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First we take Manhattan

The student protests and the Gaza genocide

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman RightsEducationSocial Movements

Student encampment at Columbia University. Photo courtesy Columbia Students for Justice for Palestine/X.

There are snipers on the roof of the school where I got my MA.
There are police beating students at the school where I got my PhD.
At each school, I studied authoritarian regimes and how they brainwash people into believing that state brutality is not only normal, but deserved.

—Sarah Kenzior, post on X, April 28, 2024

LBJ, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?

To some of us of a certain age, 2024 is beginning to have a very 1968 feel about it. I turned 18 in 1968. When the Rolling Stones released “Street Fighting Man” that summer, many in my generation saw it as a call to arms.

The annus mirabilis, annus horribilis began with North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive, which turned the tide of the Vietnam War and galvanized a worldwide anti-war movement. On March 17, mounted police charged down protesters outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square in London, England. On April 4, civil rights leader Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, setting off riots in Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, and scores of other American cities. In May, student protests paralyzed Paris and triggered a general strike that brought General De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic to its knees. On June 4, Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. On the night of August 20-21, Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia, peremptorily ending Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring.

A week later it was the police’s turn to riot at the Democratic national convention in Chicago, where they savagely beat anti-war protestors on Michigan Avenue. On October 2, armed forces opened fire on 10,000 demonstrators in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City, killing hundreds of university and high school students. When the Mexico Olympic Games opened ten days later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in Black Power salutes on the 200-metre medal podium and Czech gymnastics multi-gold medalist Věra Čáslavská turned her head and averted her eyes as the Soviet anthem began to play and the Soviet flag was raised. On October 21, International Anti-War Day, thousands of students occupied Shinjuku Station in Tokyo.

Two weeks later, Richard Nixon, the red-baiting veteran of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) , was elected US president.

Today’s circumstances are not the same, but the déja vu is inescapable. Then as now, the trigger for disorder has been an unpopular foreign war. Then as now, domestic opposition to involvement in that war has been met with widespread repression. Then as now, the repression has exposed power structures that would sooner hide behind bland facades of neoliberal normality. And then as now, young students have been in the vanguard of the protests.

Gaza is the moment of moral conscience for this generation, as Vietnam was for mine. I’m cheering for the kids.

Do you feel safe sending your child to a school which gives up its students to the police?

On April 17, Columbia University President Baroness Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, formerly vice president at the World Bank, deputy managing director of the IMF, deputy governor of the Bank of England, and president and vice chancellor of the London School of Economics, testified before the US House Education and Workforce Committee on “campus antisemitism.”

The committee, whose resident attack dog is New York’s 22nd congressional district representative and aspiring MAGA vice-presidential running mate Elise Stefanik, had previously claimed the scalps of University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill and Harvard University President Claudine Gay.

Magill and Gay’s resignations were quickly hijacked for the Republicans’ wider “war on woke,” and in particular its war on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy couldn’t stop himself from saying the quiet bit out loud. “Better late than never,” he crowed. “It was a thinly veiled exercise in race & gender when they selected Claudine Gay”—the first Black president of Harvard and only the second Black woman to head an Ivy League university. Here as elsewhere, charges of antisemitism were a convenient vehicle for advancing—and concealing—other political agendas that have little to do with protecting Jews.

The House antisemitism investigations have been compared, not unreasonably, to HUAC’s witchhunting of “subversives” during the early years of the Cold War. No doubt mindful of Magill and Gay’s fate, Shafik turned out to be a more than friendly witness. She assured the committee that “Antisemitism has no place on our campus, and I am personally committed to doing everything I can to confront it directly.”

Conceding that “the events of October 7 brought to the forefront an undercurrent of antisemitism that is a major challenge for universities across the country”—a representation of the situation that has been fiercely contested by participants, who among other things point to the large numbers of Jewish students and faculty taking part in the pro-Palestine protests—Shafik detailed the steps Columbia had taken to combat antisemitism since October 7. The “central challenge,” she said, was “trying to reconcile the free speech rights of those who want to protest and the rights of Jewish students to be in an environment free of harassment or discrimination.”

Her opening statement detailed a raft of actions taken with the aim of monitoring, policing, and disciplining protesters, but offered little but platitudes in regard to free speech.

“We restricted access to our campus to those with valid Columbia identification, increased the public safety presence across all of our campuses, brought in external security firms,” Shafik explained. “We updated our policies and procedures … to make it easier to report allegations of hate speech, harassment, and other forms of disruptive behavior, including antisemitic behavior” via “enhanced reporting channels, and supplementing internal resources through a team of outside investigators.”

On October 12, “we brought law enforcement onto our Morningside Heights campus to ensure the safety of our community at a protest for the first time in more than 50 years”—that is to say, since Columbia was occupied back in 1968 (when the police raid on April 30 resulted in 712 arrests and 148 reports of injuries). Thereafter the university authorities have maintained “regular communication with the New York City Police Department, ensuring they were either present or on standby for all major events, including vigils and demonstrations.”

Shafik was “personally frustrated,” she told the committee, to discover that Columbia’s existing “policies and structures were sometimes unable to meet the moment.” The school’s event policy was hastily rewritten to restrict the places and times that protests would be permitted on campus, require two working day’s notice of intended demonstrations, and set out “a clear procedure for adjudication of alleged violations and consequences for students and student groups who break the rules.”

Following these revisions two student societies, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), were suspended after leading an unauthorized student walkout on November 9, and several students were suspended on March 24 after “an event took place at a campus residential facility that the University had previously barred—twice—from occurring.”

Columbia concurrently established a Task Force on Antisemitism “led by three prominent Jewish members of our faculty,” whose brief was “first, to assess the events and other causes contributing to the pain in Columbia’s Jewish community; second, to review the relevant policies, rules, and practices that affect our campus; and third, to propose other methods to help the entire community understand the effects of antisemitism at Columbia.”

What is claimed to be an internal administration document leaked to SJP suggested that Dean of General Studies (GS) Lisa Rosen-Metsch, one of three members of the Task Force, had not only overseen “a serious and intentional misuse of GS institutional aid, where TAU [Tel Aviv University] Dual BA Program students receive disproportionately higher funds than others, without the required basis of demonstrated financial need,” but also “convened meetings with GS veterans who served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), directing them to counter pro-Palestinian student activities and to actively disrupt pro-Palestinian activity on campus.” If the document is genuine these are serious allegations, which undermine any confidence in the impartiality of the Task Force—or of Columbia University.

Notwithstanding Shafik’s acknowledgment—the only one in her entire statement—that “Our Palestinian students and faculty have also been affected as their families and friends suffer through a humanitarian crisis,” no such dedicated task force was set up to address their pain: a pain, it might be conjectured, that went deeper than merely being made to feel uncomfortable in the presence of students protesting the ongoing Israeli actions that were taking the lives and obliterating the homes of their friends and relatives in Gaza. Anti-Palestinian, -Arab, or -Muslim speech and actions were evidently not seen as deserving of comparable attention by the university either then or later.

This is despite the fact that three Palestinian students had been shot in Burlington, Vermont, on November 25, leaving one paralyzed from the chest down after a bullet lodged in his spine—and in full knowledge that several of Columbia’s own students had been sprayed with a noxious chemical substance, possibly Skunk, at a pro-Palestine rally on January 19, sending ten of them to hospital. Former IDF soldiers studying at Columbia were alleged to be involved in this attack.

Despite the deafening chorus from the pro-Israel lobby bemoaning Jewish students across the US being made to feel “unsafe” by protesters demanding Palestinian freedom (as distinct from Israeli sovereignty, as in Likud’s program) from the river to the sea, none—thankfully—have yet been subjected to remotely comparable violence.

Predictably, the Task Force on Antisemitism’s first report “endorsed Columbia’s new Interim University Policy for Safe Demonstrations” and “also called for stronger enforcement of our policies, a goal toward which we are diligently working.”

Disclose! Divest! We will not stop, we will not rest!

In the early morning hours of April 17, the same day Shafik testified before the House Education and Workforce Committee, students established a Gaza Solidarity Encampment of around 50 tents on the South Lawn of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus in support of “divestment and an end to Columbia’s complicity in genocide.”

