Pro-Palestinian student protests on university campuses and history of student activism

Ayesha Naseem, UK 
Alfo Medeiros | Pexels

“You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.” These words are taken from the “wave speech” in Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing (1971) – a novel blended in fact and fiction. The “wave speech” at the end of chapter eight of the novel sheds light on the protest movements of the 1960s that focused on campaigns for civil rights and against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War.  

Without any context and a reference to this quote above, one might easily read this and think of the current student protests and encampments in universities across America against the Israeli aggression in Gaza. What started with the student encampment at the University of Columbia in New York to pressure the institution into divesting its ties with Israel over its oppression of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip has now spread across university campuses in America. The demand from all encampments and protests is the same: divest from Israel.

The Biden Administration is condemning the students, something that comes as no surprise after they have and continue to vehemently support, defend, pay Israel with money, and arm them to carry out atrocities against defenceless civilians in Gaza. On every diplomatic and political front, the United States and its allies have defended Israel, repeatedly emphasising that Israel is only acting in self-defence. But after continuous and increasing evidence of Israeli forces committing war crimes in Gaza for over six months, this sort of persistence and unwillingness to change policy is bound to bring resistance from the public.

In the age of social media and the internet, the typical scripted statements from the White House or Downing Street do not satisfy the masses. When people have watched videos of a body crushed by a bulldozer, body parts strewn about in images, mass graves in hospitals of medical personnel in their scrubs handcuffed, NICU babies decomposing in their beds, bloodied flour bags, and when they have heard the cries of a six-year-old girl begging for help, any government official saying ‘Israel is not in breach of international law’ rings hollow. It’s actually infuriating. 

It is, therefore, only natural that students have also taken to their campuses to protest and demand that the institutions, that claim to be the places of progress and learning, divest from a state that is actively committing brutal oppression against a people, for universities and education institutes are the places of progress and expression, it is said. How can students of the humanities, medicine and law resonate with their research, readings, and education if they are not free to call it for what it is in real-time as it happens in front of their eyes and shows on their phone screens daily?   

Yet university administrations want these students to pretend that they see nothing, for if they see and peacefully protest against it exercising their right given to them by law, they are silenced and repressed by armed police locking their campus to disperse them following orders and authorisation from the university administration itself. Basically, anything and everything is a problem, except Israel’s brutal assault on the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian life there. 

The interesting part about these protests and the administration’s confrontation is that this is not new. There are traces and records of student activism in every period where our governments, institutions and societies have enabled or supported injustice and oppression. As these encampments and protests gather attention internationally, historians have been highlighting how this arena of student activism and its repression was last this predominant in the 1960s and 1970s, when students protested and actively campaigned against nuclear weapons, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and for the Civil Rights Movement. 

History of student activism and the similarities with the present

The decade of the 1960s is known and remembered as the decade of global change. It is also the era when protests and revolts erupted across many countries over culture, gender, race, economy and last but not least, politics, and war. This period saw “activists from different political and cultural frameworks” come together to try and “construct a collective identity that could lead to solidarity and cooperation, as well as a more global consciousness” on issues that mattered. (Martin Klimke, The Other Alliance: Student Protest in West Germany and the United States in the Global Sixties, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010, p. 3)

For example, Martin Klimke’s study looked at the transatlantic alliance between student activists from West Germany and the United States on a shared campaign against the war in Vietnam and the African Civil Rights Movement. In many ways, the campaign for the rights of Black people motivated these students to also turn their attention to global movements and issues impacting the “Third World” due to Western colonialism. This generation of activists therefore saw the US intervention in Vietnam as a “symbol of imperialist oppression” by the “free West”. (Klimke, The Other Alliance, p. 4)

A phrase that truly sings true to this day. Nothing could be a more obvious example of “imperialist oppression” by the “free West” than the ongoing Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. 

Further, this transnational association between activists in the 1960s gained its strength and motive from a “collective protest identity that consisted of shared cultural and political reference points and was strengthened by a global medial discourse.” Klimke argued that “the significance of these networks increased as their participants addressed problems encompassing an international dimension that people could also relate to on a local level (imperialism, bloc divisions of the Cold War, and so forth). With universities as the breeding grounds of protest […] the late 1960s saw the emergence of an international language of dissent.” (Ibid., p. 6)

Back in the 1960s, the anti-war campaign on campuses had its origins in the extensively rooted ties between the universities and the US Defense Department. Kenneth J. Heineman has written that “in the context of the escalating Vietnam War, university-military research projects became compelling symbols of complicity with the so-called war-machine and important rallying points for peace activists.” (Kenneth J Heineman, Campus Wars: The Peace Movement At American State Universities in the Vietnam Era (New York, USA: New York University Press, 1992), p. 4)

In the case of Gaza as well, the rationale for protest is military too. The students protesting for divestment from Israel are calling on their institutions to disclose and divest from “their investments in companies and organisations linked to Israel and its war on Gaza.” (“Divest From Israel: Decoding the Gaza protest call shaking US campuses”, Al Jazeera, 30 April 2024,

The comparison of the past and the present also becomes increasingly interesting when we see that in the 1960s, attitudes and opinions regarding the United States among the West German youth were not very favourable. 

