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Campus Protest in Belgium: Translating the NYTimes

The New York Times is one of the most important newspapers in the English-speaking world. Some Times articles, however, are written in a kind of specialized dialect, which often appears to be English, but really isn’t. This can confuse readers, because they may think an article is saying one thing, while in fact it saying something quite different.

A good example is an article the Times published June 16 on the web, “For Campus Protesters in Brussels, Familiar Methods, but Different Outcomes” (https://www.nytimes.com/2024/06/16/world/europe/campus-protest-belgium-gaza.html). According to the reporter, Matina Stevis-Gridneff, students at a Dutch-speaking university in Brussels are “demanding that their institute break ties with Israeli academia over the war in Gaza.” Their methods are familiar because “their campaign borrows extensively from the U.S. campus protest playbook.”

The outcomes, though, don’t seem very different from those often seen in the U.S. As at many American universities, the protesters have demanded that the university boycott Israeli academic institutions, and the university is in the process of giving in to their demands; it has pulled out of one project with an “Israeli partner,” and has agreed to review others. So what’s different? Not an outcome, really, but a feeling. “The students on the Brussels campus,” Stevis-Gridneff writes, “have taken pride not only in the success of their protest, but also in its vibe.” The students feel great about getting what they want without being as violent as protesters on so many U.S. campuses. The students, ensconced in their encampment, are happy campers.

The article goes on and on in this vein. The campus is “leafy;” the protests have been “far more peaceful” than those in the United States; the university’s leadership engaged with the protesters from the start; the university’s rector is “firmly pro free speech but strictly anti-hate;” the protesters “were determined to ensure that their pro-Palestinian message was not confused with antisemitism.”

A more careful look at the article, with an eye to translating its words into real English, suggests that the vibe might not be so great for everybody.

Some examples: Acording to Stevis-Gridneff, the student protesters “have sometimes used slogans that many Jews view as a call for the elimination of Israel, like ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.’” This “many Jews” ploy—there’s no real call for elimination, there’s just a bunch of Jews who say so– is common in the pages of the New York Times. Some possible historical parallels easily come to mind. For example, when George Wallace, upon being inaugurated as governor of Alabama in 1963, proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” the Times could have reported this as “many Blacks view his statement as calling for resistance to racial equality.” Or, when some of those opposed to abortion call for no exceptions except to save the life of the mother, the Times could report that “many women describe such views as threats to women’s bodily autonomy.” George Wallace was actually resisting racially quality; anti-abortionists are actually threatening women’s bodily autonomy; and those who proclaim “from the river to the sea…” are actually calling for the elimination of Israel.

Why have the protests at the Belgian campus been so peaceful? Because, Stevis-Gridneff says, of a “unique combination of factors: a supportive political environment (Belgium is a vocal critic of Israel); a proactive rector; strict protest rules; and, crucially, a tiny campus Jewish community that has chosen not to confront protesters despite discomfort over some of the protests.”

Here’s a translation: The protests have been peaceful because the atmosphere on campus and in the broader society is extremely hostile to Israel and to Jews; the proactive rector has been giving the protesters what they want; the strict protest rules are ignored; there are no non-Jews supporting Israel or Jews; and Jewish students and the broader Jewish community are too terrified to speak up.

Thus, as Stevis-Gridneff writes, Belgium is a vocal critic of Israel – indeed, “among the most outspoken critics of Israel’s conduct of its war in Gaza.” And not only have the protesters been demanding “from the river to the sea…,” they have been calling for “global intifada” and “give us back ’48.” The Jewish students interviewed for the article found the slogans “menacing.”

Stevis-Gridneff reports that Belgium is home to a “substantial Jewish population”—actually, roughly one quarter of one percent of the Belgian population. On campus, the Jewish community is so small it’s not even organized. The three Jewish students Stevis-Gridneff interviewed asked, unsurprisingly, “not to be identified because of safety concerns.”

As portrayed in the article, the rector of the university comes across as a sensible man of the middle; he has suspended one partnership with Israelis and is considering suspending more, but he has rejected “a broader suspension of ties to Israeli academic institutions.” And he’s “strictly anti-hate,” stating that as long as protests are “respectful toward the rest of the University community,” they fall under the rubric of freedom of expression. Or, putting it another way, the rector deserves accolades for giving the protesters only part of what they demand. Oh, and he sees demands for the destruction of Israel as “respectful” and seemingly shows no concern at all for the morality of the demands.

And as to the conflict on campus – assuming that one might describe what’s happening as a conflict between two sides, rather than the demands of the powerful threatening a few people afraid to speak up – there’s the matter of what Stevis-Gridneff doesn’t report. The university has 20,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff. The number opposed to any of the student demands seems to be one – the rector. Otherwise, apparently, the campus is of one voice. There is no one—except, maybe, a couple of Jews–speaking up for Jews or Israel, or against antisemitism.

The article’s headline, “For campus protesters in Brussels, familiar methods, but different outcomes” is followed by a subhead: “Pro-Palestinian student activists at one Belgian University have borrowed from the US playbook of encampments and slogans. The results, however, have been starkly different.” An alternative headline might be “For campus protesters in Brussels, calling for the destruction of Israel is a good vibe. With supporters of Israel and Jews (if there are any) afraid to speak up, happy campers continue their protests.” Everything needed to support the headline is already in the article; it just needs a little tweaking and an ability to recognize one-sided, hate-filled attacks, for what they are.

About the Author
Paul Burstein is emeritus professor of sociology, political science, and Jewish Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he was Pruzan Professor of Jewish Studies and Chair of the Jewish Studies Program. He has taught courses at the UW on the American Jewish Community and on Israel, and has published on American Jewish economic success and on Jewish organizations in the U.S. He serves on the editorial board of the journal Contemporary Jewry, and is also on the board of the Seattle region of the American Jewish Committee.
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