Why Gaza protests on US college campuses have become so contagious

The past week has seen a growing wave of protest encampments and other demonstrations on college campuses across the United States, many of which have been met by mass arrests and other violent police action, as well as intense scrutiny from part of the media. And the demonstrations continue to spread.

But protests on campuses abroad have been sporadic and smaller, and none have sparked a broader student movement.

In Britain, for example, small groups of students temporarily occupied university buildings on the campuses of the University of Manchester and the University of Glasgow. But they never produced national news or sparked a growing wave of demonstrations.

The wave of protest could still spread to foreign universities. There were some early signs of that this week. Students set up a protest camp on the campus of the University of Sydney in Australia on Wednesday. Classes were canceled on Friday at Sciences Po, an elite university in Paris, due to a student protest.

But that would still leave open the question of why this particular protest movement caught fire and spread first to American universities. The answer, experts say, has more to do with the partisan political context in Washington than with events in Gaza.

Protests, like many forms of group behavior, can be contagious.

One way to understand how protest movements spread is the “ovation model,” said Omar Wasow, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies how protest movements can influence politics.

In a theater audience, “if some people in front stand up, then other people start to stand up, and it's a cascade through the auditorium,” he said.

In this case, he said, it is not surprising that the ovation began last week at Columbia University. The university's proximity to New York's national media and its status as an Ivy League institution give it a prominent position, she said, akin to someone in the front row of an auditorium. So the pro-Palestinian protests attracted wider attention than they might have elsewhere. Additionally, the campus is also home to a large population of Jewish students, many of whom have said they fear anti-Semitic harassment or attacks from protesters. This expression of fear has fueled increased media coverage and political scrutiny.

More than 100 protesters were arrested on April 18 after Columbia called police to clear out an encampment of pro-Palestinian demonstrators, fulfilling a promise made to Congress by Nemat Shafik, the school's president, that it stood ready to punish people for unauthorized protests on campus. .

But as the arrests came, they triggered further actions of solidarity with the protesters – and counter-reactions from those who viewed the protests as anti-Semitic or wanted to show support for Israel, in a wave that quickly spread across the country .

“The conflict there then contributes to this great cascade, to other campuses joining in, and to other media outlets across the country and around the world paying attention,” Wasow said.

The events would not have gained so much prominence without the arrests, said Daniel Schlozman, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies U.S. social movements and party politics.

But the arrests were more than an isolated decision by a university president. They were the result of the particular political and legal context of the United States that made Columbia the most likely place for an ovation to begin.

“Basic politics is finding issues that unite your side and divide the other,” Schlozman said. And the war in Gaza has proven a particularly powerful example for Republicans.

The Republican Party is largely united in its support for Israel. Republicans have also long targeted universities as bastions of left-wing ideology, seeking to paint them as incubators of radicalism on issues of race and gender and hostile environments for anyone who doesn't subscribe to those ideologies.

Democrats, by contrast, are much more divided over Israel, the war in Gaza and when and whether anti-Israel protests will escalate into anti-Semitism.

So for Republican lawmakers, criticizing college presidents for failing to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism is a worthwhile political issue with the potential to deepen divisions among Democrats — an issue they, unsurprisingly, have vociferously pursued.

University presidents are in many ways easy targets, Schlozman said.

“Within universities, administrators are trying to appease multiple constituencies: donors, protesters, faculty,” he said. “But these alignments are aligning imperfectly with national politics.” Actions that could calm tensions within campus communities could invite political control from outside — and the opposite is also true, as arrests on campuses across the country this week have shown.

Last December, Republican lawmakers questioned university presidents about their handling of anti-war protests in Gaza, in hearings that contributed to the eventual resignations of the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. Shafik, Columbia's president, had reason to fear for her job when she was called before Congress last week, where she vowed to punish student protesters if necessary. That same evening she called the police on campus.

It's unclear exactly what role congressional questioning played in his decision. But his real motivation is less relevant than the impression he gave everyone, on all sides of the issue, that Republican pressure had led to the mass arrests. This would act as a “bat signal,” Schlozman said, to those on different sides of the issue.

To Republican politicians who have turned criticism of campus protests and anti-Semitism into a cause célèbre, the arrests sent the message “look, we're winning. We can divide the coalition of our adversaries,” she said.

For students and others who might have sympathized with the protesters without joining them, the shock of the arrests may have galvanized action rather than passive support. And for teachers and others in the political center, anger over the arrests themselves, rather than the underlying political dispute over the war in Gaza, led many to join the protests.

In other countries, by contrast, campus protests and anti-Semitism have so far not been a political flashpoint. (Though, of course, there have been large demonstrations in cities around the world against war and anti-Semitism.) In February, students at the University of Glasgow occupied a campus building for 15 days, but they went after negotiating with a senior university official. The story barely made local news.

In France, there was a brief burst of political outrage last month after a Jewish student said she had been excluded from a university event because of her religion, but it quickly passed when other students, some of them Jewish, , offered a different version of the situation. events.

And although several university presidents were summoned before the French Parliament to discuss anti-Semitism on campuses, the resulting discussion garnered almost no media attention – a far cry from the closely watched hearings in the United States.

Ultimately, nonviolent protests are most effective when they generate some sort of “drama,” said Wasow, the professor. In other countries, the lack of drama may have kept campuses relatively quiet.

But now that the ovation has begun, things may change.

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