Detlef Junker has written in his handbook: “The notion that the United States, once seen as a democratic model, guiding spirit, and leader of the supposed “free world,’ was waging an ever-escalating and questionable war in Southeast Asia led many to revolt against what they believed to be a cynical version of democracy.” (Detlef Junker et al., eds., The United States and Germany in the Era of the Cold War, 1945–1990: A Handbook, Col. 1, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 920-31, Accessed from Klimke, The Other Alliance, pp. 6-7)

This comment is so significant and remarkable because it shows that the United States has consistently failed to uphold the values that it tells the world it represents and believes. Not just this but when this brings dissent and protest from those at home or abroad, rather than learning from public opinion and holding it to regard, the American administration overrides it with repression and sanctions. The current protests at American universities and the armed police deployed to control and suppress them reiterate this assertion. 

What is divestment and what does it mean in the case of Israel and Palestine? 

Divestment means when an organisation sells its shares, assets, or other investments for political, ethical, and financial reasons. For universities to divest, they must cancel monetary investments in companies from the university’s endowment fund. 

Against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the call and campaign for divestment are not new or recent. It is an international effort, commonly known as the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement, that calls for the boycott of all companies and corporations that are alleged to be complicit in the occupation of Palestinian territory, the military assault on Gaza and the breach of international law.

Student protestors at Columbia University began an encampment on campus on 17 April 2024 and have called for Columbia to divest from corporations that profit from Israel’s aggression in Gaza. Protestors prepared and disseminated leaflets to admitted students at the university with a list of 21 corporations that they demanded the university divest from. The New York University (NYU) Alumni for Palestine website calls on NYU to “terminate all vendor contracts with companies playing active roles in the military occupation in Palestine and ongoing genocide in Gaza, namely Cisco, Lockheed Martin, Caterpillar and General Electric.” At several other US universities, students are calling for more accountability and disclosure about their institutions’ investments. 

In recent days, Columbia and NYU have authorised armed police to repress and force the end of the protests. As of 1 May, more than 1,300 student protestors had been arrested as efforts to crack down on the protests intensified.  While Columbia witnessed mass arrests and forced dispersal of protestors, the University of California in Los Angeles saw violent clashes break out on the campus when pro-Israel counter-demonstrators attacked a pro-Palestinian protest encampment with sticks and fireworks. (“California leaders condemn violence at UCLA after raid on pro-Palestine camp”, The Guardian, 1 May 2024,

But what is now the centre of the divestment encampments is certainly not the only place where the student activists are encamping. Overall, at least 90 encampments have been mapped, and apart from the United States, they have been installed across universities in France, Germany, Spain, Lebanon, Italy, Egypt, Yemen, the UK, and Australia, with students demanding that their institutions call for a ceasefire in Gaza and divest from Israel. (“Mapping pro-Palestine college campus protests around the world”, Al Jazeera, 29 April 2024,

The active student movement across the US has given immense hope to the people of Gaza. A Palestinian journalist and activist, Bisan Owda from Gaza, spoke of the hope and joy these protests are giving to the people on the ground, stating, “For the first time in our lives as Palestinians, we hear a voice louder than their voices and the sound of their bombs and even stronger than their control in all aspects of our lives.” Many Palestinian students came together and wrote a message for the American students in the refugee tent. The message said: “Thank you to the students. The students give us hope.”

As the Biden administration continues to defy pressure over its foreign policy on Israel and Gaza, the growing unrest within the country seems to be escalating. For a foreign country and its oppressive and bloody assault on the Palestinians in Gaza, American students are facing force and brutality from their police at home. 

These very institutions that confronted student protests back in the 1960s now teach about them and remember them in positive words. They do this while repressing more student movements that are demanding peace and justice. Decades from now, these same universities will again teach about these movements that they are repressing now and will argue for the unprecedented influence and meaning they had. 

