Universities get tough on students after students get tough on Israel

A wave of student protests against Israel's war on Gaza was followed by vicious and unnecessary police crackdowns in the name of 'fighting antisemitism'. Al Majalla debunks this baseless smear.

 A student is arrested during a pro-Palestine demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin on April 24, 2024, in Austin, Texas.
Brandon Bell/AFP
A student is arrested during a pro-Palestine demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin on April 24, 2024, in Austin, Texas.

Universities get tough on students after students get tough on Israel

Protests in solidarity with Palestinians have erupted across the world since Israel began its onslaught in Gaza in October, but among the more eye-catching have been those on university campuses in the past two months. From Sydney to San Francisco, almost 200 of the world’s most prestigious centres of higher education have convulsed with Palestinian solidarity protests, which have mostly been met with violent police response and subsequent expulsion from deans.

Led by students—many of them Jewish students outraged over Israel’s killing of more than 36,000 Palestinians—the protesters have demanded that their universities get tough on Israel, which they see as having had a blank cheque from politicians. Among the more prominent and consistent demands has been divestment from Israel, its military apparatus, and the corporations that benefit from it.

Columbia kicks off

Six months into Israel’s brutal war, the match that finally lit the student torch burned in Upper Manhattan at Columbia University—an Ivy League school focusing on medicine, business, and the arts, producing many of America’s future leaders. On 17 April, as university dons gave testimony before Congress on Columbia’s handling of campus antisemitism, pro-Palestinian students there set up around 50 tents with banners on the campus lawn, calling it the Gaza Solidarity Encampment.

The following day, the Egyptian-born Columbia University President Nemat (Minouche) Shafik called in the police. Hundreds of New York City officers in riot gear poured in. Wearing helmets and carrying riot shields and zip ties, they cleared the camp and arrested at least 108 protesters.

The university seemed satisfied that it had fulfilled a promise to Congress to crack down on anti-Israel sentiment, with politicians worried about Jewish students who support Israel, but the ‘crackdown’ had the opposite effect. It lit a fuse and news spread.

Camps proliferate

Pro-Palestinian encampments began being set up elsewhere, prompting yet more heavy-handed police responses, with student protesters subjected to violence. A camp emerged at California State Polytechnic, where 100 police officers wielding batons arrested 25, tying their hands and leading them away. Another then emerged at Yale, where police arrested 44 students. At the University of Connecticut, police closed down another pro-Palestinian campus encampment, arresting 24 students. It was a similar story at Harvard, where 40 students were disciplined.

Far from dying down, the movement was growing. Protests and camps sprung up at universities at Princeton, Brown, Northwestern, Texas, Southern California, Los Angeles, Depaul, Virginia Tech, George Washington, North Carolina, Case Western, Florida, and Michigan, to name but a few.

They were painted as “out-of-control leftists” who supported Hamas and were, at best, naive, misled, and brainwashed by the media. More typically, they were deemed “antisemitic”. It was all smears. The participation of many Jews in many of these protests and encampments undermined the accusers’ arguments. They rejected the claim that they felt unsafe, yet in much of America’s right-wing media, their voices were ignored or downplayed.

A lesson in mishandling

The pro-Palestinian protests and encampments took university bosses by surprise, and administrators have struggled to know how to deal with them. Although the Columbia response represented an initial and grotesque manifestation of violence inflicted on student protesters, it is far from the sole example. In many places, university leaders cancelled classes and called in the police.

In the United States alone, more than 3,000 students, faculty members, and supporters have now been arrested for supporting the embattled Palestinians of Gaza at dozens of universities in recent weeks.

Read more: US universities face mounting pressure to silence pro-Palestinian voices

Speaking to Al Majalla, historian Annelise Orleck—who taught at Dartmouth College for more than three decades—recalled how she was at a protest for Palestinians in Gaza in early May when riot police body-slammed her from behind. She was forming a line with mostly other older Jewish professors between students and riot police when she was subject to violent handling that resulted in whiplash. It was caught on video, and the footage went viral.

“I told my students they don’t turn guns and riot police on people whose message is not being listened to. The message of the horror and the genocide in Gaza is getting out, and it may be beginning to change the discussion in this country.”

In some rare cases, university administrations chose not to crack down on encampments, notably at Wesleyan University, whose President Michael Roth said he respected students’ right to protest peacefully. Elsewhere, the encampment at Berkeley, California, is still standing.

