Why did the Gaza protests on U.S. college campuses become so contagious?

A wave of protest camps and other demonstrations has grown on college campuses across the country in the past week, many of which have been met with mass arrests and other heavy-handed police actions, as well as intense media scrutiny. And the demonstrations continue to spread.

However, protests on campuses abroad have been sporadic and small-scale, and none have started a broader student movement.

In the UK, for example, small groups of students temporarily occupied university buildings on the campuses of the Universities of Manchester and Glasgow. But they did not generate national news or spark a growing wave of demonstrations.

The wave of protests could still spread to universities overseas. There were some early signs of that this week. On Wednesday, students set up a protest camp on the campus of Australia’s University of Sydney. On Friday, classes were canceled at Paris’ elite Polytechnic University due to student protests.

But that leaves the question of why this particular protest movement first ignited and spread at American universities. Experts say the answer has more to do with partisan politics in Washington than with events in Gaza.

Protesting, like many other collective actions, can be contagious.

One way to understand how protests spread is the “ovation model,” said Omar Wassow, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies how protest movements affect politics.

In a theater audience, he says, “When some people in the front stand up, others start standing up, and it cascades down the auditorium.”

In this case, he said, it’s no surprise that “cheers” began at Columbia University last week. The university’s proximity to the national media in New York and its status as an Ivy League institution give it a prominent position, he said, akin to being in the front row of an auditorium. As a result, pro-Palestinian protests there received wider attention than elsewhere. Additionally, there are many Jewish students living on campus, many of whom say they fear anti-Semitic harassment and attacks from protesters. This expression of fear further increased media coverage and political scrutiny.

On April 18, after Columbia University called in police to clear an encampment of pro-Palestinian protesters, more than 100 demonstrators were arrested and President Nemat Shafik was arrested on campus. He made good on his promise to Congress that he was prepared to punish those who staged unauthorized protests in the United States. .

But the arrests have led to further acts of solidarity with protesters and backlash from those who see the protests as anti-Semitic or who want to show support for Israel. The wave quickly spread throughout the country.

“The conflict there contributed to this larger chain, which brought other campuses into it and brought it to the attention of other media outlets around the country and around the world,” Wasow said.

Daniel Schlozman, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies social movements and party politics in the United States, said the case would not have gained the attention it did without the arrests.

However, this arrest was not the sole decision of a single university president. These were the result of the specific political and legal context of the United States, which made Colombia the most likely place for “Ovation” to begin.

“The basic idea of ​​politics is finding issues that unite your side and divide the other side,” Schlozman said. And the war in Gaza provided a particularly powerful example for Republicans.

The Republican Party is broadly united in support of Israel. Republicans have also long targeted universities as strongholds of left-wing ideology, portraying them as incubators of radicalism on racial and gender issues and hostile environments for those who do not conform to those ideologies. Trying to.

Democrats, by contrast, are far more divided over Israel, the Gaza war, and when and whether anti-Israel protests spill over into anti-Semitism.

For Republicans, therefore, criticizing university presidents who fail to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism is a useful political issue with the potential to deepen rifts among Democrats, and they understandably We have been vocally pursuing this issue.

Schlozman said university presidents are soft targets in many ways.

“Inside the university, administrators are trying to appease multiple stakeholders, including donors, protesters, and faculty,” he said. “But these coalitions are being imperfectly translated into national politics.” Actions that might defuse tensions within the campus community could invite political scrutiny from outside. The opposite is also true, as this week’s arrests on campuses across the country demonstrate.

Last December, Republican lawmakers blasted university presidents at public hearings over their handling of protests against the war in Gaza, ultimately leading to the resignations of the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University. Columbia University President Shafiq said when he was called before Congress last week that he had reason to worry about his job, but vowed to punish student protesters if necessary. That same night, she called police to campus.

It is not clear exactly what role parliamentary questioning played in her decision. But her actual motives matter less than the impression she gave to people on all sides of the issue that Republican pressure led to mass arrests. It would have acted like a “bat signal” for people on different sides of the issue, Schlozman said.

For a Republican politician who has turned campus protests and criticism of anti-Semitism into a cause, the arrests mean, “Look, we’re winning. We can split the coalition of our enemies,” he said. Said.

For students and others who may have sympathized with the protesters without participating, the impact of the arrests may have galvanized action rather than passive support. And for teachers and people in the political center, it was anger over the arrest itself, rather than any underlying political conflict over the Gaza war, that led many to join the protests.

In other countries, by contrast, campus protests and anti-Semitism have so far not become political flashpoints. (Although, of course, there have been large-scale demonstrations against war and anti-Semitism in cities around the world.) In February, university students university of glasgow They occupied a campus building for 15 days, but left after negotiating with university officials. The story barely made the local news.

Political riots briefly broke out in France. last month A Jewish student claimed to have been barred from a university event because of his religion, but the situation quickly passed when other students, some of them Jewish, proposed a different version of the event.

And although several university presidents were summoned to the French parliament to discuss anti-Semitism on campus, the resulting debate received little media attention and was followed by closely monitored public hearings in the United States. It was far from a meeting.

Ultimately, Professor Wasow says, nonviolent protests are most effective when they create some kind of “drama.” In other countries, campuses may have been relatively quiet because there was no drama.

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

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