Scenes From a New York City Student Walkout for Palestine

Today’s young American student protesters see the destruction of heritage, the obliteration of knowledge, and the assault on institutions of learning in Gaza as connected to assaults on their own education.

Pro-Palestine high school students join a walkout to protest the Israeli bombardment of Gaza on October 25, 2023, in New York City. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images)

I was working at my desk this morning when I got a text from my daughter, who’s sixteen years old and a student at Brooklyn Tech. She wanted to know if I would go with her to a walkout for Palestine that had been organized by and for New York City high school students. Having dragged her to so many demonstrations when she was much younger, I was thrilled to be asked to join her at this one.

We met up, and at 3:00 p.m. the students converged at 52 Chambers Street, where the New York City Department of Education is located. I was impressed by a few of the increasingly familiar elements that distinguish this generation of protesters from previous ones — the extraordinary diversity of the students, the variety of boroughs they were coming from, the initiative of the students (from every corner of the protest, a different student would start a chant whenever the crowd fell silent), and the leadership role of female students.

But what most struck me about the protest was how frequently I heard the phrase “the truth.” In my more than thirty years on the Left, I’ve never heard so much talk of “the truth.” The speakers and the chanters invoked the phrase repeatedly.

The media claims we live in a country whose citizens and residents believe in something called “truthiness” rather than the truth, that reality no longer matters to people, that the young are truth addled and fact adjacent. But judging by these students, that seems like the opposite of, well, the truth. They were absolutely passionate on the topic, seeming to me almost old-fashioned in their belief in the truth, in their conviction that the truth would set them free.

One of the other watchwords of the protest was “scholasticide” — the destruction of education and knowledge. This is obviously a huge problem right now in Gaza, where schools and universities are being obliterated by the Israeli state, and students and teachers are being killed day after day. Some of the most eloquent speakers at the protest connected, with minimal hyperbole or rhetoric, that destruction to what’s happening in New York City public schools and universities, where budget cuts, austerity, and the persecution of pro-Palestine teachers are degrading the state of education in this city. They invoked the words of Frederick Douglass, one of the most farseeing American theorists on the relationship between the denial of knowledge and the subjugation of a people, to make sense of why they, these students, were protesting Israel’s destruction of Gaza in front of the New York City Department of Education.

We hear a lot of talk and speculation about why young people in America are so passionate on the topic of Palestine. From the students I was listening to today, the connection is clear. They see in Gaza the destruction of heritage, the obliteration of knowledge, the assault on institutions of learning. Far from seeming like a world away, it seems like the world in front of them. There’s been an assault on the obligation of each generation to pass on to the next generation the intellectual legacy that was passed on to it, and whether the site of that assault is Gaza or the New York City school system, the problem is systemic. For people who are coming of age now, it’s also personal.

On the other hand . . . at one point in the rally, when I was taking a lengthy video shot, panning out across the crowd and the signs, a very sweet-looking student standing next to me — he couldn’t have been more than fifteen — said, “Your camera’s not on, sir.” He turned to his friend and said, “My dad does that all the time.”

Whatever we’re not teaching them, in other words, they’re still teaching us — in more ways than one.