Amid campus upheaval, reflecting on a different time


An aphorism often attributed to Mark Twain states that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Readers of a certain age will, as I do, recall the upheavals of the 1960s and early ’70s. Recent events set me musing about the similarities and differences between today’s “student protests” and those of yesteryear.

Thankfully, the protests that we see now haven’t (yet) devolved into the horrific bombings and other crimes that we experienced in the days of the Weather Underground and other such groups. The Weather Underground claimed “credit” for as many as 25 terrorist bombings in this country. Other similar groups existed around the world at that time, including the Red Brigades of Germany, the Japanese Red Army and others in the United States and abroad.

In the 1970s there were many airline hijackings, which brought an end to the era in which you could walk right up to the gate of your plane without going through any security check at all. If this seems strange to younger readers, just check out an older romantic comedy with the foolish lover chasing the sobbing girl onto the plane!

Notably, the 1970s were when the various Palestinian terrorist groups, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestine Liberation Organization and others became particularly active.

In those years, most of the turmoil focused on the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, and was often led by university students who were unhappy with American policy. Politically motivated violence resulted in the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by a white supremacist, and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy by a Palestinian who was unhappy with Kennedy’s support for Israel. Students staged takeovers of many college offices and buildings, and demonstrations became increasingly violent.

Today’s unrest centers on Israel’s fight against Hamas terrorists. Violence hasn’t yet reached the levels it did in the ’70s, but watch out! In the ’70s, student groups were eventually infiltrated by radical elements that, in turn, radicalized some of the students. We hear numerous reports today that a significant number of the so-called student demonstrators are, in fact, paid, professional agitators who coach and train the students.

This is where the comparisons of the two eras become frightening. As I write, I am hearing of increasing numbers of colleges that have canceled live classes and gone over to remote instruction. Others have canceled graduation ceremonies. This takes me back to my own college days, when, in 1971, part of a semester was canceled and every student received a “pass” instead of a grade.

I don’t suggest that we are necessarily heading toward a repeat of the bad old days of the ’60s and ’70s; there are important differences in the causes of the trouble and other factors. According to surveys, the Israel-Hamas war isn’t a significant political concern for most people on either side of the political divide. No American soldiers are involved or likely to become involved in the fighting. The country at large doesn’t seem to support the takeovers of the schools.

The similarities, however, are certainly worrisome, and one of the scariest phrases in the English language is, “This time it’s different.” We need to be vigilant, and make sure the chaos doesn’t spread. We need to be careful that the latent antisemitic poison that appears to be the true motive of some of the instigators of our current troubles does not spread.

I remain optimistic that the turmoil we are currently witnessing will eventually calm down, that cooler heads will prevail and there will be compromise and reconciliation that will allow us to get back to a sense of normalcy. Our country has faced many crises throughout our history. Somehow we have managed to survive difficult times like these, and I believe we will continue to do so now, and in the future.

Howard Kopel represents Nassau County’s 7th Legislative District and is the Legislature’s presiding officer.