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By Ella Mitchell, Contributing News Editor • June 14, 2024

Op-ed: As we voice support for pro-Palestinian protests, we must clarify their message

Mark Edberg is a professor of Prevention and Community Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health. W. Douglas Evans is a professor of Prevention and Community Health and Global Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

As faculty members at this University, we want to affirm our support for the First Amendment right of students and faculty to engage in peaceful protest against the actions of the Israeli government in Gaza and the West Bank and against any University or other support for those actions. With D.C.’s tremendous diversity and international student populations, we must support our students as they protest in this most visible of settings on the national and world stage.

Yet there are certain aspects of the protest narrative that must be clear so these demonstrations are not misused or misrepresented in the public eye.

First, support for Palestinian security, dignity, justice and statehood is not antisemitism. Expressing outrage at the wildly disproportionate killing of some 35,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza, along with the continuing and illegal eviction of Palestinians from their homes in the West Bank, is not antisemitism. These messages are in fact consistent with a long tradition of Jewish support for human and civil rights, including the concept of Tikkun Olam (“repairing the world,” or actions in support of social justice).

Current Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank will not make Israelis, and Jews in general, safer. It will almost certainly lead to the opposite result — a new layer of trauma and anger among Palestinians and renewed motivation to pursue militant action, Hamas or no Hamas. The cycle will then continue, with Israelis reexperiencing their own trauma and reacting in kind. No one wins. No one achieves peace or security.

At the same time, the increasingly charged political reaction in the U.S. to the Gaza disaster has fed a rise in both antisemitism and Islamophobia where Jewish students, as well as Palestinian and Muslim students, feel dangerously insecure. This advances no cause, except for ideologies of racism, intolerance and hate. The increasingly hostile protester vs. counterprotester dynamic only exacerbates this situation, diverting attention from the essential messages.

As faculty members with interests in public health and global development, we also want to add that Israel’s actions have created a public health disaster and an impending famine, seriously damaging any claims the U.S. might make in the global arena about its protection of human rights. These consequences will impede future positive work that faculty and students at GW might want to conduct in these areas.

The student demonstrations at GW and other campuses specifically call for a ceasefire and university divestment in Israel as a response to the human tragedy in Gaza, along with broader statements of support for the Palestinian people and the return of stolen land. We see these protests as part of a wider recognition that Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank, under current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and before, are unsustainable and a violation of human rights that must change to move toward a secure and peaceful Palestinian and Israeli coexistence.

All these messages are disrupted by any form of support for the Hamas ideology of eliminating Israel and any approval or justification for the brutal and appalling Oct. 7 attack. The separation between the two message lines must be clear: A useful pro-Palestinian message cannot be conflated or equated with support for Hamas.

Finally, protesters would benefit from taking a few lessons from the history of civil rights and anti-war protests: If you are facing off against law enforcement or opposing protesters, stand your ground, but do not provoke. Do not initiate any physical aggression. Do not throw things. Do not in any way feed into public perceptions that it is student protesters who are causing violence or out of control. There are political groups who will happily provoke such reactions and make use of those perceptions for their own political ends, once again drowning out the important messages.

We recognize that all of this is a difficult task and exhausting after more than two weeks of encampment, confrontation, and for some, arrest.

If this University, and other universities, really want to fulfill their mission of education, not suppression, then it is imperative that the exchange of views is not silenced — for students or for faculty — and that concerns about reprisal do not lead to self-censorship. GW is in the nation’s capital, where groups from across the cultural and political spectrum have historically come to be heard. GW must use these protests as a teaching moment to encourage teach-ins and discussions that broaden knowledge and compassion, not inflame divisions.

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