Students protest as they walk out from the George Washington University (GWU) commencement ceremony as GWU President Ellen Granberg speaks on the National Mall on May 19, 2024 in Washington, DC. Student protests across university campuses have continued with walkouts occurring during commencement ceremonies as part of a coordinated effort to demand that institutions of higher education divest from companies and endowments with ties to Israel, amid Israel's continued siege of Gaza Image Credit: AFP

Summer break is here and the tens of thousands of students who had participated in the pro-Palestinian protests on campuses across the US, from state schools in the South and the Midwest to Ivy League institutions in the Northeast — protests that shook American politics and became in recent weeks — will now have the opportunity to reflect on the central role they’ve played in reshaping the very tenor of the public discourse on the Palestine Question and perchance return to their campuses in the fall knowing that they had been behind the making of a historic moment in American political culture.

It is time for us too to reflect on whether there are similarities between the Vietnam anti-war movement — that erupted after the US began bombing North Vietnam in 1965 and later attracted widespread support across the country — and the pro-Palestinian movement in our time.

Unquestionably, the similarities are there, for the ideals of both served as a strategy of insight that contributed to the resources of the contemporary political landscape and reminded us of the fact that protest and civil disobedience remain a legitimate (and at times the only) route to effecting change in society.

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It’s time we stop

Both movements faced a measure of repression by the establishment. No one who was there between 1965 and 1973, the time through which the Vietnam anti-war movement lasted, will forget, for example, the day in May 1970 when four students were killed and nine injured after the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd of students at Ohio State University, or forget — ever — that iconic black-and-white still photo of Mary Ann Vacchio, the young girl kneeling over the body of one of the students, her arms raised in anguish, her face contorted with raw grief, begging for help.

Nor will those engaged the movement forget the inner excitement, the group ecstasy, they felt singing together the era’s many protest anthem songs, such as, say, Buffalo Springfield’s “What’s it Worth”, which in 1967 had climbed its way to the top of the Billboard’s Hot 100 and could be heard blaring from every radio in every city in America — There’s battle lines drawn/ Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong/ Young people speaking their minds/ Getting so much resistance from behind/ It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound/ Everybody look what’s going down.

Many of today’s pro-Palestinian protesters were cuffed and arrested at what was largely peaceful encampments and sit-ins that took place at 61 campuses across the country.

This is no less than scandalous, if not altogether outrageous, given that universities are established as bastions of free speech, shielded from partisan mandates, where social, political, philosophical, cultural and, yes, moral values are debated freely, leading to a heightened consciousness in society.

Indeed, bastions where students can, say as Yale’s 1974 The Woodward Report, the University’s official document governing the rules of free speech and assembly on campus, puts it, “Think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable and challenge the unchallengeable”.

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A badge of Palestinian identity

Yes, the similarities in the ethos that defined the Vietnam anti-war movement and that of the pro-Palestinian movement in our time are there. And, yes, just as the former succeeded in bringing about an end to the war in Vietnam, the latter has succeeded in bringing about what I for one consider a seismic shift in the public discourse on the Palestine question.

Yet, there is a difference, one you cannot fail but notice had you closely studied the viscerality that enfolded these kids’ encampments — pro-Palestinian protesters were not just promoting the cause but feeling the anguish of the Palestinian people.

Note how, for example, when Columbia students took over Hamilton Hall, they renamed it Hind Hall, thus memorialising the unendurable tale of Hind Rajab, the six-year-old Gazan girl who was killed after being the sole survivor of Israeli tank fire directed at the vehicle in which she had fled with six relatives.

And note how protesters across the country wore keffiyehs — a badge of Palestinian identity, a symbol of Palestinian freedom and a nod to Palestinian history — and wore them loosely around the neck or rakishly over the head, wrapped around a face or a waist, draped over a neck or pinned into hair, and so on. It was as if they were embracing Palestine.

Don’t worry, the kids are all right. Soon they’ll be in power. Soon they’ll make a difference.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile