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War Stirs Youth To Try Its Hand At Protesting

Jennifer Thorpe, a 20-year-old psychology student at Columbia University, is hard-pressed to describe the nature of her political involvement prior to September 11. “There wasn’t much of any,” she said, giggling. “I read the newspaper a little bit. It didn’t concern me. I didn’t think there was anything that required my attention, I guess.”

Flash forward 18 months and Thorpe, the cherubic president and founder of Columbia Students United for America, is organizing debates, lobbying for the return of ROTC on campus and creating a broad coalition of political groups that support the war. September 11, she said, “made me realize that now was the time to be involved. This was something that couldn’t wait.”

Call it a rude awakening. For the (in)famously apathetic generations of baby-boom offspring, the tragic trifecta of the intifada, the September 11 terrorist attacks and, most recently, the conflict with Iraq has spawned a new wave of political activism and interest not seen since the Vietnam War era. Involvement spans the political spectrum: “pro-American” (and “nonpartisan”) groups such as Thorpe’s are on the rise at campuses from Brandeis to Yale, while, in the anti-war camp, students at some 300 to 400 high schools and college campuses across the nation staged a March 5 “Books Not Bombs” walkout, allegedly the largest day of student protest since the early 1970s. The protest’s organizers, the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, estimated that some 30,000 to 50,000 young adults participated nationwide.

It’s as if a huge neon sign lit up the sky: Turn off the TV, Tune out the iPod and Drop on in to the Real World.

Over the past few years, Ben Waxman, 17, felt he led a dual life: By day he was a student at Springfield Township High School in suburban Philadelphia, by night he was a political activist, rallying against the death penalty and, following September 11, protesting the “strategy of using violence as a solution to violence,” as he put it. “I hung out with my friends, and then I did my politics thing,” he said. Now, “more and more, my friends want to talk politics with me; more and more young people want to take action.”

Waxman was an organizer of the local Books Not Bombs student rally held in downtown Philadelphia. “We expected 500 people,” he said. “There were, like, 1,500. It was totally insane.” (The National Youth and Student Peace Coalition estimated a crowd of 700.)

According to a recent poll conducted by MTV, the threat of war is a top concern among young Americans. In a survey of nearly 600 14- to-24-year-olds, 30% said that “going to war, war with Iraq” was the most important issue facing young people — tying with drug-related issues for first place and eclipsing other traditionally teenage issues such as safe sex (15%) and peer pressure (6%). As such, amid bleep-worthy programming such as “Jackass” and “The Osbournes,” the network is broadcasting a variety of war-related programs, from MTV News special reports (featuring dispatches from anchor Gideon Yago in Kuwait) to covering the pro- and anti-war movements.

“It’s very much on the minds of the young people,” Dave Sirulnick, MTV’s vice president of news and production, told the Associated Press. “It’s become more than just a political issue, it’s a life issue.”

On the left, “people getting involved with the movement are people who haven’t been political before,” said Eli Pariser, the 22-year-old international campaigns director at MoveOn.org, an activist and antiwar Web site that has had more than 600,000 sign up. “They haven’t been involved in environmental campaigns, protests. They’re just so worried about the path that the country appears to be on that they have to do something.”

Prior to September 11, Pariser had focused solely on domestic issues. Following the terrorist attacks, he created 9-11peace.org, “a Web site for friends,” he said. Within two weeks, half a million people had signed on, prompting him to partner with MoveOn. “What we’re seeing is a whole group of people drawn into being politically active,” he told the Forward.

Of the 70 members of Columbia Students United for America, “we’ve got a lot of freshmen,” Thorpe said. “I’d say half to three-fourths are first-time activists.”

Of course, apathy still plagues tail-end Gen Xers and their younger siblings in Gen Y, many of whom came of age in a time of laissez-faire leisure and unprecedented wealth. According to a recent survey of Jewish freshmen conducted by Hillel — based upon responses to a nationwide 1999 survey sponsored by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA — interest in politics among American college students has declined dramatically over the past 30 years.

Nationwide, according to the study, political interest peaked in 1972, when just over 50% of students polled said that keeping up to date with political affairs was “very important or essential.” That number has since dropped to 25%. Jewish college freshmen have consistently been more politically active than their non-Jewish peers (more than 60% in 1972 agreed with the statement above), yet interest among young Jews has taken a similar dive: In 1999, just over 40% considered political involvement to be crucial.

Since then, however, renewed interest appears to be the norm, and for many young Jews, the embattled state of Israel is a crucial rallying point. Prior to September 2000, “I wasn’t passionate about world affairs — it wasn’t anything that got me angry or upset,” said Darin Lazarus, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of California at Los Angeles. “I really started following the news when the intifada happened. I picked up the newspaper everyday; I really cared.

“I was interested in finding out the truth in that region — there’s been so much controversy, so many lies perpetuated,” Lazarus continued. “I was also interested in the ancient history — where all the conflict comes from. Before, I was never that passionate about it. It was Israel, a place where I went when I was 12, and it was nice. It wasn’t close to my heart, but my soul was stirred when it was under such attack.”

Now the biology major marches in pro-Israel rallies, works with campus groups such as AIPAC, participates in anti-war counter-protests and writes about politics for UCLA’s Daily Bruin as well as the Jewish student magazine Ha’am. “More than anything, September 11 brought it home,” Lazarus said. “It made me realize this is the type of fear Israel lives under every day. It further connected my ties to Israel.”

Of course, we are still far from the times in the 1960s and 1970s when mobilizations worldwide drew millions out into the streets. Political activism appears far from “hip” on many of today’s campuses. Nonetheless, as war looms — one that, unlike Vietnam, is unlikely to draft young Americans — something has painfully smacked many young people over the head.

“It’s definitely made me more active,” Thorpe said of recent world events. “It made me realize that when it comes to things I care about, I can’t just sit back and hope they happen. I have to actively make it happen.”

Waxman added: “It’s our future at stake.”

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