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Our View: Unsure whether student demonstrations will be historical markers in Gaza War

There’s an old joke that makes room for college students to try on and explore who they are. Oftentimes, that means participating in political protests on campuses. The joke goes like this: “There’s a time and a place for everything – it’s called college.”

And we’re seeing them put that collegiate gung-ho into the Israeli-Hamas War demonstrations, ramping up and dividing Jewish and Arab or Muslim students across the U.S. With protesters commandeering Hamilton Hall at Columbia University – just like in 1968 – their actions are bringing up some central questions.

Can these demonstrations affect meaningful change? Will the protests be significant markers in time?

Because despite students’ original calls for a cease-fire in Gaza and demands that universities divest from companies connected to Israel, outside agitators looking for hateful trouble are joining the ranks, as well as politicians poised to exploit students’ intentions.

Protesters are vulnerable to being used, their messages misdirected. If they don’t feel heard, they might just pass on voting in the November election.

President Joe Biden is walking a tight line. He knows it, too. “I condemn the antisemitic protests,” he told reporters last week. “That’s why I’ve set up a program to deal with that. I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

If students have actual influence, it could be in their point to divest. Money trails get people’s attention. Although college presidents are in the crosshairs, their roles are limited within larger educational systems. Investments tend to fall under the control of trustees, who advocate on behalf of institutions. It’s important that boards respond to the climate of their schools, so divesting could be a tactical maneuver.

So far, more than 800 students have been arrested. It’s a messy situation to back free speech and condemn antisemitism, offer legitimate criticism of Israel’s actions and demand Hamas release all hostages.

Again, it’s difficult to gauge protesters’ effectiveness long term.

For historical context, stack these demonstrations against others. In 1963, the March on Washington to pressure the John F. Kennedy administration to deliver a strong federal civil rights bill was considered successful by its unprecedented turnout of 250,000. The march took years to organize with challenging logistics of busing in people from around the country.

The Vietnam War protests in 1968 eventually resulted in the U.S. pulling troops in 1973 and ending the draft. At least, a number of historians give credence to these demonstrations.

In 2011, Occupy Wall Street brought income inequality and economic justice into political discourse. Its efforts to increase the minimum wage gained some traction. But considering the plight for many Americans with the cost of living and unaffordable housing, one could argue it wasn’t so effective in the long run. Maybe even a dud.

These demonstrations, though, concerned domestic policies that affected more Americans – our neighbors – closer to home.

In summer, college campuses are generally more quiet. Protests will likely lose steam.

Messages of peace and awareness of human suffering in Gaza are worthy and important. Protesters need to keep each other in check. And safe. If they can accomplish this, even more Americans will be receptive to their words.

Students, too, should better insulate themselves from politicians who want to insert themselves for their own benefit.

On numbers alone, students’ demonstrations have a good chance at making a difference. But they may not be in the time frame they had hoped.