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Protests Continue to Roil College Campuses, Bringing Wide-Ranging Political Consequences

These demonstrations, which have engulfed campuses across the country, began in response to Israel’s war on Hamas. However, their impact has been mixed.

Protests on American college campuses over the Israel-Gaza war have continued to make headlines across the country in recent weeks, even as graduation season approaches for many universities.

The protests, some of which have resulted in violence and mass arrests, began at Columbia University in New York last month, before spreading nationwide. Many of the demonstrators aim to pressure Israel to stop its war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which was launched in response to the October 7 terror attack that left 1,200 Israelis dead.

However, the demonstrations have been met with mixed success. While some campuses have ceded to student demands, including calls to divest from Israel, other schools, such as the University of Southern California and the University of Chicago, have allowed police to clear out illegal encampments. In states with Republican governors, such as Texas and Florida, the response has often been stricter than in blue states.

Most top Republicans, including presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, have harshly criticized the protests. Among Democrats, the reaction has been more mixed. The protests were denounced by Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, and more tepidly condemned by President Joe Biden, yet supported by some in the progressive wing of the party, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The issue of the campus protests, and the Middle East conflict more generally, is likely to remain a divisive one for Democrats into the upcoming election cycle. A recent USA Today/Suffolk poll found that Biden voters are far more divided than Trump voters in their views of the protest movement. While fully 78% of Trump voters oppose the campus demonstrations, 30% of Biden voters support them and 20% oppose them, while a further 39% agree with their aims but oppose their tactics.

The protests have also been met with pushback from pro-Israel students, whose counterdemonstrations have in turn made headlines. These include nearly 500 Jewish students at Columbia, who signed on to a letter criticizing the protests, and a group of fraternity members at the University of North Carolina who held up an American flag after it was taken down and replaced with a Palestinian flag. While most have been peaceful, a counterprotest at UCLA turned violent in late April.

It is unclear just how much the protesters, whether pro-Palestine or pro-Israel, speak for their fellow college students. According to a Generation Lab survey published by Axios, only 8% of students have become involved with the protests on either side, and most ranked the Middle East conflict as far less important to them than other top political issues. A strong majority of respondents also opposed illegally occupying campus buildings and believed that students who violate campus rules should be held responsible.

Some observers have drawn parallels between the current campus unrest and that which occurred in the late 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War. Then, too, antiwar protests engulfed college campuses and occasionally erupted into violence. However, there are important differences as well: the current protests are smaller and – in contrast to the Vietnam War, when young American men stood a chance of being drafted – are dealing with a less immediate issue for most young adults.

Another open question is just how much impact the campus unrest is having over Middle East policy more broadly. Biden’s recent promise to not supply Israel with arms if they invade Rafah, a city in the south of the Gaza Strip which is the last stronghold of Hamas, caused some to speculate whether the student protests may have helped to influence him. If so, American campus activists may have ended up playing a momentous role in global geopolitics, but this will likely be debated for years to come.

If the current campus movement follows the trajectory of the 1960s, then its legacy may be mixed. The student demonstrations against the Vietnam War likely helped end the war, but they also provoked a broad conservative backlash which led to the election of Richard Nixon as president in 1968. Parallels with the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in which anti-Vietnam protests erupted into violence between demonstrators and police in the streets, have alarmed some Democrats: the party’s convention this summer is once again set to occur in Chicago, and DNC officials have taken measures to prepare for similar disruption.

However, one point seems relatively clear: the campus protests have been bad for colleges. Many incoming freshmen, and Jewish students in particular, have reported having second thoughts about attending universities such as Columbia which have become epicenters of the protest movement. Meanwhile, some of these universities’ wealthiest donors are beginning to reconsider their financial support. Considering that Americans’ confidence in higher education had already fallen dramatically between 2015 and 2023, this means that universities have a very long way to go before re-earning the trust of the public.


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