La universidad de los EEUU frente a Gaza
Mayo 13, 2024

Under the Jumbotron

Anahid Nersessian, 6 MAY 2024

On 25 April, a large group of students at the University of California, Los Angeles, set up an encampment on the main quadrangle of their campus. Flanked on all sides by plywood barricades, the Palestine Solidarity Encampment included smaller tents for sleeping as well as larger enclosures for food, first aid, electronics (phone chargers, batteries), musical instruments and art supplies. There was also a library, which a paper sign taped to a tree designated the Refaat Alareer Memorial Library, in honour of the Palestinian writer and teacher who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in December 2023.

Alareer wrote his doctoral dissertation on John Donne. On YouTube, you can find him lecturing, in English, to his students at the Islamic University of Gaza. One lecture begins with a discussion of Horace’s Ars Poetica and the idea that a work of art must delight as well as instruct. ‘The term ‘metaphysical’,’ he explains a bit later, ‘means nothing,’ because it was foisted on poets like Donne by his critics, among them John Dryden and Samuel Johnson, whose assessments Alareer projects onto the whiteboard. The lecture builds to an analysis of Donne’s poem ‘The Bait’, which, Alareer explains, is a parody of Christopher Marlowe’s poem generally known as ‘The Passionate Shepherd to his Love’. When you parody something, Alareer says, ‘you try to offer the readers another possibility, of another worldview, a different world view, telling the people: hey, this isn’t the only thing ... there is something else.’

After his death, Alareer became widely known as the author of the poem ‘If I Must Die’, which asks its reader to build a kite in his memory and to fly it before a child whose father has been incinerated by a bomb, so that the child might imagine ‘an angel is there/bringing back love’. The day after the students set up their encampment at UCLA, it was announced that Alareer’s daughter Shymaa had been killed in an airstrike along with her husband and three-month-old son.

Among other things, the camp was a rebuke to the notion of doing business as usual when such brutality is being perpetrated on an enormous scale against human beings whose displacement, torture, unlawful detention and murder is bankrolled by the United States. Because they often invest their funds in weapons manufacturers whose missiles are falling on Gaza, or in companies with factories in the occupied West Bank, American universities are perceived as supporting Israel’s objective, which appears to be the wholesale extermination of the Palestinian people.

Students protesting against the war on Gaza on campuses across the US, from Columbia, where the encampments began, to California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, have been clear that their primary aims are to pressure the US government to secure an immediate and permanent ceasefire, and to pressure their universities and colleges to divest from any financial holdings with links to Israel. When it comes to divestment, they are drawing from a playbook established in the 1980s, when students convinced their schools to cut ties with companies operating in apartheid South Africa. As an antiwar campaign, the encampments recall protests against the Vietnam War, including the Student Strike of 1970, which grew significantly after the murder of four students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard.

The encampments are also a parody, in Alareer’s sense: emerging from within the university, they offer another possibility for what the university might be. One of the more potent images circulating from the encampments has been of a student holding a sign that reads ‘Columbia, why require me to read Prof. Edward Said If you don’t want me to use it?’ The protests have revealed that the American university, which operates more and more as a high-cost degree factory where humanities departments squirm on the chopping block, is still a place where people can learn what is true, and act on their knowledge. You cannot, in other words, expect young people to memorise and regurgitate history, economics, political science, moral philosophy and so on for their exams while prohibiting them from taking their education on the road.

Over the weekend, following the formation of the encampment, a large group of counter-protesters, few to none of whom appeared to be UCLA students, arrived on campus. They screamed, hurled racial slurs and sexual threats (‘I hope you get raped’) at the students, and opened a sack full of live mice – swollen, seemingly injected with some substance – on the ground near the camp. When the counter-protesters dispersed, they left behind a Jumbotron – a massive flat-screen TV, about ten feet high – in the middle of campus facing the encampment and surrounded by metal barriers. Paid security guards remained inside the barriers to protect the screen. For the next five days, the Jumbotron played, on a loop, footage of the 7 October attacks along with audio clips describing rape and sexual violence in explicit terms. Mixed in among the clips were speeches by Joe Biden vowing unconditional support for Israel and ‘Meni Mamtera’, a maddeningly repetitive children’s song that went viral earlier this year when IDF soldiers posted a video of themselves using it as a form of noise torture on captive Palestinians.

When I arrived on campus on Tuesday morning, to lead a class on Byron’s Don Juan, the sound from the Jumbotron was so loud it was impossible to hear myself think, let alone teach. I walked over with a colleague to take footage of the footage. You couldn’t ask for a better allegory: on one side, the encampment, full of young people risking their degrees, their future employment prospects and their physical and mental health to draw attention to the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza; on the other, a costly media machine, financed by D-list celebrities (who proudly posted their contributions on Instagram), unmanned except for a trio of hired guards who, when questioned, admitted they had nothing to do with the Zionist cause.

