Pro-Palestine Protesters Are on the Right Side of History

Like those who protested the Vietnam War, the college students currently protesting Israel’s vicious assault on Gaza are in the right. Future generations won’t look kindly on those who used the moment to smear campus protesters as “antisemites.”

The Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University, New York, United States, on April 23, 2024. (Selcuk Acar / Anadolu via Getty Images)

In 1968, Lyndon Johnson was president. He was waging a brutal war in Vietnam that, by the time it ended several years later, would claim the lives of millions of Vietnamese civilians. At Columbia University, six students were placed on disciplinary probation for protesting Columbia’s involvement in the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a military research think tank.

Many Columbia students were already incensed by their university’s involvement in military research at a time when the US military was committing large-scale atrocities in Southeast Asia. The attempt to suppress the students’ free speech backfired badly, with “Amnesty for the IDA Six” being a key demand of the subsequent protests. Antiwar anger merged with controversy about a de facto segregated university building project, and the campus exploded. Five campus buildings were occupied by protesters. It took a violent crackdown by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) to clear them out.

Today, you can find out everything you might want to know about these events from a handy 1968 resource page hosted by the university itself. Reading it, you might get the impression that the administration no longer regarded antiwar students as dangerous enemies who needed to be silenced — that, perhaps, the university had actually learned something.

If so, you’d be wrong. Columbia University is returning to much the same playbook with a fierce crackdown on students who are peacefully protesting Israel’s massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, justified by absurd claims that the protesters are dangerous antisemites.

“An Extraordinary Step”

Last week, as Israel’s mass-murderous assault on the civilian population of Gaza continued and Columbia’s president Nemat Shafik went to Congress to smear her students as antisemites for protesting against those atrocities, a protest encampment started to occupy parts of campus. The students demanded that Columbia divest from Israel and give amnesty to previously disciplined protesters.

From a “war room” in a law firm near the White House, Dr Shafik took “what she later conceded was an ‘extraordinary step.’” Against the protests of the faculty senate, she mass-suspended student protesters and called in the NYPD to arrest one hundred of them.

This grotesque reenactment of her predecessors’ strong-arm tactics from 1968 was justified, in large part, by alleged concerns about antisemitism and the safety of Jewish students. Both right-wing and mainstream corporate media have relentlessly played up any and all claims of antisemitism at Palestine protests in campuses around the country, in total disregard for the most basic standards of evidence.

At Yale, for example, Sahar Tartak — the same well-known right-wing provocateur who jump-started a nonsensical culture-war controversy several months ago when whoever decides what goes on the labels for the food trays at the Yale cafeteria briefly changed the “Israeli couscous salad with spinach and tomatoes” to “couscous salad with spinach and tomatoes” — grabbed the national spotlight again when she claimed to have been “stabbed in the eye” with the pole of a Palestinian flag by a protester in the grips of antisemitic fury. She wrote up the story for Bari Weiss’s Free Press, and it was credulously run by everyone from the New York Post to Fox News to CBS to the Jerusalem Post.

When the video finally came out, it was overwhelmingly clear that, at worst, she was poked, very lightly and almost certainly unintentionally, by a protester who was walking by her and not obviously paying attention to her antics. She says she had a headache the next day, which she attributes to the “stabbing,” but by her own account she had no other injuries.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, at least 1.9 million of the territory’s 2.3 million civilian residents were removed from their homes by the Israeli military in a blatant act of ethnic cleansing. At least fourteen thousand Palestinian children have been killed there in the last six months. Oh, and every single university in Gaza has been destroyed. The last one that was still standing was destroyed by the Israeli military a few months ago, not even by aerial bombing but by a controlled demolition.

While Gaza’s universities lie in ruins, destroyed by American-made weapons as President Joe Biden provides relentless diplomatic cover for Israel’s genocide at the United Nations, we’re supposed to be terrified by the people calling for a cease-fire so the survivors can begin to rebuild their lives. These are, we keep being told, “mobs” of “violent” “antisemites.”

The Antisemitism Canard

No one needs to convince me that antisemitism is a thing that exists in American society. I’m part Jewish, I very much look like it, and I’ve had at least a few antisemitic comments directed at me over the course of my life. With unprecedented mass protests breaking out all over the country, it would be a minor miracle if no one who showed up to one said anything antisemitic.