The protest was organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), a coalition of over 120 groups, including the SJP and JVP, founded in 2016 to “call on the University to divest its stocks, funds, and endowment from companies that profit from the State of Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian human rights through its ongoing system of settler colonialism, military occupation, and apartheid.”

Dressed in full riot gear, the NYPD cleared the encampment the next day and arrested over 100 people, 108 of whom were charged with trespass. NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell later told the Columbia Spectator that “To put this in perspective, the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner.”

It wasn’t the cops that initiated the sweep. Shafik had requested NYPD in writing to remove the students, claiming that “the encampment and related disruptions pose a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University.” The formulation I have italicized was likely included to justify Shafik’s acting without the imprimatur of the university’s senate executive committee, which she was statutorily bound to consult in such serious cases.

Protesters block traffic during a pro-Palestinian demonstration demanding a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, near the home of Senator Chuck Schumer in Brooklyn, April 23, 2024. Photo by Andres Kudacki/AP.

Columbia and its partner institution Barnard College then summarily suspended three students. Among them was Isra Hirsi, the daughter of congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D–MN05), who is one of a small but growing number of Democratic representatives to have opposed the Biden administration’s continuation of unconditional financial and military support for Israel despite the spiraling humanitarian crisis in Gaza. It is doubtless pure coincidence that Omar had given Shafik a stiff grilling at the House Education and Workforce Committee hearing.

On April 20 Columbia told all the arrested students that they had been suspended, meaning that many would be forced to vacate their student housing. At Barnard, students were given 15 minutes to pack their belongings.

Undeterred, protesters set up camp again on April 22. The following days saw an uneasy standoff, with negotiations between the students and the university authorities taking place against the threat of bringing the cops in again. On April 29, Columbia gave the students an ultimatum. The bold type is the university’s:

Please promptly gather your belongings and leave the encampment. If you voluntarily leave by 2 p.m., identify yourself to a University official, and sign the provided form where you commit to abide by all University policies through June 30, 2025, or the date of the conferral of your degree, whichever is earlier, you will be eligible to complete the remainder of the semester in good standing (and will not be placed on suspension) as long as you adhere to that commitment … If you do not leave by 2 p.m., you will be suspended pending further investigation.

Shafik issued a statement the same day in which the University offered “to develop an expedited timeline for review of new proposals from the students by the Advisory Committee for Socially Responsible Investing, the body that considers divestment matters”; “to publish a process for students to access a list of Columbia’s direct investment holdings”; “to convene a faculty committee to address academic freedom and to begin a discussion on access and financial barriers to academic programs and global centers”; and “to make investments in health and education in Gaza, including supporting early childhood development and support for displaced scholars.”

These concessions fell far short of the students’ demands, but to wring them at all from an administration whose first response had been to call in the NYPD says much for the power of protest. Shafik remained adamant, however, that “the University will not divest from Israel.”

The 2:00 p.m. deadline passed without the students leaving. On the evening of April 29, Columbia began issuing mass suspensions. Elise Stefanik meantime issued a statement that read:

Columbia has surrendered to the radical pro-Hamas antisemitic mob instead of securing campus and protecting Columbia’s Jewish students. There can be no more extensions or delays. There can be no negotiations with self-proclaimed Hamas terrorists and their sympathizers.

Overnight, the students occupied Hamilton Hall, a building that had been a centre of the 1968 protests too. They hung a banner out of an upper floor window renaming it Hind’s Hall, in memory of six-year-old Hind Rajab, the little girl who was killed, likely by Israeli tank fire, in Gaza along with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society ambulance crew sent to rescue her after she had endured hours, trapped in a car with her dead relatives, as the sole survivor of an IDF strike.

Though the front pages of the American press have been filled for the last two weeks with breathless accounts of the campus protests, it is easy to lose sight of their objective.

As Maryam, a Barnard College student arrested in the NYPD sweep on April 18 and subsequently suspended (and made homeless) for her part in the encampment, urged on April 22,

I wish people would listen to Columbia student organizers and center Gaza. Our escalation is long overdue and we are escalating for Palestine & nothing else. Please have all eyes on Palestine and do not cease coverage of Gaza whatsoever.

