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Opinion | A Dispatch From Inside Columbia’s Student-Led Protest for Gaza

BusinessOpinion | A Dispatch From Inside Columbia’s Student-Led Protest for Gaza

On Wednesday morning, on a corner across the street from Columbia University, a man dressed in black, a huge gold cross around his neck, brandished a sign that featured a bloodstained Israeli flag and the word “genocide” in capital letters. He was also shouting at the top of his lungs.

“The Jews control the world! Jews are murderers!”

I watched as a pro-Palestine protester approached the man. “That is horribly antisemitic,” she said. “You are hurting the movement and you are not a part of us. Go away.”

The man shouted vile, unprintable epithets back at her, but the woman, who told me she had come to New York from her home in Baltimore to support the protesting students, walked away.

Hours later, a well-known congressional reporter covering House Speaker Mike Johnson’s visit to Columbia’s campus posted a photograph of the same man. “One sign here at the Columbia protest,” the reporter, Jake Sherman, wrote. “This man is ranting about Jews controlling the universe.”

The man wasn’t “at the Columbia protest.” The university’s campus has been closed to outsiders for over a week — even as a journalist and an alumnus, I had trouble getting in. He was, several people on social media told Sherman, a well-known antisemitic crank completely unconnected from what was unfolding on campus. Indeed, last week I had seen a man wearing an identical cross carrying a similarly lettered sign that read, “Google it! Jews vs. TikTok” protesting outside Donald Trump’s criminal trial in Lower Manhattan. He was, for the record, standing on the pro-Trump side of the protest area.

But the incident is emblematic of how difficult it has become to make sense of what is actually happening on college campuses right now. As the protests have spread to dozens of campuses and counting, competing viral clips on social media paint vastly different versions of what’s happening inside these pro-Palestine camps. Are they violent conflict zones, filled with militant protesters who hurl antisemitic abuse and threaten Jewish students, requiring, as some political leaders have suggested, deployment of the National Guard? Or is it a giant love-fest of students braiding daisy chains and singing “Kumbaya”?

I tried to figure this out the only way I know how: by reporting. I happened to have been on campus on April 18, the day Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, decided to call in the New York Police Department to clear the protesters from campus, and I returned a week later to spend the day reporting on the protests and the mood on campus.

What I saw were moving, creative and peaceful protests by people seeking to end the slaughter in Gaza, where more than 34,000 people have died, the majority of them women and children. I also saw things that left me quite troubled, and heard from Jewish students both inside and outside the camps navigating a campus fraught with emotions. But while reporting on the protests up close gave me insight into how unsettling some aspects of activism can be, it doesn’t mean the protesters’ actions are misguided. These young people seek a worthy cause: to end what may be the most brutal military operation for civilians in the 21st century.

In the days since Shafik called for the N.Y.P.D. to break up protests, copycat encampments have sprung up on dozens of campuses across the country, and at least 17 of them have faced police intervention. My social media feeds have filled with horrifying images of students and professors being violently dragged away by the police. In one especially shocking video from Emory University captured by CNN, a police officer shouted at Caroline Fohlin, a middle-aged economics professor: “Get on the ground! Get on the ground!” The officer grabs her and flips her onto the grass as she screams: “Oh my God! Oh my God!”

On Wednesday afternoon, during his visit to campus, Speaker Johnson made it clear what he thought was happening there. He all but called the university a war zone and declared the protests as antisemitic, conflating, as many proponents of Israel do, opposition to Israel’s policies with hatred of Jews. “It’s detestable, as Columbia has allowed these lawless agitators and radicals to take over,” he said. “If this is not contained quickly, and if these threats and intimidation are not stopped, there is an appropriate time for the National Guard. We have to bring order to these campuses.”

While Johnson was meeting with a group of Jewish students, I was wandering among the lawless agitators, who have been camping out on a lawn on campus. In one corner of the encampment, a small group of students sat cross legged, discussing the poem “Kindness” by the Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Another group had broken out art supplies to reapply the paint to their Gaza Solidarity Encampment banner. Others were napping or doing yoga. There was a well-stocked food tent, with options for all — gluten-free, vegan, nut-free and more. I have spent more than my share of time in war zones. This felt more like an earnest folk music festival.

