ACTA in the News | Religious Freedom

What Does the Student Intifada Want?

A recent conference in Detroit revealed its radical aims.
CITY JOURNAL   |  June 20, 2024 by Steven McGuire

With few exceptions, college and university presidents were slow and ineffective in responding to the protests and encampments on their campuses this spring. Their passivity calls to mind the character Gottlieb Biedermann in Max Frisch’s play The Fire Raisers, who, hearing about a series of local arsons, refuses to believe that the men who manipulated their way into occupying his attic could be the perpetrators. Deceived by feelings of guilt, Biedermann is unwilling to throw the men out or believe that they are dangerous—even when they tell him exactly what they are doing. Remaining in denial to the end, he hands them the very matches they use to incinerate his home.

Too often, when faced with the fervent demands and outlandish behavior of student demonstrators, university officials allowed them to violate institutional policies, disrupt academic life, and harass Jews. When presidents finally acted, many negotiated with the protesters and capitulated to their demands. Even those who rightly called the police often failed to impose serious consequences on the disrupters. In the end, few protesters face meaningful sanctions for their extended violations of campus policies and, in many cases, the law.

Yet, the protesters and their allies complained about “authoritarian” crackdowns, betrayals of democratic values, and free-speech violations as their camps got cleared away. Their complaints can be attributed partly to ignorance; a student speaker at Harvard University’s commencement, for example, proclaimed to a cheering crowd that the university had violated students’ “right to civil disobedience,” a right she genuinely seemed to believe that they had. One poll showed that more than half of those who said they supported chanting “From the river to the sea” were unable to name the river and the sea to which the chant referred. When a young woman at New York University was asked what she wanted the university to do, she turned the question to her friend: “Why are we protesting?”

Many of the protesters’ complaints, however, are part of a campaign to get universities to serve an anti-Israel and anti-American political agenda. As Roua Daas, a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, recently explained, one of the strategic purposes of campus encampments is to advance a Marxist “sharpening of contradictions,” highlighting the tensions between institutions’ professed values and their actual behavior. She noted, for example, that “students have . . . used mass demonstrations and disruptions on public property to capture public attention and then force the state and police to repress us in full public view.” These students and their allies want to get arrested, so that they can then produce propaganda designed to convince people that American universities are not committed to free speech. The mendacious and naïve alike serve these goals by repeating claims about “peaceful protests” and free-speech violations, never acknowledging that the encampments are often illegal, dangerous, and prohibited by university codes of conduct.

Though the strategy does not appear to be working off campus—polls show that many Americans think the protests and encampments have gone too far—colleges and universities have been badly shaken. These institutions have themselves to blame, as they are hypocritical about free expression on campus, though not in the way the protesters think. University administrators have historically been lenient toward those demonstrating for causes they support; they have used prejudicial admissions and hiring to create left-leaning campus communities; and they insist that social-justice activism is essential to their institutional missions. They have thus allowed their campuses to become ideological tinderboxes.

Unlike Max Frisch’s Biedermann, college and university administrators should take the agitators at their word.

The campus protesters and their off-campus supporters’ beliefs were on full display at the People’s Conference for Palestine, held in a publicly funded convention center over Memorial Day weekend in Detroit. Organized by several far-left groups, including the People’s Forum, the National Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Palestinian Youth Movement, the gathering featured many of the most radical people and groups involved in university protests and encampments. Students from around the country met for three days to discuss strategy, tactics, and their common goals: the destruction of Israel, the eradication of Zionism, and the radical transformation of the United States.

The conference had close ties to Palestinian terrorism. A promotional video featured Salah Salah, a founding member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and participants included Wisam Rafeedie, also affiliated with that organization, and Sana’ Daqqa, the wife of Walid Daqqa, who spent 38 years in prison for his role in the abduction, torture, and murder of an Israeli man in the 1980s. The crowd gave Rafeedie a standing ovation and Daqqa a hero’s welcome.

During panel discussions, the audience cheered loudest when speakers endorsed violent resistance or called for the eradication of Israel. Between sessions, participants chanted genocidal slogans and danced to contemporary remixes of nationalistic music from the First Intifada.

The speakers at the conference repeatedly endorsed terrorism (what they called “armed resistance”) and placed the protests and other actions in North America (and Europe) in the context of such violence, including the intifadas and October 7. In an opening address, emcee Mohammed Nabulsi, long involved in the Palestinian Youth Movement, set the tone by “extending our salutations . . . to our noble, steadfast resistance, who continues to defend our people and honors our dignity in struggle” and recognizing the “brave and noble resistance that defends our people from beneath the rubble, from beneath the ground”—almost certainly a reference to Hamas.