Israel bombs, NYU pays, how many kids have you killed today?

I have dwelt on Columbia not only because the current campus unrest first came to a head there, but also because both the students’ actions and the administration’s response foreshadowed events across North America and beyond.

The faceoff at Columbia unleashed a tsunami of encampments, occupations, and other forms of protest at dozens—likely by now hundreds—of US universities, ranging from Ivy League schools like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Brown, top private universities like NYU, Emory, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, and large public universities like UCLA, UC Berkeley, USC, and the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, to small colleges and working-class campuses like Cal Poly Humbolt.

Per the New York Times the latter school, which is situated in redwood forests 275 miles north of San Francisco, has become “the site of the nation’s most entrenched campus protest. It has gone well beyond the encampments seen on many college quads elsewhere; at Cal Poly Humboldt, protesters took over the power centre of the campus and have rejected increasingly desperate entreaties from officials for them to vacate the premises.”

The movement has since spread to universities in Canada (McGill, Concordia, the University of Ottawa, and UBC), France (Sciences-Po and the Sorbonne), Australia (Universities of Melbourne and Sydney), Italy (Sapienza University in Rome), and the UK (Warwick, UCL). I am proud to say that the first international Gaza solidarity encampment was erected by students and faculty at the University of Alberta, where I taught for 20 years and remain a professor emeritus, on April 22.

Putting a whole new complexion on the hollow and tokenistic land acknowledgments with which McGill, like every other university in Canada, nowadays begins all its official functions, the Traditional Council of the Five Nations Longhouse Confederacy of the Kahnawake Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) Nation, upon whose territory McGill University sits, drew unwelcome attention to the enduring connections between settler colonies past and present across the globe.

Noting “the behavior of the european [sic] for the last five hundred years … in their systematic colonial genocide wars upon our Mother Earth and all Original Peoples and our territories here in Turtle Island and abroad, including Palestine,” and tartly observing that “any and all military actions are intrinsic with the more primitive and lower levels of human thought,” the Council stated:

in accordance with the Two Row Wampam Peace Treaty, we grant the full right to those who are occupying McGill and other campuses throughout Turtle Island to be upon the said lands, with the express intent of engaging their administrations to divest from the colonial genocide of israel [sic] upon the Palestinian People and from the war machine in general.

Many encampments in the US have been violently broken up by police—at the university’s behest. On April 29 the New York Times published an incomplete list of campuses where protestors had been arrested, including Columbia (108 arrests), Yale (60), NYU (“dozens”), USC Los Angeles (93), UT Austin (57), Emerson College in Boston (118), Ohio State University in Columbus (36), Emory (28), Aurora campus in Denver (40), Arizona State University in Tempe (69), Northeastern University in Boston (98), Washington University in St. Louis (100 arrests, including Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein), and Virginia Tech (91).

Police have since made further arrests at UT Austin, Cal Poly Humbolt, the University of Utah, Virginia Commonwealth University, UNC Chapel Hill, and elsewhere. Raising the spectre of the killing of four students and wounding on nine others by the National Guard at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, police snipers were photographed on roofs overlooking demonstrations at Ohio State and Indiana University.

Though nobody has yet been killed, video offers plentiful evidence of vicious policing. There is likely an element of class resentment here, since the protesters have been widely portrayed in the media as spoiled rich brats. Clips from Emory showing philosophy department chair Noëlle McAfee being led away in handcuffs in her own words “like a criminal” and economics professor Caroline Fohlin being thrown to the ground and restrained by burly cops (even as she shouted “I’m a professor!”) went viral on social media. Neither of these academics were involved in the encampment, but they made the mistake of questioning police manhandling of their students.

As with Israel’s targeted killing of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers in Gaza on April 1, which momentarily grabbed the attention of Western politicians and media only because six of the victims hailed from Western countries (the IDF had previously killed at least 224 Palestinian humanitarian personnel in Gaza without arousing international indignation), the spectacle of middle-aged, upper-middle-class, professional white women being on the receiving end of police brutality brought home power dynamics that are routinely experienced by Black, brown, and Indigenous minorities on a daily basis but otherwise hidden from sight.

