Looking at those kids on the lawn: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the new ‘youth’ movement on display in campus protests across North America

The young people are having a party and we’re not invited.

You can read all about it in a recent New York Times story, “It’s Not Just Gaza: Student Protesters See Links to a Global Struggle” (Subheading: “In many students’ eyes, the war in Gaza is linked to other issues, such as policing, mistreatment of Indigenous people, racism and the impact of climate change.”)

The gist: Young people, already vaguely attuned to social justice concerns, have made Israel their Exhibit A of that which must be opposed. All this talk of marginalization and oppression suddenly makes sense to them. Gaza! It’s like everything else that’s terrible, for exactly the same reasons! Now we fight!

I imagine how this headline, this story, would look to someone liberal or progressive who wasn’t Jewish—or who was Jewish but among the handful whose anti-parochial commitments evidently exceed my own. The kids are alright! A mix of relief that post-pandemic youth are once again having in-real-life interactions and warm fuzzies that good-person politics live on amongst the young.

I see it and think, uh oh. It is, once again, about us.

I think of something the British journalist Tanya Gold asked British-American writer (and previous Bonjour Chai guest) Hadley Freeman, during an online video chat I attended, based on Freeman’s new Jewish Quarterly essay about the post-Oct. 7 left. “Do you think they’re laundering their souls through hatred of Jews?” As Gold pointed out, they wouldn’t be the first.

Imagine looking at the youth being noble and pure and so moved by the deaths of Gazan children barely younger than themselves (never mind the Israeli children—fewer of them, plus something something settler-colonialism) and feeling a similarly pure sense of pride in the youth for being our future. This isn’t accessible to those of us who would mind if Israel were wiped off the map, and if Jews worldwide are targets.

I also think of how Freeman answered Gold’s question regarding how widespread militantly antizionist views are among young people today. “Do you think this is mainstream in American youth?” Freeman’s answer: “100%.”

This, in turn, got me thinking about what “mainstream” even means at this point. Ani Wilcenski’s article from Tablet made a splash, at least in my Jewish-media-reading circles:

But who are the “normal kids” at this point, the fraternity-residing dudebros who defend the American flag, or the septum-pierced keffiyeh-wearers? Whatever you can attempt to suss out from polling, the fact is that this is all in flux, and different in different locations, so there is no one answer.

And what do the protesters want, anyway? Divestment, fine, but to what end? Is there an end date? Would an end to this war, or that plus a return to pre-1967 borders, suffice? If not—if this is about ending Israel as a Jewish state—in what meaningful sense are these antiwar protests, given what that would look like in action?

I have all of these thoughts, but then I remember that this is just a bunch of college kids. Kids who will not, quite literally, get off the lawn.

Much of the coverage, of all stripes, has centred on the youth of the protesters. As journalist Justin Ling told Avi Finegold and me on the latest Bonjour Chai podcast, “I think universities are a place where youth create their political selves. It should be a sandbox where you get to play around and figure out where you stand and who you are and how you want to enact change in the world.” This, per Ling, becomes a problem only “when the outside world meddles in and tries to use students as pawns in a larger political movement.” Let the kids be! (But also—as he is, as I am—cover their actions in the non-student media.)

Another past visitor to our podcast, the novelist Shalom Auslander, took this line of thought further still:

The salient fact about college age children (as Vonnegut referred to those of that age sent to die in war) is that their brains simply aren’t done.”

As the National Institute for Mental Health puts it in layman’s terms, “The brain finishes developing and maturing in the mid-to-late 20s. The part of the brain behind the forehead, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last parts to mature. This area is responsible for skills like planning, prioritizing, and making good decisions.”

In even laymannier terms, they’re literally half-baked.

Their batter is sticking to the toothpick.

Their emotional testicles have not yet descended.

Are adults are only adults at 30 or 40 or upon retirement or when journalists come by to interview them about how they made it to 120 years old? The brain is never fully cooked, is the problem.

This may also be a case of competing biases—if, like Auslander, you have an undergraduate kid, 18 may seem like a baby. If, like me, you spend your weekends with your children in a literal sandbox, 18-year-olds seem like entities a whole lot closer to my 40-year-old self than to actual babies. They seem young, fine, but one is not whipping out the travel potty for them by the side of the sandbox, to give an example that comes to mind for no reason whatsoever.

If I may digress (I have decided I may), the realities of female fertility are such that if you take this view of adulthood too literally, you end up with women who’ve reached perimenopause if not the full shebang before they’re mature enough to contemplate settling down and having a kid. Forget testicles for a moment and consider the ovary.

There is also—forgive me—the class angle. A 19-year-old enrolled in higher education is a fetus, whereas a 19-year-old with a job or a video game console is a grown man. Cops come to break up a party held by 19-year-olds in the latter category, and that’s the sort of thing the defund-the-police crowd objects to, but otherwise no one cares. Cops come to a campus and suddenly we are looking at fascism.

Nothing about this is good. Having what is essentially a socioeconomic double standard for the divide between youth and adulthood: bad. Infantilizing adults: bad. Undergraduates see themselves as participating in the broader world. They’re under no illusion that what they write for a student paper won’t go online, nor are they necessarily bothering with such a quaint arena when they can just post to TikTok.

But it could be we’re having the wrong conversation. If, among those just arrested at Columbia University, “the average age was 27,” how pertinent is it, exactly, whether someone in their late teens belongs in preschool? If one of the youth interviewed in that Times article about “student protesters” is identified as a 25-year-old faculty member, isn’t this just… grown-ups making choices?

And these may be some of the younger ones.

A University of Toronto professor’s admittedly anecdotal assessment of that school’s gathering of earnest youth found that the encampment participants weren’t associated with the school in any capacity—students, faculty, or staff—but also, somewhat hilariously, that they were middle-aged.

We can call this a youth movement, but the youth aren’t as youthful as they used to be. Just as queerness has come to mean something other than membership in a sexual or gender minority community, and is therefore accessible to the regular old straight people (Google “demisexual”), youth is now more a state of mind or set of politics than a statement about someone’s actual situation with respect to the proverbial tree rings. If you’ve chosen a university as the site of your protesting, you are a callow slip of a thing, even if you’re in or beyond midlife-crisis territory.

The professor-protesters have also been a source of fascination, as though it’s particularly shocking that the police would interfere with professors (who are protesting in ways where this is a likely outcome), as if tenure comes with diplomatic immunity. But it makes absolute sense. They are the original youth-who-aren’t. They are forever of the campus. And they, I suspect, drive a lot of 1968 nostalgia. They were there, or at least read books about it, whereas their students think Oct. 7 was ancient history.

But these are just kids! Who cares what they think! They don’t influence anything, except for when wait a moment they do, like at Brown or Northwestern. Less visually interesting than the New York Police Department arriving at Columbia but just as worth noting. By all means praise or patronize or dismiss the protesters for being babies, but they’re succeeding in creating a new normal. Whatever their actual ages or official affiliations, we cannot—and boy do I wish we could—look away.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.