On campus, I spoke to Muslim and Arab students who told me how frightened and angry they are. I spoke to Jewish students who participated in the pro-Palestine protests and scoffed at the notion that the protests endanger them. I also spoke to Jewish students who told me that they feel the protests target them as Jews, and make them fear for their safety.

Whether you are watching student protesters on social media or experiencing the protests in person, the way you understand these protests depends on your perception of what they are protesting. It could not be otherwise. If you feel that what is happening in Gaza is a moral atrocity, the student protests will look like a brave stand against American complicity in what they believe is genocide — and a few hateful slogans amid thousands of peaceful demonstrators will look like a minor detail. If you feel the Gaza war is a necessarily violent defense against terrorists bent on destroying the Jewish state, the students will seem like collaborators with murderous antisemitism — even if many of them are Jewish.

I heard both of these perspectives from Columbia students themselves on campus. “When I sit in statistics class, and I am hearing ‘globalize the Intifada,’ ‘from the river to the sea and so on,’ I cannot study and I cannot focus on the class,” Saar, a junior at Columbia who asked that I not include her last name, told me. “I don’t know who will sit behind me in class, who might follow me after class and God knows what might happen. You’re living in fear all the time. People are hiding their faces. You don’t know who is who.”

David Pomerantz, a sophomore who was among the group that met with the House speaker, told me that he didn’t personally feel he was in imminent danger, but worried about others. “I think especially my friends who are visibly Jewish, who walk around in kipa, get dirty looks, get chastised for that,” he said. “I think they do feel like they’re in real physical danger. It’s a problem that can’t continue.”

While Jewish students who object to the pro-Palestine encampment navigate fear and uncertainty, those inside the camp are facing a different type of threat. I spoke to Jared, a Jewish student participating in the protests. He had given an interview in which his full name appeared, and said someone in his family had received a threatening voice mail.

“They like to dress us up as a token minority or as self-hating Jews,” he told me. “But I was raised as a Jewish person to call attention to injustice whenever I see it. Palestinians should be the focus, not my safety on campus. The only threat to my safety comes from the administration.”

Just outside the campus gates, the scene was more tense. The protests have become a destination for opportunists of all kinds. Nasty purveyors of chaos. Gavin McInnes, right- wing founder of the Proud Boys, turned up, student journalists reported. On Thursday, Christian nationalists descended on Columbia to stage their own, ostensibly pro-Israel protest, screaming through the campus gates to the student protesters inside: “You want to camp? Go camp in Gaza!” according to a reporter on the scene.

At times I saw pro-Israel protesters seek to provoke pro-Palestine groups into confrontations. A white-haired man in a khaki military-style shirt with a small Israeli flag stitched onto the chest approached a group of protesters I was interviewing just off campus. They were standing around, not chanting or holding signs.

“Israel has had 400 Nobel Prize winners,” he falsely claimed (13 Israelis have won the prize), tapping the flag. “How many has your side won?”

One of the protesters, a man with a kaffiyeh wrapped around the top of his head, replied: “I don’t care about Nobel Prizes right now. I care about dead Palestinian babies.”

Interactions like those make up the flood of “evidence” we’re seeing online, much of it placed there by the moral combatants themselves. Some videos, like one that supposedly depicted a Jewish Yale student getting stabbed in the eye by a Palestinian flag, turn out to be misleadingly portrayed by the victim. Others depict what appears to be clear harassment of Jewish students, such as the one filmed outside the gates of Columbia’s campus where a protester shouted “go back to Poland,” at Jewish students, and another declared that Oct. 7 would happen “10,000 times.” Many videos show peaceful, even joyful protests, or feature Jewish students who support the pro-Palestine protests and declare that they feel safe on campus.

