United States: Student mobilisations against Israel’s war spread

April 24, 2024
protest on university campus
There was a mass walkout and protest by students and staff at Columbia University on April 23, following the University's decision to call in the police against a peaceful encampment. Photo: @Bassam_Khawaja/X

Ever since Israel launched its latest genocidal war on the Palestinians — resulting in mass killings and destruction of infrastructure in Gaza — protests have grown on campuses in the United States.

The response from supporters of Israel’s war has been to charge that campus pro-Palestinian demonstrations are antisemitic.

As the killings and destruction have intensified, so too have many types of antiwar protests across US society, including on campus. In response, Israel’s supporters have demanded that pro-Palestinian faculty and students be suppressed.

At the University of Southern California (USC), South-Asian American Muslim student, Asna Tabassum, was chosen to be her graduating class valedictorian, based on her results.

Almost immediately pro-Israel forces on an off the campus demanded she be removed as valedictorian because she is Muslim and pro-Palestinian. Tabassum was barraged with hate speech.

USC then announced that Tabassum would not give the commemoration address at her class’s graduation ceremony due to “security concerns”, but has not explained what those “concerns” were.

Tabassum responded on the website of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, saying in part, “I’m not surprised by those who attempt to propagate hatred. I am surprised that my own university — my home for four years — has abandoned me.”

Immediately, there were student and faculty protests. This led USC to say there would be no commencement speech at all, and that all outside speakers, including those to be given honorary degrees, would not attend the graduation — assumedly for fear they might say something pro-Palestinian.

A few days later, on April 18, a pro-Palestinian student protest encampment being held on Columbia University’s New York campus was attacked by police, who arrested more than 100 protesters.

In addition to opposing Israel’s war in Gaza, the students were demanding that the University divest from the development of US weapons being sent to Israel.

This was the largest mass arrest at a protest at Columbia University since 1968, when about 700 students were arrested during an anti-Vietnam War occupation.

Prior to the police action on campus, Columbia suspended three women students from the University’s Barnard College — Isra Hirsi, Maryam Iqbal and Soph Dinu — for participating in the encampment. Hirsi is the daughter of Congress representative Ilan Omar.

Other protesters were suspended a day later. Suspension means the students cannot attend classes, and are denied their rooms in dormitories and meals in the cafeteria.

Columbia University President, Minouche Shafik, called in the cops to break up the protest. She did this right after being grilled by a witch-hunting Congressional bipartisan committee going after university and college officials to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

Even the police reported that the encampment was peaceful and there was no violence or threats. The arrests for “trespassing” on campus were made peacefully. Shafik has yet to come up with credible arguments for her actions.

Columbia students have reacted to the attack by holding actions on campus every day since. The University, however, is blocking all “outsiders” from the campus, normally open to visitors. One such outsider who jumped a fence to participate in the day’s demonstration was Cornell West, a well-known Black activist and professor at the Columbia-affiliated Union Theological Seminary.

West is running for President as an independent in November’s election. He told DN! that he lauded the students for “fighting in the face of domination and occupation, and doing it with tremendous determination”.

Amy Goodman reported on DN! that police arrested 60 protesters at Yale University in Connecticut, including 47 students, on April 22, after they set up an encampment to demand the school divest from weapons manufacturers.

“Other campuses where encampments are occurring are now in place at numerous other schools, including University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; University of California, Berkeley; University of Maryland; MIT and Emerson College in Boston,” she said.

The call for suppression of pro-Palestinian demonstrations is based on the pretense that they are antisemitic and aimed to frighten and threaten Jewish students on campuses.

The White House has joined this chorus. The New York Times reported that President Joe Biden “condemned antisemitism on college campuses”, in a Passover greeting following the April 18 arrests at Columbia.

“This blatant Antisemitism is reprehensible and dangerous — and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country,” the message said.

A White House statement issued in response to the Columbia protests said: “While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly Antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous.”

The NYT also reported that pro-Palestine protesters also blocked major roads in New York and San Francisco and airport access roads in Chicago and Seattle.

Students who support Israel’s war may feel they are increasingly in a minority on most campuses, but the charges of anti-Semitic violence by students protesting the war are baseless and no examples have been given.

What is left out of the media and Whitehouse narrative is that there is a significant section of Jewish students who are part of the pro-Palestinian actions and often play a leading role. For example, at Columbia, the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has been playing such a leading role since November. The University officially banned the JVP, but it has carried on, regardless.

The Jewish holiday of Passover began on April 22 and celebrates the liberation of Jews from Egypt. It has come to represent liberation for all oppressed people.

Celebrations of Passover occurred in many of the occupations. The staunchly pro Israel NYT admitted that: “On the first night of Passover, the singsong of the Four Questions echoed from Jewish homes and gatherings around the world, including from unlikely, contested spaces: the center of pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia and other universities where demonstrations are taking place.

“As evening fell over Columbia’s tent encampment on Monday, about 100 students and faculty gathered in a circle around a blue tarp heaped with boxes of matzo and food they had prepared in a kosher kitchen. Some students wore kaffiyehs, the traditional Palestinian scarf, while others wore Jewish skullcaps. They distributed handmade Haggadahs — prayer books for the Passover holiday — and read prayers in Hebrew, keeping to the traditional order.”

So much for the “antisemitism” of pro-Palestinian students.

Various commentators have raised the similarity of these campus occupations to those that occurred in the 1960s. Are we seeing a new wave of student radicalisation?

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