On campuses across the U.S., students have walked out of class, occupied buildings, and conducted sit-ins and die-ins demanding an end to Israel’s genocidal massacre of the Palestinian people in Gaza. These actions, in the belly of the beast that funds, arms and relies on Israel as an enforcer for an empire of exploitation and oppression, have been important and inspiring. They send a message to the world that students in this country are waking up to and refusing to be silently complicit while horrific crimes against humanity are being carried out backed by “our” government. And they hit a raw nerve, shining a light on, and opening the door to people coming to understand the real nature of what this country brings to the world.
For those very reasons, the student protests have been viciously slandered and attacked by university authorities, powerful figures in government and business, and “grassroots” Zionists aligned with promoting Israel as an enforcer of the interests of the U.S. empire and everything that stands for.
In the past week, administrators at MIT in Massachusetts suspended students who occupied a campus building. At Brown University in Rhode Island, students in a group called Jews for Ceasefire Now were arrested for trespassing after a sit-in protest at the university president’s office. Barnard College cancelled an event titled “Let’s Talk Palestine” with the Palestinian writer and poet Mohammed El-Kurd on November 2 under the pretext that the event needed to have been approved five weeks in advance.
Chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) have been suspended or banned on campuses including in Florida, at Brandeis near Boston, and at Columbia University in New York City. (For background on repression since Hamas’s reactionary attack on Israel on October 7 and the start of Israel’s massively disproportionate slaughter in Gaza, see Supporters of Palestine Face Vicious Repression.)
Pro-Zionist organizations have demanded criminal investigations of students protesting Israel. Student activists have been doxxed (personal information about them spread along with false accusations, with the effect of setting them up for violent assaults). Powerful donors and corporations have threatened to cut off funding for universities and created blacklists of student activists, threatening their careers.
In some instances, bans, suspensions and other attacks on student groups have invoked invented, distorted, secondary, or even seriously reactionary anti-Semitic or pro-Hamas statements made by people claiming to represent anti-Zionist movements or organizations.
There is an alarming rise of anti-Semitism in this country. But it is not mainly a product of protests against Israel, although it does sometimes find expression there, and when it does, it must be vigorously opposed. But characterizing all opposition to Israel as anti-Semitic is completely wrong and is being used as a tool to suppress and silence righteous protest and criticism of Israel. There is a big difference between anti-Semitism (the hatred of Jewish people for being Jewish) and anti-Zionism (political opposition to a Jewish supremacist state on the basis of genocidal ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people). Israel is carrying out a genocidal slaughter against the Palestinians in Gaza. That’s a fact. And all decent people with a heart for humanity should be defiantly raising their voices to stop this.
Where opposition to Israel’s crimes takes anti-Semitic or reactionary direction, that needs to be refuted with facts, not bans, in the context of evidence-based examination of the actual nature and role of the state of Israel and its relationship to U.S. imperialist domination of the Middle East, and what impact that has on humanity, as well as the reactionary role of anti-Semitism in general and, in specific, within movements of resistance.
Banning SJP and JVP at Columbia University in New York City
In this past week, Columbia University has been a focal point of protest, contention, and particularly heavy-handed repression.
Columbia is a nationally and internationally prominent academic institution. It produces, among other things, graduates who contribute to formulating U.S. foreign policy and who rise to leading positions in the ruling class, including three former U.S. presidents: Barack Obama, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt; and Dwight D. Eisenhower was its president from 1948 to 1953. It has also been the home of prominent critics of U.S. support for Israel, including the late professor and activist Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American historian of the Middle East and professor of modern Arab studies. In short, what happens on that campus in relation to Israel is not a minor matter in relation to the “strategic interests” of the U.S. empire.
On November 10, Columbia’s Special Committee on Campus Safety suspended Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) as official student groups through the end of the fall term. This was allegedly because the day before, November 9, “the two groups repeatedly violated University policies related to holding campus events, culminating in an unauthorized event Thursday afternoon that proceeded despite warnings and included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.”
