Pro-Palestine College Protests Raise Questions of Free Speech and Foreign Actors

Pro-Palestine College Protests Raise Questions of Free Speech and Foreign Actors

Eight months after Hamas’ massacre of Israelis on October 7th, global protests appear to be intensifying rather than dwindling. In the past month alone, pro-Palestinian demonstrations have erupted on American college campuses and in major European cities. 

Democratic leaders globally have the challenging task of safeguarding free speech while combating both antisemitism and violence. As protests continue, foreign actors are seizing the opportunity to interfere with Western politics. 

US College Protests

New York police arrested nearly 300 pro-Palestinian supporters following two weeks of intense protests at Columbia University and New York City College. Similar actions on the West Coast led authorities in riot gear to intervene and disperse clashes at UCLA between pro Palestine and pro Israeli agitators. Although these incidents have gained significant attention, pro-Palestinian rallies have occurred at approximately 40 college campuses throughout the US.

Europe Protests

In London, weekend protests in support of Palestine have become a commonplace. As a result, many jews are afraid to venture out in public in the general vicinity of these events, heightening concerns within the Jewish community. As protests grow in size and gather momentum, the protests at the end of April witnessed an increase in anti semitic rhetoric and speech.  

In addition to London, French police were called in the Capital, Paris, to disperse pro-Palestinian students occupying the main court yard of Sorbonne University. Meanwhile, at Science Po University, students’ demands were met with a temporary halt to Israeli funding.

In Berlin, pro-Palestine demonstrators established a camp in front of the German parliament. Police were  summoned to disperse the gathering, removing tents and forcibly clearing protestors from the area.

The Struggle of Democracies

Pro palestinian and anti-israel protests have become frequent occurrences, yet the highly charged nature of the issue often turns peaceful protests into violent confrontations. A stark contrast can be seen when comparing the Ukraine-Russia war, yet, despite causing outrage, did not result in protests on our streets or college campuses.

The emotional impact of the war has presented two major issues that Western democracies must face:

The age-old tightrope walk of free speech vs. illegal hate speech and incitement

Pro-Palestine and anti-Israel  demonstrations have become frequent occurrences, yet the highly charged nature of the issue often transforms initially peaceful protests into violent confrontations.

What defines America as we know it is its commitment to upholding the fundamental right to free speech, as enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. As college campuses and their leaders struggle to balance free speech and hate speech, preserving this cornerstone of American democracy remains of utmost importance.

Leaders of US institutions have affirmed the right to “peaceful” protests. However, have been compelled to intervene and call upon law enforcement when these demonstrations escalate into violence, leaving a balancing act for leaders to juggle. With leaders tasked with safeguarding Jewish students from antisemitism, yet, simultaneously being called upon to defend students’ rights to free expression and nonviolent protest, the line between protection and limitation becomes increasingly blurred.

The balance is difficult to achieve. 

Minoche Shafik, president of Columbia, has drawn criticism for her handling of the protest. Shafik, a voice for free speech and the right to protest, went against her words calling the NYPD to disperse protesters not one, but twice. In the aftermath of comparable protests and a congressional hearing, both the president of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania resigned due to their handling of antisemitism on their campuses.

Protests distract leaders and citizens from other pressing issues

As the conflict overseas overshadows current domestic concerns, issues of public safety, antisemitism, and free speech weigh heavily on the minds of Americans. With the US presidential election looming, ongoing protests divert the attention of voters from other critical issues such as inflation, interest rates, national security, and more. While American leaders try to extinguish small fires, China and Russia are seizing the opportunity to increase their global influence.

It is no secret that Russia has long taken interest in US political outcomes. Accused of election interference in 2016, which ultimately resulted in Donald Trump’s victory, many have voiced their concerns about potential Russian electoral interference once again in 2024. With Russia being accused of exploiting unrest in the United States related to the Israel-Hamas War, concerns have mounted regarding fake social media accounts, anti-Western propaganda, AI, and other related issues. In addition to Moscow, China has faced similar accusations of engaging in such actions, including targeting American universities to enhance its global influence.

While China and Russia aim for global influence, a recent report reveals that Qatar, known as a safe haven for Hamas, has donated billions to Ivy League institutions. This suggests a potential link between the donations and the prevalence of pro-Palestinian protests on campuses.

What’s the Solution?

These issues are multifaceted and complex, and do not have just one solution. 

Citizens of democracies are well within their rights to protest peacefully, as long as their rhetoric doesn’t turn into incitement or violence. At the same time, exercising these rights requires money, time, and effort from democratic leaders, which may pave the way for stronger foreign countries.

There is no clear-cut answer. Only for leaders to continue upholding democratic values, and hoping that their citizens will as well.