What are we to make of these competing claims? Having spent the past week immersed in these protests, I understand the desire to fix upon some singular piece of evidence that will decode, definitively, their moral core. But there is plenty of evidence ready-made for any side to claim moral high ground here. The camps are on the whole peaceful but it must be acknowledged that problematic things are being said.

On Thursday, video from January began circulating of one of the student protest leaders at Columbia, Khymani James, saying that “the same way we are very comfortable accepting that Nazis don’t deserve to live, fascists don’t deserve to live, racists don’t deserve to live, Zionists, they shouldn’t live in this world,” and “be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists.” On Friday James released a statement apologizing for the video.

On Monday, after the arrest of more than 100 N.Y.U. protesters, the demonstrations outside Police Headquarters went on all night. I live nearby, and went down to see the protest for myself. It was a different vibe from the night the Columbia students had been arrested. There were more chants, delivered with much tighter unison and at greater volume.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine is almost free,” one chant went.

“Move, cops, get out the way, we know you’re Israeli trained.”

“There is only one solution, intifada revolution,” went another.

I winced upon hearing the last chant. Not so much the word intifada, which has many meanings and intonations depending on the context. But why choose the word “solution,” one so redolent of the Nazis’ “final solution,” which murdered six million Jews across Europe?

When the time came for a late-evening prayer, some protesters laid down their banners to use them as prayer rugs, turning toward Mecca, which in this case meant bowing down before a line of police officers in riot gear. After the prayer concluded, some of the men wandered over to the line of officers who stood behind barricades. They singled out one officer in particular, a dark-skinned man who they seemed to think was a fellow Muslim.

“There’s no way he is a Muslim and he supports the killing of 15,000 kids,” one of the protesters said (it’s estimated nearly 14,000 children have been killed in Gaza since the war began). “Impossible, unless he is not a Muslim.”

“May Allah forgive you, bro,” another said.

The officer stared straight ahead, betraying no reaction to what he was hearing. Standing next to him was another officer, a Black woman. Another protester seemingly shouted her way: “Your ancestors are ashamed of you. Your ancestors were murdered by colonizers, and you are here standing with the colonizers.”

Almost instinctively, I took umbrage at the sight of a group of light-skinned young men badgering a Black woman doing her job. Personally, I found these tactics unpleasant, even repellent. It made me uncomfortable. I can see how they might make someone feel unsafe. But to me, this discomfort came nowhere near constituting a crisis requiring extraordinary interventions, like bringing in the National Guard.

Pretending that there is no antisemitism whatsoever in the movement is foolish and self-defeating. Antisemitism is widespread, not to mention on the American right. It stands to reason that there are some people who hold antisemitic views among a mass movement of protesters.

It is easy when looking backward to remember the fight for a good cause as pure and untainted, even if it did not seem so at the time. In the same way, we now remember the Vietnam War as an American tragedy. The students at Columbia University who protested it seem, in retrospect, to have been right. But our memories elide some of their more outré tactics. A list of popular chants employed by antiwar protesters at a time when thousands of American soldiers were dying each year fighting in the war included things like “One side’s right, one side’s wrong, We’re on the side of the Viet Cong!” and “Save Hanoi, Lose Saigon, Victory to the Viet Cong!”

These slogans are sickening. But by 1968, when the protests reached their peak, the U.S. government had already realized, according to the Pentagon Papers, that the war was all but unwinnable. Yet its brutal killing machine ground on for another five years, and an additional 38,000 Americans, and countless more Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian people died pointless deaths in a senseless, futile war.

There are clear signs that Israel is prosecuting a war just as brutal, and unwinnable, as the United States did back then. Some people might not like the slogans, tactics or proposals of today’s pro-Palestine protesters. But the truth is that a majority of Americans have qualms about Israel’s pitiless war to root out Hamas, whatever the consequences for civilians. As politicians send riot police onto campuses to try to smother a new protest movement, we’d do well to keep in mind why we’ve forgotten the ugliest aspects of the Vietnam protests: Those memories have been replaced, instead, by an enduring horror at what we did.

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