As critics of these protests claim that these encampments are “anti-American”, anti-Semitic, and supposedly pro-Hamas, it is important to remember that the campaign and the movement itself have roots within the United States. Students at the prestigious Columbia University do not need Hamas or their sympathisers to convince them that their country’s President continues to sign off shipments of weapons to Israel without seeking Congress approval, while daily, we witness the atrocities worsen in unimaginable ways. Israeli Prime Minister also reiterated in recent days that regardless of a ceasefire or not, the invasion of Rafah – the last “safe corner” in Gaza currently holding more than 1 million displaced Palestinians in refugee tents – would go ahead. This renewed threat of the military ground invasion comes while the Israeli air force is already bombing residential buildings across the city of Rafah.

Islamic principles on protests in pressuring positive change

Regarding the pursuit of justice, equality, and peace in society, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IVrh has written:

“Among other things, Islam creates an atmosphere where the demand for one’s own rights gives way to regard for the rights of others. The level of consciousness and sensitivity to the suffering of fellow human beings is raised to a degree whereby members of society as a whole are concerned more about what they owe to society than what society owes to them.” (Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, p. 139)

In terms of the responsibility of leaders and those in authority, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh has explained: 

“In Islam, it is considered highly essential that those in authority should be sensitive to the cause of the people to a degree that there is no need to form pressure groups. According to the Holy Quran, the ruler is repeatedly held responsible and answerable to God for the state of affairs of those who are under him and placed under his trust.” (Ibid., pp. 151-152)

In one narration, we find that the Holy Prophetsa said: “Each of you is like a shepherd to whom the sheep belong. He is entrusted with the responsibility of tending the sheep. You will be held answerable.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab an-nikah, Bab al-mar’atu ra‘iyatun fi bayti zawjiha, Hadith 5200)

Muslims are urged to use all their means to stop oppression and injustice from taking place. It has been narrated that the Holy Prophetsa said: 

“Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one.” People asked, “O Allah’s Messengersa! We understand helping a person if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?” The Holy Prophetsa said, “By preventing him from oppressing others.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-mazalim, Bab a‘in akhaka zaliman aw mazluman, Hadith 2444)

To do our part in trying to stop the oppression, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad Khalifatul Masih Vaa has urged Ahmadis not to give up on raising awareness about the plight of the Palestinians. During his Friday Sermon on 8 December 2023, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa said: 

“We must continuously remind our acquaintances and local politicians to raise their voices to end this oppression. Similarly, we should spread this message in our circles that we must strive to end this injustice. May Allah protect the innocent from oppression. [Amin].” (Friday Sermon, 8 December 2023,

Regarding a question on protests and whether Ahmadis were permitted to participate in them, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa said:

“If the protest remains peaceful, devoid of vandalism or damage to national or governmental properties or installations, and refrains from engaging in acts of violence such as stone-throwing or the use of petrol bombs and Molotov cocktails, then it is deemed acceptable.” (“Strengthen your connection with Allah: Students from MKA Germany meet Huzoor”, Al Hakam, 23 April 2024,

Regarding divestment and boycotts as well, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa has said: 

“If you feel comfortable boycotting these companies, then you can do it. There is no harm in it. I have no objection to it. But if you don’t purchase anything [from them], what will happen? If you yourself are not using their products, then how will it affect them? Until and unless governments take action, especially [Muslim-majority] governments, against the products of Israel, then they can actually affect their economy to some extent and the production and profit of Israeli companies. Otherwise, a single person’s action will not have any significant effect on their products or their businesses.” (“Create homes where every child feels equally valued: New Ahmadis from Belgium gather in Islamabad for a mulaqat”, Al Hakam, 15th February 2024,


On 3 December 1967, German Student Leader Rudi Dutschke said in a TV interview: 

“We are not hopeless idiots of history who are unable to take their destiny into their own hands. […] We can create a world that the world has never seen before; a world that distinguishes itself by not knowing wars anymore, by not being hungry anymore, all across the globe. This is our historical opportunity.” (Cited in Klimke, The Other Alliance, p. 1)

In many ways, the present student encampments across US universities and beyond are an example of the same historical opportunity Dutschke spoke about in 1967. Back then, the biggest trigger of anti-war protests was Vietnam, today, it is Gaza. And whether government and state officials admit it publicly or not, behind closed doors, this activism, this solidarity, and this hunger for the tide to turn makes them uncomfortable, for the very fabric of American imperialism is being torn apart. Even in the 1960s, US officials were clear that the youth of the late 1960s was the first “post–Cold War” generation who “actively sought to overcome the geopolitical constraints of the antagonistic power blocs.” An internal research paper of the Department of State from 1967 suggested, “[T]he policy priorities of youth may run counter to the requirements imposed on the US by its role as a world power.” (Ibid., p. 238)

Undeniably, there has rarely been a time as clear as now to recognise that there’s no turning back. Even as the world faces an uncertain future with conflicts and tensions between nation-states at an all-time high, there remains hope. The tide is turning.

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