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US college campuses have embraced the Palestinian cause like never before. The story began six decades ago

Jenny Jarvie, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was best known for its sit-ins against segregation in the Deep South. But in the summer of 1967, the civil rights group used its newsletter to weigh in on a different topic.

In an article headlined “The Palestine Problem,” the group wrote: “Do you know that Zionism, which is a world-wide nationalistic Jewish movement, organized, planned and created the ‘State of Israel’ by sending Jewish immigrants from Europe into Palestine (the heart of the Arab world) to take over land and homes belonging to the Arabs?”

It was illustrated with a dollar sign inside a Star of David. The story roiled many civil rights activists, who denounced it as antisemitic and expressed their support for Israel as a homeland for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust.

The SNCC, which had expelled white members as it shifted to a more militant Black nationalism, responded with an official statement that recognized the murder of 6 million Jews as “one of the worst crimes against humanity.” But then it argued: “We do not see how the Jewish refugees and survivors could ever use this tragedy as an excuse to imitate their Nazi oppressors.”

More than half a century later, the Palestinian cause — and hostility not only to Israeli policy but to the country’s very existence as a homeland for Jews — has shifted from the sidelines of student activism to become one of the most robust political movements on American college campuses.

Even before the current war between Israel and the militant group Hamas spurred an unprecedented wave of pro-Palestinian demonstrations, “Free Palestine” had become a rallying cry of student activists, many of whom roundly condemned Israel as a “settler colonialist” state.


The intellectual foundation for the movement emerged in the early 1960s as African nations were gaining independence from their European colonizers. Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist and philosopher who worked in Algeria, famously wrote that resistance must be violent because it is the only “language” the colonizer speaks. His work inspired a new field of scholarship that would come to be known as postcolonial studies.

But the story of how the Palestinian cause took off on campuses involves much more than academic theories.

It’s a tale of careful planning by activists, dramatic political change in Israel and the rise of a U.S. social justice movement that homed in on race and other markers of identity and framed many of the world’s conflicts as a simple battle between two sides: the oppressors and the oppressed.

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