It’s also true that some pro-Palestine protesters, full of justified outrage about the genocide in Gaza and unwilling to concede any point to their ideological enemies, do stupid things like defend Hamas’s violence against civilians. This is, as I’ve argued many times, a serious mistake. While my guess is that the actual number of protesters who have really chanted “Burn Tel Aviv to the ground,” for example, is less than the number of journalists who have written articles breathlessly repeating the news that someone somewhere said that, it remains a very stupid thing to say. It’s wrong in principle, and whatever their motivations, the small minority of protesters who say things like that are just making it easier for the media to smear the great majority.

But in an environment so bereft of real incidents of antisemitism from protesters that we’re reduced to nationwide outrage-fueled news cycles about Sahar Tartak being lightly grazed by a stray flagpole or The Day the Couscous Label Changed, the idea that Columbia’s heavy-handed crackdown on students protesting for a cease-fire is motivated by genuine concern over the “safety” of Jewish students is a tremendous insult to our collective intelligence. Especially since anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Palestine solidarity movement knows that, pretty much invariably, a massively disproportionate number of participants in these campus protests are themselves Jewish.

As far back as 2021, more than one in three young American Jews told pollsters they think Israel is an “apartheid state,” and common sense would suggest that everything that’s happened since then has almost certainly considerably increased that number. Jewish students are often the ones for whom the issue feels most intensely personal, given their sense that Israel commits these crimes “in the name” of the Jewish people as a whole, and in my experience they’re far more likely to show up to such protests than students who were raised as Mormons or Hindus or Episcopalians — although all these groups are represented.

Many of those who smear these student protesters were, very recently, loud advocates of campus free speech and critics of identity politics. Certainly that was the Free Press’s beat six months ago. Now they seem to focus on leveraging evidence-free accusations of bigotry to smear those they disagree with about Israel/Palestine. I’ve seen more than a few free-speech-warriors-turned-“safety”-warriors call for the National Guard to violently crush the (disproportionately Jewish!) students who are advocating for peace and equality.

Meanwhile, many television talking heads and print-media commentators want to make the wave of protests at college campuses fodder for grinding various culture-war axes about privileged Ivy League students — never mind, of course, all the protests at nonelite campuses — or “wokeness,” or some allegedly brand-new form of left-wing insanity. The reality is that students at campuses around the country are protesting for the same reasons students took over those buildings at Columbia in 1968, and the same reason there was a massive wave of student strikes around the country when Richard Nixon’s illegal invasion of Cambodia became public two years later. They’re horrified to see their country and their universities participate in crimes against humanity.

The Protesters Are Right

Many Americans of all walks in life feel the same way. The public opinion data on this is stark. The vast majority of voters who backed Joe Biden in 2020, for example, tell pollsters that they either think the Israeli war crimes Biden is facilitating with money, weapons, and diplomatic cover add up to a “genocide” or that they aren’t sure. Only 20 percent say it isn’t genocide. But for a variety of reasons, college students are often among the first to protest grave injustices. The college years are ones in which many people are first being exposed to a variety of different points of view and beginning to think more critically about their assumptions about the world. And, while some students are kicked out for standing up for what’s right, generally college students are less worried about that outcome than workers are about being fired from their jobs — especially given that the overwhelming majority of American workers are employed “at-will” in nonunionized workplaces where they can be fired at any time and for almost any reason.

Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to go to college, and any successful movement to draw down America’s imperial military presence around the world — including its role in proxy wars like the one Israel is fighting against the civilian population of Gaza — is going to have to go well beyond college campuses. It’s a very good baby step in the right direction, for example, that the United Auto Workers (UAW) have called for a cease-fire in Gaza. It’s a lot harder for genocide apologists to dismiss the UAW as a collection of purple-haired malcontents. That’s why they prefer to talk about “Ivy League students.”

Long term, we need a real strategy for mobilizing the working-class majority of our society behind an agenda of redirecting resources from war and violence abroad to creating a more equal society here at home. That’s a difficult task, and I wouldn’t claim to have all the answers about how we can build a movement like that.

But about one point, I’m absolutely certain. Future generations will be disgusted by the posture of those who saw millions of Palestinians displaced from their homes and tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians murdered with US weapons — and decided not to join the cease-fire protesters gathering on and off campuses but to smear them as “mobs.” Many people who talk this way now will regret it later, just as many who once cheered on the war in Iraq now wish they could erase that part of their political past. But there’s no reset button on history. If you want to oppose these crimes, the time to do it is right now.