For its part, Stanford University’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment, comprising 20 tents in a central area, had been spared from any crackdown or punitive measures until 5 June, when it was removed after “protesters barricaded themselves inside a building which houses the president and provost’s office on June 5.” University President Richard Saller and Provost Jenny Martinez said in a joint statement, "Stanford students who participated in the protest would be immediately suspended, and any seniors would not be allowed to graduate."

This statement was a far cry from an earlier statement they issued, which said: “By observing other universities, we are concerned about how the disproportionate use of force against otherwise peaceful protesters can escalate tensions and lead to even more extreme polarisation and conflict on campus."

New McCarthyism

Since the outbreak of Israel’s war on Gaza in October, universities have been swept up in a ferocious debate around antisemitism, anti-Israel rhetoric, and the line between the two. Caught up in this storm have been academics from a range of fields who chose to speak out against Israeli actions in Gaza. Many have since been fired, suspended, or removed from the lecture theatre for their views.

Some call this repression a New McCarthyism, in reference to America’s Cold War period in the 1950s and the campaign “to root out” suspected Communists in public life that was led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Orleck is one of those who makes the link. “Jews who share my view used to get called into Washington and asked, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?’ “Now, they get called in and asked, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace or Students for Justice in Palestine?’”

‘Not in my name’

Bruce Robbins, an English professor at Columbia University, says two of the best-known pro-Palestinian songs and slogans (‘Intifada’ and ‘From the River to the Sea’) are now being called antisemitic. This is despite there being nothing antisemitic about them, he said. “Your readers will know this better than anyone,” he told Al Majalla.

In mid-May, more than 1,000 Jewish professors signed an open letter denouncing the latest move to conflate antisemitism with criticism of Israel after pressure for Congress to codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, for which most “working examples” relate to Israel.

“I do not think there is a wave of antisemitism at the Columbia encampment or in these movements,” said Robbins, a signatory. “Among other things, you can see that because there are so many Jews involved in the movement.”

He added that “as a Jew who has been subject to antisemitism both physically and verbally, I’m pretty sensitive to whether there is antisemitism out there or not.”

I do not think there is a wave of antisemitism at the Columbia encampment or in these movements. In fact, there are so many Jews involved.

Bruce Robbins, English professor at Columbia University

The astonishing levels of violence that Israel has inflicted on Gaza may be a turning point or crisis point for some Jews around the world, he said, but criticism of the Israeli state has been on the rise for a long time. Many Jews, whether anti-Zionist or not, view their faith as having universal principles. So, when they say 'Never Again' during Holocaust remembrance, for instance, they do not think this relates only to Jews but to any group.

It is, therefore, no coincidence that Jews were a disproportionately high percentage of those who marched for civil rights in the American South in the 1950s and 60s. Likewise, today, Jewish students make up a disproportionately high percentage of those manning the barricades at the campus peace protests for Gaza.

In another open letter, signed by 500 Jewish Columbia students, signatories say their Judaism "cannot be separated from Israel". Yet there are up to 5,000 Jewish undergraduates and post-graduates at Columbia, so the letter represents 10%.

That said, the Gaza peace encampments have comprised students of all faiths, races, and ethnicities coming together for a common cause. Jewish and Muslim students have held Passover liberation seders. Jews have protected Muslims while they pray. According to Orleck, a professor at Dartmouth, the interfaith aspect is important "because so many young and older Jews have to say 'not in my name'."

Success stories

Amidst the brutality of camp crackdowns, some student groups have met university leaders and persuaded them on several key points. Aseel Abukwaik, 21, a politics student who has lost 30 family members in Gaza to Israel's attacks, said her four-day encampment at Rutgers succeeded in getting the university's administrators to agree to eight demands.

These include the university's acceptance of at least ten displaced Palestinian students from Gaza, the establishment of an Arab Cultural Centre, the flying of Palestinian flags, and an explicit recognition of 'Palestine' and 'Palestinians' in all future related university communications. Administrators at Northwestern, Evergreen, Washington, Minnesota, and Brown have also brokered agreements with students.

Rachel Corrie, an Evergreen student who went to Gaza in 2003 on a study programme, was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting Israel's demolition of a Palestinian pharmacist's home. As a result, the university became one of the first in the United States to work towards divesting from Israel, including "companies that profit from gross human rights violations and/or the occupation of Palestinian territories".

Orleck calls these "success stories," adding, "They are a minority, but they are real and important."

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