What We Can Learn from the Student Protesters?

by Maura Stephens and Alessandra Pomarico

Most living things and virtually all of the freshwater in the Palestinian Occupied Territories have been destroyed. Photo from University of British Columbia by sierra ying allen/ Ecoversities

Like others around the world, we’ve been watching as neoliberal and corporate-controlled universities repress, silence, and violate peaceful protesters who are answering calls of conscience. As educators working in our various locales to break free from the structural chains of assembly-line school systems, we’re moved to unequivocally condemn those who order and undertake the beating and arresting of students, faculty, and supporters. These are the very actions, as well as turning staff against the communities they serve and keeping students from reaching their beds, food, and medications —  making campuses “unsafe” and not, as administrators claim, peaceful campus teach-ins and sit-ins.   

We applaud and support students and others who are risking vilification, attacks by police and by right-wing extremists, arrest, and expulsion from their universities in defense of human rights and a swift end to the genocidal assault on Palestinians. 

We’re encouraged by this growing movement, which reveals an awakening among students of anticolonial awareness and worldwide solidarity. On the other hand, the horrific repressive reactions of their institutions starkly reveal the oligarchic infrastructure on which Western formal education is built.

Let’s Reflect on the Purpose of Education

Can you imagine what this modeling of violence in their own lives is impressing on students? Such imperialist brutality is amplified to a much greater degree on the people whose lives and freedom they’re upholding. 

What is education for, if it silences discourse on justice, freedom, and equity? What kind of schooling violently subjugates those who lawfully express peace-oriented dissent

The role of universities should be to hold space for intellectual and compassionate debate while we are witnessing extensive censorship, abuse of power over critical thinking, and positions being threatened when not erased. 

At a time of numerous crises for humans and other species, young people are living under great stress. Those occupying campuses are learning by doing a pedagogy of unconditional solidarity, self-organization, social justice, peace-building, and ecology. 

"Community Care, Not Cops".

They are not only occupying physical spaces on their campuses and interrupting universities’ business-as-usual exploitations. They are also creating new ways of learning toward emancipation from the stifling systems to which most people on Earth have been subjugated. We fervently hope they build on their burgeoning collective transformational power and do not allow distractions to diminish it.

The brutality of a police state, and of nuclear-armed nations run by cowardly thugs trying to annihilate an entire people, are anathema to the safe nurturing required for healthy learning environments.

Thus we condemn the complicity of such college presidents as those of Germany’s Berlin Free University, several Swiss universities, and New York’s Columbia University, who engaged armed police to attack their students; of the University of California, Los Angeles, who turned their backs as violent rightwing marauders ambushed a peaceful encampment of Palestinian-liberation supporters, and then had the arrested; of the University of Texas Austin, who called their students “outside agitators” to justify brutalizing and arresting them; of New York University, who silenced poets decrying violence; of the University of Toronto, who have snidely dismissed student demands; and scores of equally gutless college leaders (and even some faculty members).

Let’s Not Be Distracted

“All Eyes on Rafah!” the students are chanting. They know we must not be distracted by what is happening in our cities. We must still keep the focus on the million-plus Palestinian men, women, and children whose last refuge — the southern city of Rafah, where Israel ordered them to seek refuge — is now being stormed by tanks, bulldozers, and airstrikes even as they are being starved

Gaza offerings, solidarity of the heart, visibilizing grief.

Furthermore, let us be reminded that every single university in Gaza has been deliberately targeted and demolished, as have almost all Palestinian libraries and archives. Gaza’s 625,000 K-12 pupils and their 22,500 teachers have been unable to attend classes for over seven months. More than 345 schools in Gaza have been destroyed or heavily damaged, with hundreds of teachers and thousands of students slaughtered. Among those, many were run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. 

The Geneva-based human rights watchdog Euro-Med Monitor writes that the “Israeli army has targeted academic, scientific, and intellectual figures in the [Gaza] Strip in deliberate and specific air raids on their homes.” Israeli eradication of these cultural and historical institutions demonstrates its intention of making Gaza uninhabitable. Targeting such artifacts is not only “a serious breach of international humanitarian law and a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, but [also] falls under the purview of the crime of genocide.”

Such crimes should have university administrators shouting in parliaments and legislatures at the top of their lungs. Instead, they quell pro-human rights, antiwar, antigenocidal cries of students and other civilians. They enlist police to brutalize the very people they ostensibly are meant to “serve and protect,” emboldened by state-granted impunity.

