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An aerial view shows an encampment on a grassy area with university buildings surrounding it.
Anti-war movements can yield much positive coalition building towards peace, but can also trigger backlash. Protesters gather in an encampment set up on the University of Toronto campus in Toronto on May 2, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

University campuses should be places of peacemaking, not venues for proxy wars

Since the October 2023 attack initiated against Israelis by Hamas, a surge in violence has engulfed not only Gaza but also the occupied West Bank and Israel.

The war Israel launched against Gaza has resulted in the loss of 34,000 civilian lives, including an unknown number of humanitarian workers, journalists and United Nations staff, according to the Hamas-run health office in Gaza.

Tensions have been exacerbated globally, with counter-terrorism and extremism experts flagging a rise in antisemitic hate crimes and anti-Muslim incidents, and the potential for nations like Iran or Russia to exploit the situation.

As a scholar of conflict resolution who has examined how young people can become radicalized into violent extremism, I am concerned about how this war has polarized global societies, including Canada’s.

It’s important for university leaders to find effective ways to communicate that university campuses should foster students’ commitments to peacemaking — not serve as venues for proxy wars.

Peacemaking, as discussed by former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is about emphasizing actions to support structures that tend to strengthen and solidify peace and address underlying conflict issues.

Push for peace can also mean rising extremism

Solidarity encampments in support of Palestinians have been established on university campuses.

Anti-war or anti-violence movements can yield much positive coalition-building towards peace. Pro-Palestinian student protest groups calling for a ceasefire in Gaza have representation from people of many backgrounds, including some Jewish students.

Yet, it is important for university leaders to consider that building coalitions focused on peace can also trigger backlash in the form of rising extremism, including increasing the support of war. In the 1960s, anti-war protests also triggered a boost in enrolment in pro-war groups like the Young Americans for Freedom and the founding of right-wing student newspapers like the Badger Herald.

Ensuring security through a police presence on campus is one way of protecting against violence and discrimination. But such police involvement might lead to a rise in extremism since it could fuel resistance, or result in confrontations that strengthen the belief that a cause is just.

A black and white photo shows a campus protest with tear gas, fleeing students and armed National Guardsmen.
Students are tear-gassed during an anti-Vietnam war protest at Kent State University in May 1970, in Kent, Ohio. U.S. National Guardsmen infamously opened fire during the protests, killing four students and wounding five. (AP Photo/Larry Stoddard, File)

Insights for university leaders

While it is difficult to impart principles of non-violence and strategies for avoiding extremism in the current situation, here are some suggestions for university leaders to follow.

Set a leadership example. American peace and conflict studies scholar Gene Sharp’s 198 methods of non-violent action includes “social intervention” and fostering alternative communication systems.

For university presidents, this could mean physically being present among student protesters while publicly calling for calm among both groups. Leaders don’t have to take sides or fear for their jobs; they simply need to demonstrate leadership by denouncing extremism in any form on campuses. Communicating about conflict is the fundamental starting point for future actions.

Initiate a “community dialogue initiative” by convening pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups, along with influential community members, to serve as mediators for mutual expression of grievances. Engaging a professional mediator may prove beneficial.

University leadership should preside over these discussions, stressing the significance of peaceful protest and ensuring campus safety, while also indicating a readiness to enforce disciplinary measures to deter disorder.

tents under a Palestinian flag
Pro-Palestinian protesters with tents seen at The Quad at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg on May 8, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Addressing pro-Palestinian grievances should be done judiciously, while balancing pro-Israeli sentiments by emphasizing a shared journey towards hope and co-existence.

Because divestment is the fundamental request from the pro-Palestinian groups and undoubtedly a potent method, it needs to be integrated into a more comprehensive plan that involves ongoing peace activism and a commitment to lasting peace in the Middle East.

Importance of communities feeling heard

An important part of committing to community-focused counter-radicalization is identifying and addressing systemic factors in extremist violence and refusing to “other” one’s perceived enemies or deny their humanity.

University leaders will need to double down on efforts to communicate care about the larger context — without excusing or glorifying violence or justifying hate.

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