On​ 25 April, a large group of students at the University of California, Los Angeles, set up an encampment on the main quadrangle of their campus. Flanked on all sides by plywood barricades, the Palestine Solidarity Encampment included smaller tents for sleeping as well as larger enclosures for food, first aid, electronics (phone chargers, batteries), musical instruments and art supplies. There was also a library, which a paper sign taped to a tree designated the Refaat Alareer Memorial Library, in honour of the Palestinian writer and teacher who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in December 2023.

Alareer wrote his doctoral dissertation on John Donne. On YouTube, you can find him lecturing, in English, to his students at the Islamic University of Gaza. One lecture begins with a discussion of Horace’s Ars Poetica and the idea that a work of art must delight as well as instruct. ‘The term “metaphysical”,’ he explains a bit later, ‘means nothing,’ because it was foisted on poets like Donne by his critics, among them John Dryden and Samuel Johnson, whose assessments Alareer projects onto the whiteboard. The lecture builds to an analysis of Donne’s poem ‘The Bait’, which, Alareer explains, is a parody of the Christopher Marlowe poem generally known as ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’. When you parody something, Alareer says, ‘you try to offer the readers another possibility, of another worldview, a different worldview, telling the people: hey, this isn’t the only thing … there is something else.’

After his death, Alareer became widely known as the author of the poem ‘If I Must Die’, which asks its reader to build a kite in his memory and to fly it ‘so that a child, somewhere in Gaza … awaiting his dad who left in a blaze’, might imagine it’s an angel, ‘bringing back love’. The day after the students set up their encampment at UCLA, it was announced that Alareer’s daughter Shymaa had been killed in an airstrike along with her husband and three-month-old son.

Among other things, the camp was a rebuke to the notion of doing business as usual when such brutality is being perpetrated on an enormous scale against human beings whose displacement, torture, unlawful detention and murder is bankrolled by the United States. Because they often invest in the arms manufacturers that supply the IDF, or in companies with factories in the occupied West Bank, American universities are perceived as supporting Israel’s objective, which appears to be the wholesale extermination of the Palestinian people.

Student protesters on campuses across the US – from Columbia, where the encampments began, to California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt – have been clear that their primary aims are to pressure the US government to secure an immediate and permanent ceasefire, and to pressure their universities and colleges to divest from financial holdings with links to Israel. In calling for divestment, they are drawing from a playbook established in the 1980s, when students convinced their universities to cut ties with companies operating in apartheid South Africa. As an antiwar campaign, the encampments recall protests against the Vietnam War, including the Student Strike of 1970, which grew significantly after the murder of four Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard.

The encampments are also a parody, in Alareer’s sense: emerging from within the university, they offer another possibility for what the university might be. One of the more potent images circulating from the camps has been of a student holding a sign that reads: ‘Columbia, why require me to read Prof. Edward Said if you don’t want me to use it?’ The protests have shown that the American university, which operates more and more as a high-cost degree factory where humanities departments squirm on the chopping block, is still a place where people can learn what’s true and act on their knowledge. You cannot, in other words, make young people memorise and regurgitate history, economics, political science, moral philosophy and so on for their exams and not expect them to take their education on the road.

On the weekend after the encampment was formed, a large group of counter-protesters, few to none of whom appeared to be UCLA students, arrived on campus. They screamed, hurled racial slurs and sexual threats (‘I hope you get raped’) at the students, and opened a backpack full of live mice – swollen, and seemingly injected with some substance – on the ground near the camp. When the counter-protesters dispersed, they left behind a Jumbotron, a massive flat-screen TV, about ten feet high, which had been set in the middle of campus facing the encampment and was surrounded by metal barriers. Paid security guards remained inside the barriers to protect the screen. For the next five days, the Jumbotron played footage of the 7 October attacks on a loop, along with audio clips describing rape and sexual violence in explicit terms. Mixed in among the clips were speeches by Joe Biden vowing unconditional support for Israel and renditions of ‘Meni Mamtera’, a maddeningly repetitive children’s song that went viral earlier this year when IDF soldiers posted a video of themselves using it as a form of noise torture on captive Palestinians.

When I arrived on campus the following Tuesday, to lead a class on Byron’s Don Juan, the sound from the Jumbotron was so loud it was impossible to hear myself think, let alone teach. I walked over with a colleague to take footage of the footage. You couldn’t ask for a better allegory: on one side, the encampment, full of young people risking their degrees, their employment prospects and their health to draw attention to the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza; on the other, a costly media machine, financed by D-list celebrities (who proudly posted their contributions on Instagram), unmanned except for a trio of hired guards who, when questioned, admitted they had nothing to do with the Zionist cause.

