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Why pro-Palestinian demonstrations are popping up on college campuses

Social media, combined with the recent social justice movements, may be helping supporters of Palestinians organize in ways never before seen.
Why pro-Palestinian demonstrations are popping up on college campuses
Posted at 12:36 PM, Nov 09, 2023

Divisive tensions are gripping American universities large and small as students react to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. Just last week, more than 50 students at the University of Massachussetts-Amherst were arraigned on trespassing charges after a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus.

"The more people we have behind us, the stronger we are," student organizer Joey Biers-Browne said.

But where is the student support for Palestinians coming from considering decades of U.S. support for Israel?

"We've seen quite a bit of sympathy for Palestinian civilians," said Sahar Aziz, a law school professor and director of the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers University. "They recognize that Palestinians have grievances. Many of these young people don't rely on formal educational institutions for information. And this is one of those topics where they rely heavily on things that are on the internet and that are on social media."

Aziz also wrote the book "The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom."

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Social media, combined with the social justice movements of the past several years, may be helping supporters of Palestinians organize in ways never seen before.

"You were also seeing a large number of African American, young people, Latino, members of the LGBTQ community, who were active during the Black Lives Matter movement," Aziz said, "And they were also active during the massive protests at airports, when Trump issued his Muslim ban, which was the first time you saw mass mobilization in defense of Muslim civil rights."

In a Gallup survey taken prior to the Israel-Hamas war, for the first time ever, nearly half of Democrats said they now feel more sympathy for Palestinians — an 11 percentage-point jump over the previous year. Meanwhile, about one-third of independent voters say they now sympathize with Palestinians as well — an increase of 6 percentage points from 2022. Republican viewpoints remained unchanged, with a vast majority still siding with Israel. 

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Amy Binder is the SNF Agora Institute professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University and studied how college students protest in her book "The Channels of Student Activism." She said that universities became more diverse over the decades and so have the opinions expressed there.

"We see a lot of groups that really have formed against oppressors, about [being] against settler colonialism, anti-racist groups, and a real coalition among groups on the left," she said. "Much more diverse groups and populations of students on campus became hotbeds for political socialization as well. Whether it's a sound or unsound comparison or affiliation, there's a sense that Black Lives Matter is associated in a really close way with Palestinian rights, which is associated in a really close way with other oppressed peoples in the world. So there's a kind of buildup of energy around these issues."

What is happening on college campuses may be a reflection of that, but Sahar Aziz said it's unclear how that might translate at the voting booth.

"That is to be determined," she said.

It is part of a complex legacy in an ongoing conflict.


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