Juan Cole: Israel, Gaza and Campus Protests, Part I

Pro-Palestinian student protests are erupting on college campuses all over the country, often resulting in aggressive responses from local law enforcement. This week on Sea Change Radio, the first half of our two-part discussion with noted Michigan University history professor and Middle East scholar, Juan Cole. We look at the Israeli attacks on Gaza, discuss the unrest it has caused on campuses around this country, and examine how the right-wing parties in both the US and Israel are trying to leverage the conflict to their own benefit.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Juan Cole (JC) | 00:19 – So they’re weaponizing their position in Congress to attack, uh, the university presidents, and also they’re in some ways in cahoots then with some of these very wealthy donors who are also donors to their campaigns, to use their political position to curb freedom of speech for Americans.

Narrator | 00:40 – Pro-Palestinian student protests are erupting on college campuses all over the country, often resulting in aggressive responses from local law enforcement. This week on Sea Change Radio, the first half of our two-part discussion with noted Michigan University history professor and Middle East scholar, Juan Cole. We look at the Israeli attacks on Gaza, discuss the unrest it has caused on campuses around this country, and examine how the right-wing parties in both the US and Israel are trying to leverage the conflict to their own benefit.

Alex Wise (AW) | 02:25 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Juan Cole. Juan is a professor of history at the University of Michigan. Juan, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Juan Cole (JC) | 01:36 – Thank you so much.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:38 – I’ve really wanted to speak to you for quite some time. I wanted to get your perspective on the college protests that are stemming from the Israeli Hamas conflict. First, why don’t you, if you can summarize these college protests and, and it’s a tough question because there’s a wide range of not only the scope of these protests, but on the clampdowns from campus to campus, but maybe for people who haven’t really been following in that closely, kind of fill them in on what’s been happening around the country in the last month or so.

Juan Cole (JC) | 02:11 – The protests are a response by these undergraduates, mainly undergraduates, to the ongoing Israeli military campaign against Gaza. I think the young people on campus are, are living this war in a way that their elders are not. They’ve seen the war unfold daily on their phones. They see the horrible clips of wounded, civilians, displaced people, health problems, uh, that have been imposed by the war, on TikTok, on, uh, on Instagram and, and so forth. They follow news clips on BBC and so forth. And the elders don’t, I mean CNN and other major US cable news outfits, you couldn’t accuse them of ignoring the war, but they haven’t covered it intensively. I watch a lot of cable news, and as far as I can tell these days, it’s all about Trump’s trials and these inside the beltway panels that discuss things endlessly, you don’t see very much news from the front.

Alex Wise (AW) | 03:22 – It’s expensive to cover. It’s a lot cheaper to just have a panel of people talking about Trump. 

JC | 03:27 – It’s for their bottom line. Also, you know, the, the corporate news is selling advertising. I mean, it’s selling us toilet paper and fast food. And you have to wonder whether scenes of, uh, wounded babies covered in flies from Gaza is, is actually going to, uh, is help their bottom line. And, uh, I think there are a lot of reasons for which they simply haven’t covered this, uh, story in any intensive way. And of course, they can’t with their own reporters. And that’s another, uh, problem for them is, is a news organization. You get caught, you know, sometimes if you depend on somebody else’s feed, if they are engaging in fraud or exaggeration, then, then if you, if you carry it, then you get the accusation that you’re not reliable. And so, they’d have to use stringers from Gaza. People inside Gaza. It’d have to be people that they trusted. Occasionally they’ve done this, and of course, a lot of news organizations do this. Agence-France Press has stringers inside Gaza, Al Jazeera, of course, as well. But, I think the big corporate news in the United States is a little afraid to go that direction. And they can’t send their own people in very often. Occasionally, they have been able to, if you consume your news from what we used to call mainstream media, then you probably haven’t heard very much of what’s gone on in Gaza. Young people, on the other hand, have lived it, and they’re upset. I mean, it should be underlined that the Israeli government that’s in charge of this campaign is not an ordinary government. Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud Party, who’s the Prime Minister, brought into the government in order to come back to power in late 2022, the Israeli equivalent of neo-Nazis. I mean, we have to be frank about this. I know it’s offensive to some people to say this, but at Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, these are not ordinary Israeli politicians. Ben-Gvir is a convicted racialist and inciter and terrorist. I mean, these people would not be allowed into the United States under the rules of the State Department, up until a few years ago, which, marked the Kahanist trend as a terrorist organization.

AW | 05:59 – So, whether or not Netanyahu is the devil himself, he’s made a deal with the devil in order to come back into power in a couple of years ago. Is that a, a fair characterization? 