Several speakers on the panel devoted to “Palestinian Resistance and the Path to Liberation” also endorsed violence. Abdaljawad Omar, a Palestinian academiccalled the idea that “resistance is terrorism” a myth. He added that, without “the events of October 7th . . . the political possibilities we now witness would not exist,” among which he included “the rise of the student movement in the United States and North America and Europe” and “the demands for divestment and boycott of academic institution[s].” Another speaker, Ashraf Talhed (whose talk has since been deleted), said that “liberation only comes from armed struggle” and informed the audience that “there are many wars to come, people. We have to be ready for this.”

That wasn’t all. Speaking on another panel, Sara Kershnar of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network mentioned “the right to resist and armed resistance” and said, “in that way, we are unequivocally with the resistance in Palestine.” To loud applause, a speaker from South Africa told the crowd that the most important aspect of their movement was “armed struggle because if the enemy refuses to die it must be killed.” And a representative from Writers Against the War on Gaza explained that the group provides “political education . . . to normalize armed struggle, and this often looks like putting on a film screening with a panel discussion afterwards or publishing writings by or about revolutionaries.”

The speakers left no doubt of their belief that Palestinian liberation requires Israel’s destruction and the eradication of Zionism. Nabulsi was straightforward at the outset: The purpose of the conference was to “craft a path forward that truly brings the Zionist state and its military and its imperialist backers to their knees.” He spoke of their “commitment . . . to liberate every inch of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea” (perhaps specified for the students in the audience). Rafeedie, who said that “these Zionists lie like they breathe,” was clear: “There is no longer a place for the two-state solution for any Palestinian. The only solution is one democratic Palestinian state on all Palestinian land, which will end the Zionist project in Palestine.” Kershnar agreed, opening her remarks by mentioning her “lifelong struggle to dismantle Zionism and the state of Israel.” Alluding to the activity of the last eight months, she said, “There is no going back. From here, Israel is going to fall.” Loud applause ensued.

This is the context in which calls for a ceasefire must be understood. Echoing what has been said on many campuses recently, Nabulsi noted that “a ceasefire is the floor of our demands” because it represented only an immediate need in the longer struggle to destroy Israel. Daas concurred, underscoring the importance of efforts to “weaken the state of Israel.” “This is the building of a revolutionary movement, and students feel that,” she said. “Students feel the revolution, they feel it in their blood, they feel it in their soul, they feel it in their heart, and, ultimately, that is what drives us.” Many student protesters are surely demanding a ceasefire for humanitarian reasons, but the vanguard of these movements knows the real purpose: to help Hamas and the broader Palestinian resistance.

Many of the talks expressed Marxist ideas, and the theme of revolution resounded throughout the conference. Several speakers viewed the destruction of Israel as the key to various other revolutionary causes. In an opening keynote, Yara Shoufani, an organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement, claimed that “Gaza stands at the center of the world, waging a heroic battle, not only against Zionism and its backers, but in service of world revolution.” Repeating a refrain heard on campuses many times this year, Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource & Organizing Center, added on a later panel that “literally all oppressed people are not free until all of us are free, and we can say without a shadow of a doubt in this political moment that Palestine is the road map for global justice, that Palestine is the road map for freedom of all people.” She said the struggle serves “all movements against U.S. imperialism” and mentioned “the ongoing struggle for land back and decolonization for the indigenous people of this land.” During her panel, Kershnar noted, “In this country, Palestine is understood as a front of antiracist struggle alongside black liberation and indigenous sovereignty” and added that “it is crucial to the future of humanity and the very survival of the planet that we dismantle Zionism.” Speakers advocated for revolutions in several other countries. For many, Palestine is the centerpiece of a leftist omni-cause that is anti-American, anti-capitalist, and anti-police, in addition to anti-Zionist.

At their core, the Marxist and nationalist ideologies on display at the conference are ersatz religions, detached from reality. Their proponents believe that struggle against Israel is not just political but existential. They view Palestine’s cause as linked to the global struggle for justice. A Korean-American speaker, Ju-Hyun Park, for example, highlighted the endlessness of the fight: “Revolution is not a one-time thing. Revolution is not a short-term goal. Revolution is a lifetime of dedication and action to transform our worlds. Revolution is an entire historical era that will span generations.” Park, who proudly declared that “the DPRK has never once recognized the Zionist tumor that goes by the name of Israel,” said it “was no exaggeration” when Sana’ Daqqa claimed that “We will not capitulate. It is either victory or death.” He said that “all of humanity” faces “a choice between liberation and extinction.”

