Higher Education, News

In Light of the Campus Protests, Some Faith-Rooted Reflections  

By Nina M. Fernando 
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 2: Protestors gather at an encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus on May 2, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 2: Protestors gather at an encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus on May 2, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

There are many one-sided messages and problematic “us” vs. “them” narratives circulating in echo chambers from on and off campuses regarding the campus protests around the country.  

I write here with the hopes of challenging either/or thinking by offering some nuance to our conversations and advocacy, not just in this particularly charged moment but always, regardless of what side of the spectrum we may fall on. My grounding is our shared humanity. We are all fully human and utterly unique, filled with nuance and contradictions within ourselves and among our communities, constantly growing, changing, and adapting to our surroundings and circumstances. This is our shared human experience, and we are interconnected.  

 

Two hands held in tension   

As an empath involved in the social justice movement building here in the U.S., I have often found myself working to bridge understanding amidst differences and in places of tension. It does not sit well with my spirit to hold my hands out only to push or in fists to fight. I recognize there is a privilege in that, but this is what is true to me. Alternatively, it also does not sit well to be entirely passive, neutral, and yielding in the face of violence and injustice.  

Over the years, I learned there is a both/and option – a practice of nonviolence. The representative hand gesture poses one handheld up and outright conveying “no” to injustice and oppression, and the other one open to the humanity of those on the “other side.” Principled, faith-rooted, nonviolent social change requires holding this tension; it is not to respond to hate with hate or aggression with submission. It is a commitment to seeing social change through to a place where we are all transformed, “allies” and “enemies” alike.  

Right now, in light of the war and crisis in Gaza, with campus protests, counter-protests, and a broad spectrum of responses and calls to action from various institutions of all kinds around the country, we have an opportunity to be conscious of our own orientation and that of the groups and organizations we are connected to. Are we intentionally or unintentionally causing harm to those we mark on the other side and/or those we hope will join our movement? Are there ways that we can shift our language and approach to holding the tension, reorienting ourselves toward an ethos of nonviolence? Can our organizations and academic institutions also (re)orient this way?  

  

When multiple stories are present   

We are all the lead protagonists of our own lives, and still, there are others’ stories and truths around us, sometimes in direct and indirect conflict with our own. I recall an instance among many some 15 years ago advocating for economic justice and worker’s rights picketing alongside hotel workers amidst their labor struggle outside a well-known hotel. Most of these workers were women my mother’s age and older whose workloads were becoming untenable and unsafe. After numerous attempts and negotiations over many months with hotel management, community members and faith leaders joined them in picketing in front of the hotel.  

It’s common at protests for people outside them to express disdain, to misinterpret our goal, and to disagree with our tactics. I was used to this and would often be the one on the margins and sidelines communicating. That one day, a beautiful young woman in a white gown walked over to our picket line in tears, expressing that today was her wedding day, planned for over a year at the hotel we were picketing. As she pleaded for us to stop, I stepped over to speak with her – I wanted to hear about her love, family, plans and hopes for her wedding day. I apologized for how this timing impacted her, explaining how these workers had been trying hard to avoid this and that I passionately believed that all people, including those who do jobs unseen and underappreciated, deserve to be treated with dignity. I shared that she could use her power and privilege to persuade hotel management right now – yet there was only so much she and I could say or hear in that small conversation amidst the chaos of the picket line.  

As a community organizer in the labor movement, I coordinated faith leaders to accompany workers in delegations to management. We were often prepared to enter an aggressive environment where we were not welcomed. There were times when we were treated poorly, and I also witnessed how a prayerful and nonviolent presence softened, shifted the energy, and opened the conversation.  

I’ve always thought of marches and protests as a form of public prayer in the streets — a coming together in community to raise our voices in chants and songs, to say I matter, we matter, in an environment that tells us we don’t.  

As someone who believes in the human dignity of all people, including our enemies and adversaries, I have struggled with some chants that I didn’t feel fully aligned with my values. For example, one from the labor movement was “up with the workers, down with the bosses.” Though I understand the value of proudly uplifting one’s power and dignity in a system that constantly undermines and demeans it, that kind of language and approach doesn’t sit well in my spirit. It is not invitational to the ones we hope will change their analysis of power or open their hearts to engaging their core values in new ways. On top of this, I also recount many instances where opportunistic groups would show up, off-topic and misaligned, and take away from our causes through their words and actions.  

Many of these dynamics are at play right now, though in quite diverse ways in a quite different context, on campuses, in religious, cultural, and movement spaces, and around the country. No matter what side of the spectrum one may fall on this issue, many don’t feel safe or able to speak their truth, share their experiences, or raise their voice without negative consequences. Many Jews are feeling vulnerable, while many Muslims, Palestinians, and Arabs are feeling vulnerable, and it shifts based on the context and arena. Students are powerfully and courageously protesting and joining a more significant movement calling for peace, an immediate ceasefire, a free and open flow of humanitarian aid, a release of all hostages, and for Palestinians to have equal rights and freedoms alongside Israelis. Yet, so many of these same students have been arrested, sprayed, doxed, surveilled, suspended, expelled, blanket labeled as antisemitic, or worse. We cannot stand idly by as these kids, someone’s kids, are put in danger and facing dire repercussions for expressing their rights to protest peacefully.  