My colleague and I contacted the Title IX office, which is responsible for fielding complaints of sexual harassment. Dozens of faculty did the same, but there was no response and the Jumbotron remained in place until Thursday, 2 May. ‘I have to put a trigger warning in my syllabus when I teach Margaret Atwood,’ one colleague said, ‘or the university will discipline me. But we all have to listen to this for days?’ The last few years of mealy-mouthed catering to both student sensitivities and reactive right-wing hysteria has led us to a situation in which criticism of Israel is considered antisemitic because it offends Zionists. The truth is that the university does not care about protecting students, or about combating antisemitism or any other kind of hatred, as much as it cares about its donors. It does not want to lose money and it does not want to be sued.

At 11 p.m. on 30 April, a large group of men, mostly middle-aged, many wearing Halloween masks, arrived at the encampment carrying knives, bats, wooden planks, pepper spray and bear mace, which they used to attack the unarmed students. They shot fireworks into the camp and used the plywood barricades to crush students into the ground. Footage from ABC News shows half a dozen counter-protesters punching and kicking a student. Videos from independent journalists and people on the ground captured calls for a ‘second Nakba’.

On the ABC newsreel you can hear a reporter shouting in disbelief: ‘Where are the police? Where is security?’ The answer was clear: the police, as well as campus security forces, were there, but they did not intervene. Rather, for roughly four hours, they stood at a comfortable distance, laughing and occasionally chatting amicably with the mob, which was made up not only of self-professed former IDF soldiers but also several white nationalists, including members of the far-right Proud Boys, whose former leader was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his role in the 6 January attacks on the US Capitol. Since white nationalists are, as a rule, hostile to Jews, it is worth asking why their assault on the encampment – which included a large number of Jewish students – has yet to be ruled antisemitic by the university administration.

When dawn came, several students had been taken to hospital but the encampment was still standing. Classes were cancelled as the administration scrambled to explain why it had thrown its community to the wolves. Fingers were pointed at the chancellor, Gene Block, who sends regular emails decrying antisemitism but has neither mentioned Gaza nor had a word to say about attacks on Muslims in the US, such as the shooting of three Palestinian students in Vermont in November. Hours before the attack on the encampment, Block sent out a mass email describing the students’ protest as ‘unauthorised’. The encampment, he went on, ‘makes people in our community feel bullied, threatened and afraid’. This has since been interpreted as a dog whistle to outsiders to come and dismantle it.

In the end, UCLA decided to follow Columbia and bring in riot police to clear the encampment. For roughly eight hours – from the evening of 1 May to the early morning of 2 May – students and faculty defended the camp with shields made from plastic garbage bins and cardboard, twice repelling the police incursion by their courage and sheer force of numbers. The police, by contrast, came armed with stun grenades and rubber bullets, those ‘less lethal’ (as the advertising copy goes) weapons that can break bones, cause blindness and – yes – kill when fired at close range. Footage broadcast on Fox 11, which is part of the Murdoch-owned Fox Corporation and hardly sympathetic either to college students or to Palestine, shows three special-operations officers firing rubber bullets into the faces of students standing directly in front of them. At least 25 people ended up in hospital and some two hundred staff and students were arrested.

Most disturbing, however, are images that circulated on X (formerly Twitter) of snipers on the roof of Royce Hall, the building next to the encampment. The superintendent of the Indiana State Police confirmed that a sniper was called in during a pro-Palestine protest at Indiana University and the New York Police Department has confirmed that an officer fired a gun – with real bullets – inside Hamilton Hall at Columbia University during its raid on the building, which students had renamed Hind’s Hall in honour of six-year-old Hind Rajab, murdered by the Israeli military in late January. The general sentiment on campuses across the US is that it is only a matter of time before a student is killed, as at Kent State in 1970. This is a price that both the students and their universities, for very different reasons, seem prepared to pay.

The students, as they will tell you, are there for Gaza, where 90 per cent of schools, and all higher education institutes, have been destroyed. The university, meanwhile, is now forced to confront the moral vacuity of its policies, which have in the end protected no one except extremists willing to join forces with neo-Nazis to safeguard Israel from criticism. It has no principles and no plan; it has ceded its authority to the mob.

On Sunday, 5 May, Block announced the formation of a new Office of Campus Safety, to oversee the Office of Emergency Management and the campus police department. The next day, its officers detained 44 people – including students, reporters and legal observers – in the lot where, on teaching days, I park my car. Forty-one of them are now awaiting trial, charged with ‘conspiracy to commit a crime’.

10 May

A earlier version of this piece was published on the LRB blog on 9 May.

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