to whoever might be sitting in or wandering past. I feared that the information was not as even-handed as it could be, and I was disappointed that the college wasn’t leading the initiative. It provoked me to wonder: Why not?

Like many people I know, I’ve watched the Gaza protests with a mixture of admiration, anger, sorrow, and frustration. I’ve also been uncharacteristically silent, my feelings on the matter changeable, ill-defined. Some of this I like to think is humility. Over the last six months, I’ve learned much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but there is much more I do not know. I do know that the crisis in the Middle East will never lend itself to absolutes. Nor should the way of expressing anger over it. In many resistance movements, the binary thinking that’s common among young people is an asset. All that righteous certitude acts like a propulsive fire for the cause’s ultimate aim. But the same kind of monolithic passion, when applied to the conflict in Gaza, feels not only intemperate but indecent. It’s a flamethrower where a jeweler’s torch is required. A flamethrower always burns more than its target.


It is, of course, not a new story: hundreds of college campuses, occupied by bands of angry students, many of them newly alive to an ancient struggle. Just as thousands of white people in the 1960s joined the civil rights movement, so too these young people have developed a fierce sense of outrage over what they perceive as the persistent oppression of a vulnerable people. Their social media feeds are ablaze with the horrors of this war. Death, destruction, displacement, starvation. There may be gradations of grievance and differing demands, but at the end of the day, the pro-Palestinian encampments share one overarching goal: an end to the suffering of innocent Gazan civilians. That is a mitzvah in any religion, for which they deserve not only our approval but our praise.


What separates these new activists from their predecessors is the thorny complexity of the issue. Where their actions have been problematic — destructive, insensitive, inflammatory — it feels less a function of cruelty than of ignorance. Yes, some of the protesters have lived experience with this conflict. But a vast majority do not. Those kids, and really all kids who find themselves in one way or another affected by the turmoil, need an education. And what better place to get it than at school?

Great citadels of higher learning, American colleges teem with scholars of history, religion, politics, war. True experts on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Why not bake this learning into next year’s experience? Develop an organized multidisciplinary curriculum — team-taught mini-courses, week-long events, online lecture bundles — available to every student in addition to their regular course load. Provide the classes, free and voluntary, for any member of the community with a passing curiosity. But also make them a prerequisite for substantive negotiation over encampments, investment portfolios, or other resistance actions.

To quote every parent I know, “Listen. And then you can talk.”

This is a difficult business, to be sure. And, as the Dartmouth College community can attest, even the loftiest efforts at education may buckle in a punishing headwind.

At the beginning of May, Dartmouth activists constructed an encampment that was swiftly and controversially dismantled with the intervention of local police. But I think it would be unjust to elide the well-publicized efforts that preceded those events and how they may have helped avert a larger altercation. In October, immediately following Hamas’s devastating attack on Israel, the school’s departments of Middle Eastern studies and Jewish studies came together with nimble alacrity, setting up a series of forums where students and faculty could engage one another in an open and enlightened manner. The professors, putting aside their individual allegiances, offered their students both scholarship and solace. They also, by their joint presence, modeled principles of tolerance and civil discourse — which may be the most valuable lesson of all.


In a recent letter to the Dartmouth paper, representatives of the school’s Chabad and Hillel Jewish organizations were critical of aspects of the encampment but nonetheless praised the school for its “commitment to respectful dialogue” and the sense of safety Jewish students have enjoyed there relative to that at other colleges. Bernard Avishai, who has been team-teaching on this topic at Dartmouth for the past two years, recently wrote, “These norms, of an open society, seemed especially urgent to convey in a class about places where individual freedoms are routinely subordinated to religious or tribal solidarity.” Avishai may have been speaking of the Middle East; I cannot help hearing echoes of a story much closer to home.

Summer will be over in the blink of an eye. Most of us pray that the Middle East will have quieted by then and that our college campuses will experience a commensurate level of peace. But scudding right behind move-in day is another momentous event: a presidential election that may well hinge on both the outcome of the war and the attitudes that our newly enfranchised voters hold about it. Let’s not allow the hardships of this painful season to be in vain. Colleges should be preparing for the challenge ahead. If ever there was a teachable moment, it is now.


Alexandra Styron’s most recent book, “Steal This Country: A Handbook for Resistance, Persistence, and Fixing (Almost) Everything,” is for young adults.