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The Media’s Shameful Coverage of the College Antiwar Protests

The real reason for the protests is being ignored in favor of stories about encampment crackdowns or overblown allegations of antisemitism.

A young woman yells as she stands in front of several demonstrators holding banners that read "Emory admin: Opposing genocide [does not equal] antisemitism" and "End all U.S. aid to Israel."
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators at Emory University in Georgia on April 25

Young Americans are overwhelmingly unhappy with the White House’s handling of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. This is indisputable, and has been true for months. A CNN poll released on Sunday found that a staggering 81 percent of voters under the age of 35 disapprove of President Biden’s handling of the war—the lowest issue rating Biden received in a dismal poll.

In this context, the encampments that have popped up at nearly 100 college and university campuses across the country are hardly surprising. Yes, the student demonstrators are, in most if not all cases, demanding that their schools cut financial and academic ties with Israel. But the rapidly spreading movement, in which thousands of students are risking arrest, expulsion, and discipline, comes from a place of clear moral outrage over the tens of thousands of civilians killed in Gaza—and at America’s continued military and financial support for Israel, whose relentless bombing campaign has caused most of those deaths.

And yet, much of the media coverage of the protests themselves has obscured this reality, focusing instead on campus politicson allegations of antisemitism and specifically the discomfort felt by pro-Israel students, on the supposed “privilege” of the students taking part in the demonstrations, and the larger question of what (if any) effect they will have on the upcoming presidential elections.

A New York Times piece purporting to explain why the demonstrations have spread so rapidly treated them as a disease—almost literally, by referring to them as “contagious.” The piece focused largely on why demonstrations have been so prevalent in America but not overseas, yet failed to mention the fact that the U.S. is Israel’s most powerful and generous supporter. No doubt many students in Europe are also angry at the U.S. for arming and funding Israel, but these students are neither American nor in America. That would seem highly relevant.

Others, like Nate Silver, have made the contagion point more condescendingly:

For six months, there has been a relentless flood of images of dead children in Gaza, and now accounts of Palestinians starving to death. But in Silver’s framing, the protesting students could not sincerely be outraged over the indiscriminate bombing of innocent people or really know anything about Israel’s history or its long relationship with the U.S. Nope, these students are just hopping on the antiwar bandwagon like it’s the new baggy pants.

In other instances, such as in The Free Press’s dispatch from Columbia University (“Camping Out at Columbia’s Communist Coachella”), coverage has portrayed the protesters as fringe weirdos, driven by concepts of liberation that would be illegible to most Americans. It’s true that the protesters are largely left-wing college students who talk and act like left-wing college students; they are, like all undergraduate students, barely adults. But the idea that they should be ignored or discredited because some protesters talk in academic jargon and others are inarticulate is not only patronizing but willfully misunderstands their power.

The protests are inspiring because they reject the muddle that often clouds American foreign policy, particularly when it comes to the Middle East. It should not be complicated to understand why so many are demanding an end to Israel’s disproportionate military campaign. Yes, the protesters have other demands—some serious, some fanciful. But at the core of the protests is a rejection of America’s continued role as the principal backer of a nation that has killed tens of thousands of innocents with no end in sight. In this sense, protesters also demand a shift in America’s role in the world itself.

At the same time, the demonstrations have been repeatedly accused of overt, or at least of implicit, antisemitism. There undoubtedly have been troubling incidents: Over the weekend, an image went viral of a sign posted outside an encampment at George Washington University reading, “Students will go back home when Israelis go back to Europe.” But nearly all of the instances of antisemitism that have tarred the protests on college campuses over the past two weeks have taken place off campus—that is, not within the encampments.

The allegations of antisemitism are familiar to anyone who has followed the larger debate about pro-Palestinian speech over the last six months, both on college campuses and Capitol Hill. To vehemently criticize Israel’s long mistreatment of Palestinians, or dare to suggest that Palestinians deserve their own territory and autonomy, is to invite accusations of antisemitism. Words and phrases that have a complicated history, and thus don’t have universally accepted meanings—like “From the river to the sea” or “intifada”—are now treated as explicitly antisemitic.

The notion that the protests are inherently antisemitic, which ignores the fact that many of the protesters are themselves Jewish, is of course pushed by the right and even some Democrats to dismiss or obscure the actual reason the protests exist. But it’s also providing cover to college administrators—and the politicians who are pressuring them—to clear the encampments, often by calling in police and causing violence. The encampments are a thorn in the side of administrators not because they are fomenting hate on campus, as some disingenuously claim, but because they have outraged donors and led to intense bipartisan scrutiny from pro-Israel politicians. Political and economic pressure from outside the university—not the actions of the protesters themselves—appears to be the largest, most important driver of the often disproportionate response to the protests.

A mass rebellion among young people—particularly college students, many of whom will be in positions of political and economic power themselves one day—is undoubtedly a legitimate news story. But the media is partly missing what makes it so compelling. It’s an affront to the current political and economic order: Tens of thousands of college students are demanding not only an end to America’s unconditional support for a brutal ally but a drastic change in how the U.S. wields influence broadly around the world. They’re doing what journalists are told to do on day one: Follow the money. And the protesters don’t like where that money leads.