JC | 06:10 – I think Netanyahu is a man with very few principles, and some people have said he is pragmatic. You can deal with him, and that may all be true. But in order to have, you know, 64 seats in, in 120, seat parliament, he’s brought in these flamethrowers, who openly talk about destroying Gaza, finishing the job, ethnically cleansing the Palestinians, moving them out someplace else. Who are themselves illegal settlers in the West Bank on Palestinian private property that they have stolen, and who encourage other people to engage in this theft and, and to attack ordinary everyday Palestinians in their towns and hamlets in the West Bank. Ben-Gvir gave out guns in large numbers, recently, I think in hopes of encouraging this kind of violence because Palestinians in the West Bank, are not armed. And so it’s not an ordinary situation. And the rules of engagement that have been, discovered by investigative journalists in Israel, by Israeli journalists Abraham Valat, plus 972 Mag, have discovered that they have set the rules of engagement so that they will accept 15 to 20 innocent non-combatant lives being taken for every Hamas militant that they’re able to kill.

AW | 07:52 – So that calculus is something that young people on campuses are aware of much more than the average American citizen, you’d say?

JC | 08:00 – I would say that they, they are aware that the rules of engagement that Israel is deploying in Gaza are unprecedented for a western civilized society that they’re just accepting enormous numbers of non-combatant deaths of children, women. It’s estimated 70% of the deaths have been children and women, and a fair number of the remaining, you know, or non-combatant men, old people and so forth. 

AW | 08:29 – I do remember reading, I don’t have the stat in front of me, but over the last century, the idea of war has turned much more from soldier fighting soldier to one power killing lots of civilians. I think the, I don’t remember the ratios, but it used to be like more like one-to-one soldier to soldier in like World War I. But a hundred years later, I think it’s like 20 to one civilian to, yeah, to soldier death. It’s turned into a very different idea than thousands of years of warfare between trained military civilians are the new casualties in modern warfare, unfortunately. 

JC | 09:09 – That’s true, and you see it with the Russians in Ukraine. We saw it with the Americans in Iraq. But here’s the thing, the, the American rules of engagement, uh, however much you want to criticize the Pentagon and so forth, were such, if there was a sniper on a building in Mosul from Isel, and you wanted to take him out by hitting the building, you had to be sure there was no civilian family in that building. The US Air Force will not call in a strike on a building when they know that there’s a civilian family in that building, that that’s against the US rules of engagement. And what, what this government of Netanyahu and Ben Gavi and Morich have done, have, have said that take the shot. 

AW | 09:58 – The ends justify the means. 

JC | 10:00 – The ends justify the means. If you can hit that militant and you kill seven members of an a civilian family, just you have to do it. And that’s different from NATO rules of engagement. That’s all I’m saying is, is it, it’s not that innocent civilians get killed in, in those wars too, uh, that, that NATO countries have fought. But, uh, but this, this, uh, open embrace of a rules of engagement that allows for so many civilian deaths is, um, unusual, let us say. 

AW | 10:37 – And it’s pretty unconscionable that we have a stomach for it, particularly in the age of social media, where these things are in plain sight. 

JC | 10:45 – Well, that’s why the kids, I shouldn’t call them kids, they’re the young adults on, on campus are making encampments and occupying buildings and protesting, because the US government hasn’t done its job. Joe Biden gets the same information as I get in his morning briefings, actually much better information and much more detailed. And, uh, his aides are leaking to the press that he sees these civilian deaths every day. And he says, okay. And it’s not acceptable to the young people, you know, they’re not old and jaded. They’re not cynical. They think that that’s not the way that the US government should be behaving. They should be telling Netanya and Morich and, and Ben-Gvir, no, you can’t do that. Uh, and, and it’s in the power of the United States to tell them no, their ammunition is coming on a daily basis from the United States.

(Music Break) | 11:41

AW | 12:19 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan’s History Department. My first question we kind of glossed over, and we will get to that again, I do want to go campus by campus a little bit if we can, and see the different reactions. But I can’t help but think back to all of these different student protests throughout the years with Vietnam, South Africa, to a lesser degree, the Iraq War, Civil Rights issues. Almost always, there’s conflict with the campus police or local authorities. We saw Kent State, but I can’t recall a time where we look back and see that the students were on the wrong side of history.

JC | 13:02 – That’s right. These campus protests are, are manifestations, I think, of a strong moral stance, in the face of a unsatisfactory status quo. But I would say that this round is different in the sense that the university administrations have been much more willing to call in the police. Then in the past, the Hamilton building in Columbia University was occupied for three weeks, back in the eighties by anti-apartheid protestors.