Let’s Not Be Coerced

It’s up to us to make distinctions. 

Let’s resist the cultural misappropriation that institutions and mainstream media are conducting, hijacking the public narrative with false accusations of antisemitism. Nonviolent protest against Israel’s official military and other governments supporting these crimes is not an attack on the Jewish diaspora of peoples. Indeed, many of the most passionate and articulate individual and group leaders of pro-Palestinian liberation efforts are Jewish and/or Israeli themselves. 

“Halal-Kosher Zone"

We also need to abandon the corporate-controlled media insistence on calling the current “conflict” an “Israel-Hamas war” or a “war in Gaza.” This is a war on the Palestinian people.  

The state of Israel has for decades been perpetrating apartheid and genocide against them, not only via its current military bombardment but also by engaging in ecocide: poisoning or stealing water supplies, killing trees and farmland, and producing more greenhouse gases in just two months than a combined 20 other nations do in a year.  

The call for universities to divest their endowments from Israel should also be considered through a deeper analysis of both social justice and ecological lenses.

Let’s Learn and Evolve, Together

Can we imagine a non-hegemonic, postcapitalistic framework for learning (and unlearning) together? We find glimmers of a gentler future in that the encampments have become autonomous learning sites where a common struggle embraces differences and where mutual aid and solidarity are embodied despite stark threats of violence and persecution. It is in such places that dialogue and peace-building can be nurtured. 

Gandhi said that the biggest threat to the world is heartless intellectuals. University culture seems to be headed in that direction. We need an expansive pedagogy of head, heart, hands, and home.

"Solidarity starts by recognizing our shared needs, hopes, dreams, fears."
Community Agreements in the Encampment of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver

We recognize that long-term effort will be required from many people of heart and determination to ensure a sustainable future after the wretched horrors now underway.  As the people of Rwanda, Northern Ireland, South Africa (and so many other places where cultural divides once seemed unbridgeable) taught us, it will take great efforts to move beyond the suffering endured by multiple generations and people of all faiths and cultures in the region.

We have found that mutual respect is a critical component of fruitful educational endeavors. It helps to fertilize fertile ground in which we can engage in uncomfortable conversations. Indeed, in our experience, conflicts and disagreements have provided wonderful pedagogical opportunities – for teachers as co-learners along with students. 

With this sentiment, we celebrate the students’ demands (Divest; Boycott; Solidarity; Demilitarize; A People’s University) and we encourage more to join their movement. 

We are inspired by their courage, their organizing methods, their unity, their resistance — and deeply hope that the promise of this moment in history is not annihilated by the powers they resist.

It is their time, our time, a time for all of us to collapse those corrupt powers and create the kind of just and livable world that we believe all people want and should have. 




Notes, Resources & Opportunities for Support

  1. *The authors are active members of the Ecoversities Alliance, writing as individuals, not on behalf of the whole coalition.
  2. Ecoversities Alliance solidarity page includes a campaign to support friends in Gaza. We invite you to help as much as you can
  3. An Najah National University and UNIMED (Mediterranean Universities Union), in partnership with PSSF (Palestinian Students Scholarship Fund), have launched an important initiative to help university students from Gaza continue their education online. 
  4. Birzeit University of Palestine has launched a campaign to help more Gazan students continue their education.
  5. If you are with a university that wishes to support Palestinian students completing their education, complete this form.
  6. UAE-based philanthropist Maysa Jalbout is trying to connect university students who escaped Gaza with schools and universities that can offer in-person placements abroad. They need full-ride scholarships from credible institutions. Jalbout is connected with the Brookings Institution and other nonprofits. 
  7. This is an unverified list of U.S. universities offering scholarships for Palestinian students to study in the
  8. Free legal representation is available for undocumented or international students who are arrested during campus protests.United States.
University administrators count on students (and now faculties) to abandon their efforts during summer break. We trust encampments will instead keep growing during those months.

About the authors

Maura Stephens is a journalist, educator, theater artist, farmer, organizer, and member of the System Change Not Climate Change coordinating committee. She is a member of the Ecoversities Alliance who actively collaborates with the Conflict Composters Service Circle.

Alessandra Pomarico, PhD, is a curator, writer, educator, and organizer working at the intersection of art, pedagogy, and community building. A founder of Free Home University and Fireflyfrequencies Radio (Italy), she is an editor at ArtsEverywhere.

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