Pro-Palestine students shattered American taboo against criticizing Israel

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Pro-Palestine students shattered American taboo against criticizing Israel: Columbia University professor

Stathis Gourgouris notes that major driving force for pro-Palestine student mobilization is profound sense of injustice

Ahmet Gencturk  | 22.05.2024 - Update : 22.05.2024 


Criticizing Israel is no longer a taboo in America, especially among young people, said a Greek poet and professor of comparative literature at New York’s Columbia University who has witnessed the student mobilization firsthand.

“We are dealing with a very specific generation of young Americans who are 20 years old, maybe at most 25, for whom criticizing Israel is no longer a taboo. This is a new phenomenon which has to be understood and underlined. As such, my contention is this is not something that is passing but has long-lasting effects and will continue,” said Stathis Gourgouris in an exclusive interview with Anadolu.

Asked what triggered and expanded the student mobilization, considering that it was not the first time that Israel unleashed a massive offensive against Palestinians, he counted two major reasons.

“One is the absolute magnitude of the destruction that was unleashed upon Gaza. The scale of the Israeli response to the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 is unprecedented. Israel has rained destruction on Palestine for decades, and one might say that Israel routinely kills Palestinians every day. But I think that the sheer escalation and the way that it happened might be one of the reasons why the normal response by students itself escalated very quickly.

“And second was the response of Columbia University, which overlooked the student demands and sensibilities under its new administration of (President) Minouche Shafik. It constrained the demonstrations and suspended the activities of Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, major student organizations advocating for the Palestinian cause, and subsequently called the police on campus when it was not necessary.”

Further on the response by Columbia University and many other universities, Gourgouris asserted that it has something to do also with American politics and how the university system is in large partly funded by the state.

As such, particularly more conservative and more pro-Israel Republicans in Congress put pressure on the universities, which they see as breeding grounds for progressive views, including support for Palestinians, and threatened to cut federal funding to them, he said.

“So we have clear political interference in American universities, which is unprecedented, because these universities always work within a great degree of autonomy. That is really, if anything, their greatness: the fact that they can have this space of academic freedom. Now everything has become politicized to an extent that escalates things way beyond the point of departure. Palestine remains still, of course, the main issue, but it has now entered into a whole lot of other dimensions. And this, I think, makes everything very complicated for all the parties involved,” Gourgouris said.

Mainstream media and pro-Palestine student mobilization

Gourgouris contended that the response by mainstream media, which accused the students of being antisemitic and presented them as spoiled rich kids, backfired and made the students more determined.

“So I think the media response, the kind of disparaging or contemptuous response towards these young people -- as you know, children of the rich, all of which is in fact not true at all -- made things worse,” he said.

Gourgouris further noted that the simple demand for a cease-fire in Gaza has long passed and presently students have wider demands.

“They are very specifically demanding divestment of the university's capital resources from companies that benefit or profit from war and destruction in Israel. It's very specific. And so I think the media definitely played a role as well as the US government's response,” he said.

Regarding the violent attacks by far-right white supremacists on pro-Palestine students on US campuses, which included Jewish students as well as African Americans and Arab-Americans, Gourgouris pointed out the irony.

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