Robert Cohen (Orange, New Jersey, 1955), a historian at New York University specialized in social and student movements, is well aware of all the mobilizations that took place on US campuses, whether during the Spanish Civil War or for civil rights. , against the Vietnam War… Now Gaza is what gives rise to “the largest mass student movement so far this century,” he explains. And the response given by the authorities worries him.

When seeing the protests on campuses over Gaza, many remember those that took place in the 60s against the Vietnam War. Are they comparable?

Well, the biggest college protest over Vietnam was in May 1970, the war had been going on for years and the students were really frustrated. Also at that time there was recruitment. And the murder of four students at Kent State University by the National Guard. And more than four million students involved with just over half of US universities seeing major protests and disruptions. It was a much more widespread and disruptive movement. It was something else. The rector of a university in 1970, seeing what the students did now – sitting in a square and, without moving, singing and protesting – would think that he was lucky that they were so moderate… Today, however, they are evicted and arrested . I have studied the history of student protests for a long time and I have never seen a non-violent mobilization like the one now – for example in Columbia, Texas or Virginia – with police arriving in riot gear to clear them out. It’s really unheard of.

What has changed?

There is a really disproportionate response. Here at NYU, the camp had about 250 students and there are over 50,000 students at the university. It is a smaller percentage, but that impression is not given either in the media or by politicians. And polls show how even among young voters the war in Gaza is not among the main concerns. The answer reflects the way the country has moved to the right this century. At the height of disillusionment with the Vietnam War the most militant students were burning down military recruiting and training buildings. None of that happens now. It’s not that the country is falling apart.

The images of the clearing of the protest in Columbia looked like those of a war zone.

What what happened conveys is that the presidents want to keep their positions, they do not have much experience and they fear what is going to happen with donors and in Congress. The day after the president of Columbia is called to Congress, she seems tougher because she wants to save her job, she returns to campus, and over a hundred students are arrested. That’s when she explodes.

There are those who see anti-Semitism in the protests against the Gaza war. There is?

If there were no mass deaths of civilians in Gaza there would be no movement. There have been some anti-Semitic incidents. There are criticisms that could be made, for example not talking about the war crimes committed by Hamas on October 7. The movement should be concerned about the loss of life on both sides. And this is not happening enough. But when you judge a movement that is becoming massive, you can’t just take one segment and say that they are all like that. And some of the same people who accuse the movement of being anti-Semitic have an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory toward Jewish billionaire George Soros. It’s amazing. That’s how American political discourse works right now. The mobilization is distorted. There is a group of student activists in favor of the Palestinian cause that has been on US campuses since the 1990s; They did not have massive support and even now their support is not massive. The country has moved to the right and these non-violent student protests appear sinister, dangerous and even violent, when in most cases they are not.

Does the protest reflect an underlying American social change?

I would say yes. This is the first mass student movement of the century and its wings are also in the Occupy Wall Street movement and the one that arose from George Floyd and Black Lives Matters. Although it is more focused on campuses than those.

The protest seems to influence important communities for Joe Biden’s re-election: young people, Muslims… Could it be Biden’s Vietnam?

Politically yes, because it can erode the youth vote for Biden. Polls say that for most students this is not their main issue, but the elections are so close that it may be relevant. They won’t vote for Trump if they’re left-wing, but they might not vote at all. That’s what happened to the Muslim community in Michigan, over 100,000 votes. It can have an impact. What’s more, if the president shows sympathy with the protesters, he could lose part of the pro-Israeli vote in turn. That’s his problem. He has voters on both sides. But if a ceasefire takes hold, he can mitigate it. Remember there are no American troops, and even with the Vietnam War it took years for the country to turn against it.

In 1968, student protests were protagonists at the Chicago Democratic convention that elected its presidential candidate. Also this year it is in Chicago. Can the same thing happen?

And then the Republicans could appear as if they are the party of law and order and the Democrats are chaotic, which is very ironic, because the two people who have defended it are presidents like Trump and Nixon.

But is it a possibility?

I do not see it. The main reason there was violence in Chicago in ’68 was not the protesters. It was a police riot. The police were very hostile, and Mayor Richard Daley. They did not obtain permits to march. They provoked them – remember the “shot to kill” – and the police beat students and journalists. There is no reactionary mayor in Chicago today who is going to unleash a hostile police force against protesters. Furthermore, most campus protests are not violent. Who is going to cause violence? And, again, this has been going on for months, not years, and does not directly involve the American.

Does the fact that the protests occur especially in the country’s elite universities matter?

American higher education is a pecking order in which the most elite schools receive the most attention and can influence. It is significant. For example in the 1980s, when there was apartheid in South Africa, Columbia was the first campus that really mobilized and turned it into a national movement that was much more successful than this movement is going to have, has or has had so far, It’s just that it has spread more quickly because in the 80s there were no social networks.

Is the protest a minority or does it overflow the campuses? Is traditional US support for Israel in danger?

They are down in the polls in public support, as were the anti-racist protests of the early 1960s, the anti-Vietnam war movement, etc. Next, the role of the university is to promote the free exchange of ideas and question the status quo when people find problems with it. Israel has been a US ally for decades and mainstream politicians don’t want it to be questioned, but students are questioning it. The same thing happened in Vietnam.

Where is this crisis heading?

What did President Trump say when he saw armed riot police arrive in Columbia to suppress the movement? He called it a beautiful thing; he supported the repression. There is no appeasement. And that’s similar to what Tom Cotton, the senator from Arkansas, said just a few weeks ago: ‘If you see an anti-war protester blocking traffic on a bridge, you should take the law into your hands and throw them off the bridge.’ Isn’t this a fascist response? It worries me. Instead of respecting freedom of expression, they are defending sending the National Guard and repressing, which is contrary to the mission of the university and the spirit of a democracy.

Will the intensity of the protest be reduced?

Through negotiation, as Brown University, Northwestern University and other campuses did, because one of the underlying problems is that students do not have representation when making decisions. If we don’t like our leaders, we can vote against them. If we don’t like the rector and his way of acting, it’s a shame but…