Generation gap: What student protests say about US politics, Israel support | Israel War on Gaza News


Washington, DC – A Gaza-focused campus protest movement in the United States has highlighted a generational divide on Israel, experts say, with young people’s willingness to challenge politicians and college administrators on display nationwide.

The opinion gap – with younger Americans generally more supportive of Palestinians than the generations that came before them – poses a risk to 81-year-old Democratic President Joe Biden’s re-election chances, they argue.

It could also threaten the bipartisan backing that Israel enjoys in Washington.

“We’re already seeing evidence of a generation divide on Israel, and that is going to be a long-term issue for the Democratic Party,” said Omar Wasow, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

“These protests accelerate that generation gap,” Wasow told Al Jazeera.

Students at Columbia University in New York set up a Palestine solidarity encampment last week, and they have since faced arrests and other disciplinary measures after the college administration called on police to clear the protest.

Yet, despite the crackdown, similar encampments have sprung up across the US, as well as in other countries.

Footage of students, professors and journalists being violently detained by officers on various campuses spurred outrage but has done little to slow the momentum of the protests, which have continued to spread.

‘Inflection moment’

The students are largely demanding that their universities disclose their investments and withdraw any funds from weapons manufacturers and firms involved with the Israeli military.

Politicians from both major US parties, as well as the White House and pro-Israel groups, have accused the students of fuelling anti-Semitism – allegations that protesters vehemently deny.

Eman Abdelhadi, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, said younger people are growing increasingly frustrated with the status quo on domestic and foreign policy issues.

“I think there’s a real disaffection with the older generation, but more importantly with the system that they’re running,” said Abdelhadi.

She added that the protests mark an “inflexion moment” in US public opinion more broadly.

“In American history in general, usually the big shifts in public opinion have either coincided with or been triggered by large student movements,” Abdelhadi told Al Jazeera.

She said campus activism can be the basis of political change. “There’s a sort of sense that this is the future.”

Student protest
People demonstrate at a protest near an encampment in support of Palestinians in Gaza at George Washington University in Washington, DC, April 26 [Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters]

Biden’s woes

For years, public opinion polls in the US suggest that younger people are more likely to be sympathetic towards Palestinians and critical of Israel.

But Americans overall have grown more critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, including in the ongoing war on Gaza.

Multiple polls suggest that a majority of US respondents back a permanent ceasefire in the besieged Palestinian enclave, where Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians since the conflict broke out on October 7.

But Biden has maintained staunch support for Israel, the US’s top Middle East ally, amid the war.

The 81-year-old president’s stance could be politically costly, as Biden faces a tough re-election bid in a November election that is expected to pit him against his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.

Polls suggest that Biden will need to appeal to his Democratic Party base, which is not as united in support of Israel as the Republican Party.

Angus Johnston, a historian of US student activism, explained that the generational divide on Israel is especially pronounced among Democrats.

“On a national level, we have seen this for a while as a disconnect between the values of young voters and most Democratic politicians,” Johnston told Al Jazeera.

“And what we’re seeing now is a similar disconnect between young people on campus and many of the administrators who run these campuses, along with alumni and donors.”

Abdelhadi, the sociologist, added that the heavy-handed law enforcement approach to the Gaza solidarity protests has undercut Democrats’s argument that electing Biden would protect the nation from Trump, whom they accuse of authoritarianism.

“The reality is the Democrats have been telling us that young people need to save democracy and that people of colour need to save democracy and that any quibbles with this current administration need to be put aside in order to save democracy,” she told Al Jazeera.

“But where’s the democracy when you have state troopers beating up students and faculty for protesting, and the White House saying nothing about that?”

Wasow also said the protests and crackdown against them could add to the apathy towards Biden.

“The Democrats can’t really afford to give people more reasons to vote against Biden, and this actually becomes one.”

Policy change

The student protesters are not getting involved in US partisan politics, however. They instead have stressed that their demands aim to help protect the human rights of Palestinians.

So can the demonstrations help bring about changes to US policy and achieve their divestment demands?

Johnston, the historian, said it is unlikely that US colleges will divest from large firms and the defence industry in the short term, but the call for transparency in their investments is reasonable.

He added that long-term change is possible, but it will not come overnight.

“We have seen over and over again that student organising does change policy, not always quickly, and not always in the ways that the students would have hoped,” Johnston said.

“But we do see that when student organising rises to a certain level of intensity, it can have a significant effect.”

For example, he said college activism against apartheid in South Africa began in the 1950s and grew over the years.

“I think that there is no question that the anti-apartheid campus organising of the 1980s was a significant piece of what shifted American popular opinion and political opinion on the South African regime,” he said.

Wasow, who studied the 1960s civil rights protests, also said demonstrations could shift public opinion, help grow political coalitions around a cause, and build civic capacity to advance an issue.

“If what’s happening now doesn’t result in any kind of policy change but does result in a generation of young people developing some kind of civic capacity around activism around these issues, I think that would continue to have effects in the long term.”


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