AW | 13:38 And in the sixties too, right?

JC | 13:40 – Yeah, and the university didn’t do anything. Well, in the sixties they did…

AW | 13:43 – But they were occupying it for a long time before they, they cracked down.  

JC | 13:46 – Yeah, that’s right. So the, the, the Columbia University decision to call in a highly militarized police force, uh, and, and, uh, make these arrests, uh, this is, um, I think a little unusual. It’s not that it’s unprecedented, but the willingness to, to resort to the police, has been more widespread, has taken less time. And, you know, the universities and the police have changed. Uh, George W. Bush militarized, uh, the us uh, domestic police, he put in a program that, you know, leftover Pentagon equipment, started going to police departments. You guys, you get these guys dressed up like they’re, their special forces in Iraq, Kevlar, and, uh, all kinds of, uh, armor and weaponry, and behaving as though the students are terrorists, uh, which they’re not whatever, Eric Adams may allege, these were just students. And the fact that they’re demonstrating about the Gaza War does not mean that they’re Hamas, uh, supporters or sympathizers. Actually, I can’t, I don’t know any Hamas sympathizers or supporters, and I’m in the Middle East studies field. It’s a pretty ugly organization from any liberal or leftist point of view. They’re protesting about the dead children, that that’s why they’re protesting. It has nothing to do with politics.

AW | 15:23 – Juan, we were talking about the militarization of these police forces. I can’t help but think that the arming of these law enforcement officials who are not trained to be Seal forces or Army Rangers, giving them this kind of equipment, shields them from harm and also emboldens them to do more damage than they would otherwise. Not just, not just the guns, but the Kevlar and the protection. It dehumanizes not only them, but the people that they’re supposed to be “harnessing,” let’s say.

JC | 15:56 – Yes. I mean, I think it, it encourages the police to think about, uh, domestic, um, uh, protestors as terrorists, and to deploy the, the diction and the techniques of the war on terror on them. Uh, and it, it separates them from the community. You’ve got an army armored vehicle going down the road in, in, instead of a police car. This is not going to, you know, it is not going to help with community policing. And that’s why, you know, with the Black Lives Matter movement and there’s been a turn towards protestors demanding, defunding the police which President Biden is scathing about and, and rejects. But, you know, there have been places, which have decided to use the police differently. It’s not that you don’t need police. I mean, if you have bank robberies, you need police. But, why would you send the police to a domestic disturbance?

AW | 17:07 – Has there been violence breaking out before the police entered the scene in any of these campuses around the country, Juan? 

JC | 17:13 – No. Well, occasionally, there was, violence at UCLA, but it was, a kind of, mob of pro-Israel supporters that attacked the students and from coming from off campus. But there, there is no reason to call police. Uh, I saw an anecdote that Hannah Arendt the great Jewish German thinker, was at the New School for Social Research in New York at part of her career. And there was a demonstration, and  the administrators and faculty were consulting what to do about it. And she said in German, she said, “don’t ever call the police.” So as somebody who had lived through the horrors of the interwar period, she knew what she was talking about. And I think that should be the slogan for, for any university administrator. These demonstrations and, and encampments and protests have almost never actually interfered with the functioning of the university. I’m at the University of Michigan. We have an encampment on the quad, which, you know, is, where the students for a democratic society organized demonstrations against the Vietnam War back in the 1960s. It’s got a long and storied history of, of being a place for protests there. There’s, those students at that encampment are, are not bothering anybody and there’s no reason for them to have the police called on them.

AW | 18:48 – From an administrative standpoint, it’s a very complicated situation for them. Just contrasting Columbia with Brown University, I saw that Brown just went along with the demands of the protestors and decided to divest from companies that are benefiting from this conflict. And on the flip side, you see Columbia bringing in SWAT teams to handle this dissent. I can’t help but think that some of this stemmed from the early blow back against the president, I think of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, where they were threatened by large donors. One guy in particular in Pennsylvania, I don’t remember his name, but he, he had given a hundred million dollars, or he was, he had pledged a hundred million dollars, and then he was threatening to not give the entirety of that donation if the president was not unseated. So we see the kind of another bargain that these very well-funded elite institutions have made this grand bargain where you’re going to be begging for gifts constantly, you’re going to be beholden to some of these larger donors, and it’s a difficult calculation for them, but it goes along with having a 30 something billion dollars endowment like Columbia. 