My colleague and I contacted the Title IX office, which is responsible for fielding complaints of sexual harassment. Dozens of faculty did the same, but there was no response, and the Jumbotron remained until Thursday, 2 May. ‘I have to put a trigger warning in my syllabus when I teach Margaret Atwood,’ another colleague said, ‘or the university will discipline me. But we all have to listen to this for days?’ The last few years of mealy-mouthed catering both to student sensitivities and to reactive right-wing hysteria has led us to a situation in which criticism of Israel is considered antisemitic because it offends Zionists. The truth is that the university does not care about protecting students, or about combating antisemitism or any other kind of hatred, as much as it cares about its donors. It does not want to lose money, and it does not want to get sued.

At 11 p.m. on 30 April, a large group of men, mostly middle-aged, many wearing Halloween masks, arrived at the encampment carrying knives, bats, wooden planks, pepper spray and bear mace, which they used to attack the unarmed students. They shot fireworks into the camp and used its plywood barricades to crush students into the ground. Footage from ABC News shows half a dozen counter-protesters punching and kicking a student. Videos from independent journalists and people on the ground captured calls for a ‘second Nakba’.

On the ABC newsreel you can hear a reporter shouting in disbelief: ‘Where are the police? Where is security? Where is authority here?’ The answer to the first two questions is clear: the police, as well as campus security forces, were there, but they did not intervene. Rather, for roughly five hours, they stood at a comfortable distance, laughing and occasionally chatting amicably with the mob, which was made up not only of self-professed former IDF soldiers but also several white nationalists, including members of the far-right Proud Boys, whose former leader was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his role in the 6 January attacks on the US Capitol. Since white nationalists are, as a rule, hostile to Jews, it is worth asking why their assault on the encampment – which included a large number of Jewish students – has yet to be ruled antisemitic by the university administration.

When dawn came, several students had been taken to hospital but the encampment was still standing. Classes were cancelled as the administration scrambled to explain why it threw its community to the wolves without intervention. Fingers were pointed at the chancellor, Gene Block, who sends regular emails decrying antisemitism but has neither mentioned Gaza in his communiqués nor had a word to say about horrific attacks on Muslims in the US, such as the shooting of three Palestinian students in Vermont in November. Hours before the attack on the encampment, Block had sent out a mass email calling it ‘unauthorised’. The encampment, he went on, ‘makes people in our community feel bullied, threatened and afraid’. This has since been interpreted as a dog whistle to outsiders to come and dismantle it.

In the end, UCLA decided to follow the lead of Columbia and bring in riot police to clear the encampment and arrest two hundred of its students and faculty. For roughly eight hours – from the evening of 1 May to the early morning of 2 May – students and faculty defended the encampment with shields made from plastic garbage bins and cardboard, twice repelling the police incursion by the sheer force of their numbers and courage. The police, by contrast, came armed with stun grenades and rubber bullets, those ‘less lethal’ (as the advertising copy goes) weapons that can break bones, blind eyes and, in fact, kill when fired at close range. Footage shown on Fox 11, which is part of the Murdoch-owned Fox Corporation and hardly sympathetic to either college students or Palestine, shows three helmet-clad special-operations officers firing rubber bullets into the faces of students standing directly in front of them. At least 25 ended up in hospital.

Most disturbing, however, are images that circulated on X (formerly Twitter) of snipers on the roof of Royce Hall, the building next to the encampment. The superintendent of the Indiana State Police confirmed that a sniper was called in for a pro-Palestine protest at Indiana University, and the New York Police Department has confirmed that an officer fired a gun – with real bullets – inside Hamilton Hall at Columbia University during its raid on the building, which students had renamed Hind’s Hall in honour of six-year-old Hind Rajab, murdered by the Israeli military in early January. The general sentiment on campuses across the US is that it is only a matter of time before a student is killed, as at Kent State in 1970. This is a price that both the students and their universities, for very different reasons, seem prepared to pay.

The students, as they will tell you, are there for Gaza, where 90 per cent of schools, and all universities, have been destroyed. The university, meanwhile, is forced to confront the moral vacuity of its policies, which have in the end protected no one except extremists willing to join forces with neo-Nazis to safeguard Israel from criticism. It has no principles and no plan; it has ceded its authority to the mob. The students, along with the staff who have supported their cause, are now in a position to direct the future of an institution whose stewards have abandoned it.

Over the weekend, Block announced the formation of a new Office of Campus Safety, to oversee the Office of Emergency Management and campus police department. As I write, its officers are detaining 44 people – including students, reporters and legal observers – in the lot where, on teaching days, I park my car.

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