And while some messages, statements, protests, counter-protest signs, and chants may not be intended to cause harm to others, they might. In an already charged environment, people are defining terms, slogans, histories, and the present in radically diverse ways and not asking one another where they come from and what they mean before jumping to conclusions. The weight of this time and how many lives have been lost, disregarded, dehumanized, and held in limbo is unbearable. All this makes it hard to have deep exchanges near the picket lines, and, if we only talk to people who agree with us, if we only have our hands out, ready to fight, how do we expect our movement to grow?  

There are multiple stories present in every circumstance. Maybe there’s a student who has lost Israeli family members. Maybe there’s a student who has lost Palestinian family members. Perhaps someone has no direct connections and doesn’t fully grasp what is happening, or another who follows the news closely and is morally compelled to show up. Maybe there’s a student whose financial aid depends on their grades and needs access to the library, or someone still learning to process and channel their big emotions into strategic social change-making. With all these stories present, how can we each help shift the energy to remind each other of our shared humanity and our interconnectedness so that we can bring about the changes we long to see?   

  

Addressing all forms of hate & discrimination together  

In this moment of heightened and dangerous “us” vs. “them” narratives, Jews, Muslims, Arabs, and Palestinians are being painted as monolithic entities to be quickly placed under collective blame for the actions of governments or militant groups. We are hearing words and narratives that are not invitational to those we hope will change their hearts, minds, and actions on these or any of the issues we care so deeply about. And, of course, we cannot deny that there are outliers making mistakes, opportunistic agitators spewing hateful messages, and even hate-fueled, violent, and misguided mobs distracting us from the greater calls for peace.  

American society should be a safe place for free expression and peaceful protest. College campuses should live their mission to make space for one another, sharing our different perspectives and experiences, seeing each other’s shared humanity, calling each other in, and, of course, correcting when we make mistakes and missteps. This is what educational institutions and living/learning communities are meant to do.   

We are at a point where we cannot keep furthering these “us” vs. “them” narratives; we have too much to lose. We must loudly and clearly call for an end to all forms of hate and discrimination across the board that impact our communities. Discrimination and hate that is anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, anti-any religious or cultural group is wrong, and all of it is loudly present right now. Different forms of discrimination show up in many ways, and still, they are all simply wrong.  

I work at the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, a national multifaith organization dedicated to countering anti-Muslim discrimination in the United States. What makes us unique within a greater ecosystem of organizations working on this issue in different capacities is that we are primarily working with people of faith, mainly Christian, Jewish, and interfaith leaders beyond the Muslim community, to see anti-Muslim discrimination as their issue, too. This means our strategies and messaging aim to be invitational to those on all sides of the spectrum, those in the choir, and those not on the same page or even the same book. Though countering and preventing Islamophobia in the U.S. is our primary focus, we hold firm in our strong commitment to condemn all forms of hate and violence, including those that target Jews. When we talk about anti-Muslim discrimination, we always connect it to anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, and other forms of racism and religious intolerance.  

Since our founding 13 years ago, we have focused our work domestically, not weighing in on international policy. That said, there is no doubt for us about the connection between anti-Muslim discrimination and structural violence in the U.S. and our foreign policy decisions. Our work has become exponentially more challenging and complicated since October 7 and is also exponentially more necessary.   

In light of the campus protests, I believe we must ensure the safety of all students, no matter their background. This is a zeitgeist moment, a time of significant and pivotal culture shift, one that acknowledges the harm that Islamophobia and antisemitism have caused at home and around the world, including state violence, while also making firm commitments to make change at all levels of society, including on our campuses.  

  

What about our future?  

Though the horrors of October 7, 2023, and the horrific violence that ensued after that have shaken the world and our nation, the global crisis of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Arab discrimination did not begin then. No matter when your timeline begins, there is no returning to how it once was. There is only moving forward with the knowledge that if there is no justice, there will be no peace here at home and around the world. We live in a country that promises justice, freedom, and equality for all, yet we have not seen these national ideals expressed evenly and equitably among all who call this place home. As many encampments have been removed, some violently, some amicably, we know we have so much work to do, and on top of that in this pivotal election year.  

Should we reinforce either/or thinking, disconnected silos, and echo chambers, or should we open ourselves to both/and approaches that strategically build a stronger movement for change?   

There are powerful positive stories all around us. I am emboldened by students in peaceful protest who are rejecting either/or thinking, like this Palestinian peace activist. I am grateful for those who have turned to learning and listening, confronting, and holding multiple histories and truths. I am motivated by communities holding on to interfaith relationships and sitting in silent grief or mourning together amidst their differences. I am inspired that groups are finding ways to dialogue rather than just debate, to share meals like interfaith iftars and interfaith seders, and to work together on our many issues of concern, like voting rights and climate change. I am encouraged by those building strategies for change, leading actions, and protests, writing statements, and coordinating call-ins to help us make our voices heard.  

All of these, in separate ways, are contributing to moving the needle towards justice and change.  

This work is personal to me. I think of my kids and their beautiful shades of brown skin. I want them to be seen as the incredibly unique beings that they are rather than being made invisible or collectively blamed. I think of my little niece and nephew, who, like me, are South Asian and who are also Jewish. I want them to love and not be ashamed of both identities. I want all our children to grow up with a sense of pride in who they are, no matter who they are. I want them treated with dignity, not as a suspect or canceled, just for being. One day, maybe they’ll peacefully protest for a just cause on their college campuses. I pray for their safety.  

 

Nina M. Fernando serves as Executive Director of the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign. The opinions expressed in this piece are her own.