Since we are in Atlanta, Georgia, we might recall the name of another protester, 26-year-old Stop Cop City activist Manuel Terán, into whose head, torso, hands, and legs police pumped at least 57 bullets during a multi-agency “counter-insurgency” raid in January 2023.

This is not the only respect in which events in the US uncannily mirror events in Gaza, opening up power relations to the clarifying light of day.

Say it clear, say it loud, Palestine will make us proud

“It is kind of weird that the biggest story in the US about Israel-Palestine is about college campuses when there are multiple mass graves being uncovered and constant bombardment in Gaza right now,” Benjamin H. Bradlow, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Princeton University posted on X on April 21.

The American Association of University Professors drew attention to the same jarring contrast in a post juxtaposing the phoney hysteria surrounding US campus protests with the very real scholasticide—the magnitude and systematicity of the horror cry out for the neologism—the IDF has let loose on the Palestinian education system in Gaza:

It’s worth reminding those critical of the student protests raging across the US: Gaza no longer has universities. Every single university in Gaza has been bombed into oblivion. Hundreds of academics, scholars, professors, & students have been killed since Oct. 7.

But if the material fabric of American universities remains intact, give or take the odd broken window or piece of “offensive” graffiti, the same can no longer be said of the cozy, liberal blanket of myth within which they have long nestled.

Columbia may have chairs, lectures, and reading rooms dedicated to the memory of Edward Said, the Palestinian scholar whose Orientalism (1978) was “perhaps the most influential scholarly book of the late twentieth century,” enshrine Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in its core curriculum, and afford postcolonial theorists like Gayatri Spivak the space in which to speak, but when the chips are down the gloves come off.

The administration “deanlets” whose takeover Benjamin Ginsberg warned of a decade ago in his grimly prescient The Fall of the Faculty are now running the university show, and it is clear that their commitment to the humane values of free speech, academic freedom, open intellectual inquiry, and faculty governance that supposedly form the bedrock upon which the modern university is built count for little compared with the next check from a wealthy donor or threat from a rabble-rousing politician.

When New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft pulled support from Columbia because of “the virulent hate that continues to grow on campus and throughout our country” and MAGA Republican Speaker Mike Johnson warned President Biden “Antisemitism is a virus, and because the administration and woke university presidents aren’t stepping in, we’re seeing it spread … We have to act” after paying a photo-op visit to Morningside Heights, Columbia students and faculty might have expected some pushback on the part of their president against such slurs.

But no. Minouche went with the flow and abjectly accommodated to the entitlements of power.

In a lengthy open letter published on April 29 in the Boston Review, Robin D.G. Kelley, who is now Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA but who taught at Columbia from 2003-2006, castigates Shafik’s “draconian, unethical, illegal, and dishonest actions toward your own students and faculty.”

“In my nearly forty years as a faculty member,” he says,

I have never seen such brazen cruelty toward students and faculty, such cowardice before what amounts to a right-wing witch hunt, and such blatant dishonesty … In your desperate effort to deflect attacks from the likes of Elise Stefanik, you have abandoned the principles of academic freedom—including our obligation to engage in truthful, accurate, and nuanced discourse—and sacrificed the safety of our colleagues.

“I suspect that your previous executive and managerial posts in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Bank of England did not prepare you to lead a university,” he acidly goes on. But that is surely why Shafik was hired. “You are keeping no one safe,” Kelley rages, “except for your donors, trustees, and Columbia’s endowment.”

In today’s upside-down Orwellian world, in which politicians gaslight the public into believing that a genocide carried out in plain sight is legitimate self-defense and anybody who suggests otherwise—including Jews—is “antisemitic,” are these not the only people—corporations, in the US, being people too—that really matter? The ones who are used to calling the shots?

The genocide in Gaza and the repression on American university campuses are intimately connected. It is time we lifted our heads from our everyday evasions and diversions, our compromises and complicities, and started to listen to the kids.

Derek Sayer is professor emeritus at the University of Alberta and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. His most recent book, Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, won the 2023 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Scholarship and was a finalist for the Association of American Publishers PROSE Award in European History.


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