The academic Omar made the stakes explicit in his talk on a text by Bassel al-Araj, who was imprisoned for planning attacks against Israel. He called the late criminal’s writings a “a love letter to the struggle imbued with a kind of sublime necessity that resonates deeply with the Palestinian experience, a defense of the wonder, the awesomeness of struggle, even when it includes the horrific.”

These are the beliefs and goals of those organizing, supporting, and seeking to harness the protest movements that have emerged in America and elsewhere since October 7. They view the demonstrations as a front in their war against Israel, Zionism, and American empire. As Nabulsi said, their “fundamental role is to generate political and social crisis within the American ruling class,” with the goal of making “the continued prosecution of this war politically, socially, and economically untenable.” The “unsanctioned marches, bridge and train shutdowns, airport caravans and shutdowns, encampments, building takeovers, targeting of weapons manufacturers . . . shutting down events, bird-dogging,” Nabulsi admitted, is aimed at changing American policy in Gaza: “We need to be clear. The chief target has been the Biden administration. Ultimately, the Biden administration, and to an extent the Democratic Party, is the primary vessel that controls the policies and the decisions that actually impact our people in Gaza.”

They do not care about the principles they sometimes cite to advance their goals. As Nabulsi exclaimed, “They tell us they want us to save democracy. We want to save our people. To hell with their democracy.”

They do not care about our universities, either. They are simply using them as pawns in their revolutionary struggle. As Daas said, “We are in the belly of the beast . . . we are located in the primary supporter and sustainer of Israel’s power, and our universities are expressions of that.” Whereas before students would work within the institution, now “the role of the student movement has shifted, and now we are working to transform our institutions . . . the target is the institution.” While students are entitled to share their views on campus, academic leaders need to recognize and reject these efforts to infiltrate their schools.

Administrators should also note the connection between off-campus activists and student demonstrations. We already know, for example, that outside agitators were sharing recruiting documents and giving students pro bono legal assistance. The conference’s attendees confirmed the extent of the collaboration. As the Writers Against the War on Gaza representative at the conference noted, “we were at the encampments, and . . . we were kind of lending our support through media trainings initially, but . . . ended up becoming somewhat of organizers.” Daas, who complained that claims of outside coordination were false, later insisted that anti-Israel groups “must continue to build power on campus, we must continue to agitate students, to mobilize them, and organize them, and . . . we must do this in tandem with the community.”

The looming question for higher education leaders is whether protests will return in the fall. Universities need to be ready if they do. These demonstrations are supported by off-campus activists, who want to exploit and further corrupt our educational institutions. The people involved view American universities as part of both a long-term war to eradicate Israel and undermine the United States. The vanguard of these movements is driven by a quasi-spiritual desire for revolution. They will not be satisfied by civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas.

University administrators can and should use the ordinary means at their disposal—reasonable time, manner, and place restrictions—to quash the more aggressive demonstrations. They can enforce their existing policies against harassment, discrimination, and creating a hostile environment to the same effect. If they haven’t already, they should adopt official policies of institutional neutrality, ruling out the political statements, divestments, and academic boycotts that protesters are demanding.

Administrators and faculty could also offer educational opportunities, including ones that will appeal to their students’ moral instincts but give them a chance to think through the complexity, history, and politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict. They have compassion for the suffering in Gaza: But do they understand what happened on October 7? They want to divest from material support for war: Do they want to sleep in tents and eat food supplied by supporters of Hamas? Have they studied what terms such as “settler colonialism,” “genocide,” and “apartheid” really mean? Those who already think like the speakers at the Detroit conference might be too far gone to be reached, but many students participating in the protests might reconsider when presented with history and facts.

In the long term, colleges and universities must reform their admissions and hiring processes. Institutions should reevaluate what they look for in the people who join their campus communities. Free speech must be protected, but prospective students need to respect the academic purposes of these schools. They should be selected primarily for their academic promise, not their activist commitments.

The ultimate question is this: Will academic leaders recognize the danger they have brought to their campuses, or will they hand the activists a pack of matches?

This article appeared in City Journal on June 19, 2024.


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