By all accounts, this is total bullshit and a pretense to ban an inspiring, defiant, nonviolent protest by hundreds of students.
The official suspension announcement does not document what “threatening rhetoric” or “intimidation” took place. But the Columbia Spectator, the campus newspaper, described the action that led to the suspension:
Hundreds of students participated in a walkout on Thursday, gathering on Low Steps for a “peaceful protest art installation” as part of “Shut It Down For Palestine,” a nationwide movement in response to the Israel-Hamas war.
The demonstration’s flier, which was posted on the Columbia chapters of Jewish Voice of Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine Instagram accounts and distributed at the walkout, urged students across the nation to demand governments cut off all aid to Israel and called for an immediate ceasefire. SJP and JVP also demanded that the University take action by calling Israel’s attacks a genocide and canceling the University’s business interests and partnerships in Israel.
What university authorities describe as “threatening rhetoric” and “intimidation” included a massive art installation that included the names of Palestinian civilians who have been killed in Israel’s attacks on Gaza. And students staged a massive and powerful die-in in the middle of campus.
According to the Spectator account, when someone began “screaming antisemitic and anti-Black statements, then attempted to instigate fights with numerous students,” they were booed, confronted, and denounced from the stage. A student activist, a Palestinian refugee who was born and raised in a refugee camp, denounced this reactionary provocation with a bullhorn, saying, “Shame on the person who called [for] ‘death to Jews.’” The person making the reactionary provocation was isolated by students chanting “shame on you!”
The student who denounced the anti-Semitic disruptor described his own life experience. He witnessed the death of a 12-year-old friend at the hands of an Israeli soldier. And he described how he himself was shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier at the age of 15. At one point, he challenged pro-Zionist counterprotesters “to see the humanity in us, to join us in our fight for freedom, for justice, for humanity.”
One must ask, what does it say about any so-called institution of higher learning, and the system it is a part of and serves, when it moves to ban activity like this!?
The only actual supposed “violation” of formal university policies was that the action broke a rule requiring student protest actions to be approved ten days in advance, which obviously effectively bans any meaningful response to societal events. If such a rule had been enforced at the time (and rules like it were enforced, and defied), that would have banned students in the 1960s from protesting the brutal beating of civil rights demonstrators crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965. Or students who walked out of school nationwide (without adhering to a waiting period!) after the National Guard and police murdered anti-Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University and Jackson State University in 1970. And every other campus protest against the crimes of this government.
Sonya Meyerson-Knox, communications director for Jewish Voice for Peace, denounced the banning of SJP and JVP as a “horrific act of censorship and an attempt at intimidation.” She added that the students from both groups were doing exactly what they should: “standing up against war and calling for a cease-fire to save lives.”
This Is What Bourgeois Democracy/Bourgeois Dictatorship Looks Like
As opposed to the widely held delusion that mass protest is “what democracy looks like” under this system, the multi-pronged repression of student protests against Israel’s U.S.-backed genocide in Gaza is an example of what bourgeois democracy actually IS: a form of a dictatorship that serves and enforces capitalism-imperialism.
The slanders from ruling class–sponsored institutions, ruling class media and the top operatives of government; the suspensions, bans, and blacklisting by universities and businesses… these things are manifestations of a system lashing out and enforcing terms of “acceptable” discourse and protest. A system that depends on endless unjust war crimes and crimes against humanity like the U.S.-backed Israeli genocide against the Palestinian people.
When protest stays within “acceptable bounds,” or when the system is not wracked with crises at home and around the world, tolerating protest sometimes serves branding this country as the “leader of the free world.” But when the system is wracked with crises, and when protest and dissent hit a raw nerve, the real nature of bourgeois democracy as a form of bourgeois dictatorship is revealed. That is what is happening right here. All of which demands that people who are appalled by what “their” government is backing stand with the student protests, speak out against the slanders, and demand that the authorities back off from suspensions, bans and blacklists. And it demands that people of conscience step up, and spread and join the struggle to STOP these crimes being carried out in our name.