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The Ghosts of Vietnam

Angela Davis once warned that the ruling class attempts to create an 'imposed forgetfulness' of yesterday’s struggles. As students fight for Gaza like those before them fought for Vietnam, they show a determination to remember.

(Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

‘So we are taught social justice and all that in the classrooms, but we’re supposed to put them away in the real world?’

The UCLA student who recently asked this question was, moments later, attacked by pro-war mobs who had just been allowed by the police to enter the university campus. Their experience is one example of the incredible scenes unfolding across the United States and the world as students take a stand against a foreign war on a scale not seen since Vietnam. In 2024, this student anti-war movement is focused on challenging the networks of support that continue to be offered to the state of Israel despite its decision to violate almost every part of the international law of armed conflict. 

As I write, the movement has transcended national boundaries. What began in the US has embedded itself in Britain, too, where students unite with their American peers in seeking to reclaim academia’s historic mission to advance knowledge and progress. I recently returned from a visit to my alma mater, University College London, where I witnessed hundreds gathered outside the campus entrance in full solidarity with the students encamped within. Those outside the camp donated food, drinks, tent equipment, and books. Cheers erupted when news spread that Goldsmiths University administration had pledged scholarships for Palestinian students and would review its ethical investment policy. 

In recent weeks, OsloMet, the University of South Eastern Norway, the University of Bergen, the Bergen School of Architecture, and Nord University have also suspended agreements with complicit Israeli universities, dealing a significant blow to Israel’s academic system on the international stage. Like that taken at Goldsmiths, these decisions are a reminder that despite the commonplace belief in the futility of protest, fighting can and does change things.

Of course, that’s not the case everywhere. In France, police forcibly evacuated protesters from a sit-in at Sciences Po in Paris, resulting in 91 arrests. Interim administrator Jean Basseres rejected a student demand to examine the institution’s links with Israeli universities, as did Sorbonne University, Paris-Dauphine University, and others. French President Emmanuel Macron has also condemned the university blockades, stating they ‘prevented debate,’ then ordered police to arrest protesters and shut down the debate altogether.

In Germany, too, police have intervened to remove protesters from outside Humboldt University in Berlin. Berlin Mayor Kai Wegner criticised the protest, expressing a desire to avoid events reminiscent of those in the United States or France. 

That students in these cities and further afield have continued organising despite hostility from their universities and governments is testament to their determination.

Strategic Resilience

These encampments are building on a growing antiwar movement outside the university, too, which has recently organised some of the largest demonstrations witnessed in recent decades. The students involved recognise that they aren’t just discussing academic policies; they’re aligning themselves against what we might call the cornerstone of Western foreign policy.

When they emerge victorious, then, they have effectively exposed the West’s refusal to show leadership in supporting what is right in the world and defending the rule of international law. Despite assertions from international affairs analysts that the war in Gaza has the potential to become a chronic issue, another of the West’s ‘forever wars’, students are clear that the suffering cannot be allowed to go on — at least in not their name.

Yet the most significant contribution of the student movement recently lies in the revelation that Israel’s power is essentially fragile. Israel’s economic and military prowess is sustained only by the diplomatic, military and financial support of institutions like universities. Were that support to be withdrawn, significant upheaval within Israel’s domestic social consensus would likely follow. With this in mind, the students’ actions serve as a wake-up call, demonstrating that there are tangible steps people can take to pressure and accelerate the end of this war.

The students recognise that such accountability and change begins with disclosure. The combined holdings of US college endowments total $850 billion, but there is no requirement for full investment transparency, and they typically refrain from revealing precise details. Even public universities’ annual reports and regulatory filings often lack specificity regarding their financial holdings. 

‘The big endowments want to protect their secret sauce,’ Charlie Eaton, an associate professor at the University of California, Merced, has written in the Washington Post. He goes on to explain that universities are concerned that revealing their investment strategies could allow competitors to replicate their success or that the intricate nature of their holdings might render complete disclosure unfeasible.

But the reasoning appears to be political, too. Only a couple of weeks ago, the president of Columbia University, Nemat Shafik, released a statement asserting that Columbia would ‘not divest from Israel’. In response, protesters occupied a university building early on the next day. 

Nonetheless, smaller-scale change is clearly taking place. A recent report by Israel’s Innovation, Science, and Technology Ministry, covered by the Times of Israel, highlights a notable decline in the willingness of academic researchers from certain European countries to collaborate with their Israeli counterparts since October 7. Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, and Ireland are among the leaders in this boycott. Notably, Italy, which has a significant history of academic collaboration with Israel, and Belgium, a prominent player in the European research community, are included in the list. According to a summary of the report released by Channel 13 News, 38 percent of Israeli research involves cooperation with European academics, with 2023 marking the peak of collaboration in Israel’s history.

Deepening the Crisis

To some extent, the actions of the students should be expected in a setting that claims to value knowledge and progress and a part of the world that claims to value international law and human life. As the UCLA student’s quote above demonstrates, the protestors are only holding their institutions to their own standards. 

It is the state response that tells us far more about the reality of life in these countries today. In the US specifically, the efforts of the mainstream media to frame students singing Joan Baez’s antiwar songs as terrorist sympathisers show the degree of madness and confusion plaguing the nation, and proves that in the land of the free, freedom of speech is not given.

It also reveals the level of disconnect between the US government and the majority of its people. Information published by TIME in January, obtained by a business intelligence firm, reveals a significant decline in global support for Israel following the start of the bombardment of Gaza. 

In a survey across 43 countries, net favourability towards Israel had decreased by 18.5 percent between September and December. This decline was observed in 42 out of the 43 countries included in the poll. The majority of Americans now disapprove of Israeli actions in Gaza, with approval dropping from 50 percent to 36 percent since November, even among Republicans. This political void has never been so glaring in recent history.

In the UK, too, the antiwar movement has disrupted the prevailing political narrative, leading to a significant political crisis that has impacted both the Conservative and Labour parties. While Labour voters specifically overwhelmingly support a ceasefire, the party leadership remains steadfastly pro-Israel. Like the students, voters, too, are using the means at their disposal to express their dissatisfaction: in Britain’s recent local elections, independent pro-Palestine candidates secured electoral victories, primarily by bypassing traditional party structures. 

This trend is anticipated to gain momentum leading up to the national elections later this year, suggesting that similar dynamics may also influence the political landscape in the US. It is evident in this election year that no major US political force is eager to steer the massive ship of US foreign policy in a new direction. At the same time, the US government’s inability to sway a state to which it provides extensive support and funding, while that very state pushes over a million people to the brink of famine, is a source of humiliation.


Despite political and physical conflict continuing on campuses around the world, the student movement has already achieved what successful movements strive for: winning over public opinion, catalysing fractures in elite consensus, and laying bare divisions within the state. And it has proudly offered a different cosmology, a different philosophy for life and the world at large. 

It has also revealed another truth: that when the state is challenged on the deep core of its strategy, it seals decision-making from the majority and comfortably accelerates towards authoritarianism and violence. Seeing students peacefully sitting in a circle and getting violently beaten and arrested inside their university is crushing. The irony, as predictable during the protests against the wars and injustices of the twentieth century as it is today, is that such actions often end up bolstering the movements rather than diminishing them. Angela Davis has described how our society depends on ‘public amnesia’; the students currently encamped on campuses worldwide are determined to remember.