JC | 20:04 – Well, I think that’s right, and, and I think there’s a trend even in state universities, towards, trying to build up endowments, by accepting, or soliciting large gifts from alumni, uh, people who have graduated from the institution and have gone on to do well in the world. Uh, and I think from the point of view of the college administrators, they’re not thinking that donating money to build a chemistry building or whatever, would turn into political influence on the part of the donors about the administration of the university’s affairs. But it does and we’ve seen that increasingly. The other thing to say is that, uh, the, the MAGA wing of the Republican party, is frustrated, by its inability to make any inroads, in universities and has targeted universities. MAGA is not about critical thinking and it’s a kind of movement where you have to believe 12 impossible things before breakfast. And the universities are not about that program. And so, the Congress, people like Elise Stefanik, who’s auditioning for Trump’s vice president, have decided to attack the universities. Now, in Congress, the Republican House of Representatives, has this difficulty that constitutionally, they can’t just pass laws about what people can say, uh, would violate the First Amendment, but, uh, what they’ve done in the past, and what they’re doing now is to put pressure of various sorts on, civil society organizations or businesses to then police speech. Uh, and so if they can threaten the universities with a cutoff of federal funds, for instance, uh, which they have, uh, they hope to be able to make the University’s institute regulations, that then would curb the kind of speech that they don’t like and we’ve seen this happen at the state level in Florida and Texas and elsewhere, trying to outlaw the teaching of, the history of slavery in this country, for instance, on the grounds that it would be, it would hurt the feelings of the white students, uh, uh, to know what their ancestors did. So they’re weaponizing their position in Congress to attack, uh, the university presidents, and also they in some ways in cahoots then with some of these very wealthy donors who are also donors to their campaigns, to use their political position to curb freedom of speech for Americans.

(Music Break) | 22:50 

AW | 23:52 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Juan Cole, he’s a professor of history at the University of Michigan. So Juan, you just mentioned the MAGA Trump element to this Israeli Hamas conflict. I couldn’t help but think when we see some of these police battalions entering encampments on college campuses, that these people are apparently supposed to be there to be protecting the Jewish students. In some odd framing of this issue, I don’t think that’s usually the case. And knowing how the MAGA wing has kind of treated the Israeli Jewish issue over the last, actually way before Trump, if we look at it from John Hagee, the element where, as long as Israel is occupied by Jews, when the rapture comes, then everything’s going to be fine for us. It’s a very selfish concept. Doesn’t really align with the teachings of Christ from what I’m familiar with. But, so when Trump says things like, no Jews should vote for Democrats, I think he said, like, “How can Jews remain Democrats?” and calling, Netanyahu is “your” Prime Minister, it feels very craven, and the escalation of violence in these campuses seems to be viewed by the MAGA wing as another opportunity, very craven, and I think people should see through it. But unfortunately, there’s a lot of deep-seated beliefs and tribalism that that goes into the general public’s opinions when it comes to this very hot button issue. 

JC | 25:31 – Yes. Well, the idea of Elise Stefanik is a protector of Jewish Americans is darkly comic. She actually used campaign ads in her last campaign, which, used the dog whistle of, of the great replacement theory, uh, which is a, a horrible conspiracy theory that was thought up by, uh, French, ex-Nazis in, in the post-World War II period. That, uh, why do we have all of these immigrants coming in? Well, it’s because the Jewish businessmen want them for their cheap labor, because white people’s labor is expensive. And the Jewish business owners don’t want to pay white people there a living wage. And so they’re going to replace the white people with all of these immigrants who will work, uh, for cheap, very, very, uh, cheap wages and, uh, and then build up the wealth and power of, this, uh, Jewish cabal. It is a family show. I don’t wanna use expletives, but it’s a horrible set of notions. And, Sefanik, her campaign referred to it, you know, it wasn’t maybe put out front and center in a explicit way with neon lights, but that’s the tenor of the, uh, of the argument that she was making was a great replacement theory, uh, uh, advertisement. And, it was, you know, it got, it got Jews killed at the, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It was, it was over this crazy conspiracy theory that those people were shot down. So, for them to say that these, uh, college students who are upset about civilian deaths in Gaza are engaging in a form of antisemitism is, is just bass ackwards. It’s these MAGA guys who are engaging in antisemitism. The, the undergraduates are not saying anything about Jews at all. In fact, a significant proportion of the protests are being spearheaded by Jewish Voices for Peace, who are Jews, who feel that it’s unacceptable what the Netanyahu government is doing in Gaza.

Narrator | 28:00 – Tune in next week for the second half of our discussion with Professor Juan Cole. You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by The Meters, Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready and The Clash. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site, or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.