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Decoding the growing campus protests across US  

Considering a large chunk of Democratic votes come from young college students, Joe Biden is also staring at electoral repercussions

Decoding the growing campus protests across US  
[Source photo: Meghnad Bose]

The ongoing protests in the US, Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Egypt, and elsewhere have their epicenter at Columbia University in New York. 

Columbia students have been staging a protest demanding that the university divest from Israel and US companies, particularly those involved in arms manufacturing, which profit from the ongoing Israeli war in Gaza.

Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli protests have been on since 7 October, the day Hamas and other militant groups raided Israel, attacking military posts and ordinary citizens. The attack triggered a massive Israeli military operation in Gaza which soon turned into a genocidal war of frightful proportions.

The pro-Palestinian protests, even though they were peaceful by and large, provoked the pro-Israeli protesters to resort to violence. In January, a student reported being attacked with skunk spray—a foul-smelling substance typically used by Israeli security against Palestinians demonstrating in Israel or the occupied West Bank. The New York Police Department (NYPD) has initiated an investigation into the incident.

Congress steps in

Ever since the anti-Israel protests began on campuses, the heads of several universities have been summoned by a House Committee to testify. University presidents were grilled by representatives for not acting against protesters. Some representatives vehemently said that any statement critical of Israel and supportive of Palestine would not be tolerated.

The legislators didn’t always seem logical or reasonable in their questioning. 

Representative Elise Stefanik, for example, invoked “the genocide of Jews” out of context. 

While questioning University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill, Stefanic said the protesters had chanted in support of intifada, adding that many Jews perceive this as a call for violence against them.

“Calling for the genocide of Jews,” said Stefanik, “does that constitute bullying or harassment?”

Magill replied, “If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.”

Stefanik: “So, the answer is yes.”

Magill: “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”

Stefanic: “That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending on context?”

Later in the day, Magill resigned. 

On 17 April, the president of Columbia University—Egypt-born Minouche Shafik—appeared before Congress to testify. Having learned from her other Ivy League counterparts, she unequivocally condemned anti-Israel protests as “antisemitic”. 

Before arriving in Washington to testify, Shafik, under pressure from the Zionist lobby, had suspended two influential student bodies—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)— that have been involved in protests on campus.

The SJP, founded in 1993 at the University of California, Berkely, has chapters in the US, Canada, and New Zealand.

JVP claims to have 747,800 supporters and 2.13 million social media followers.

Protests spread

Obviously, any action taken against the two organizations by the university administration would provoke reaction from other campuses. This is one of the reasons why the pro-Palestinian student protests proliferated in the US and elsewhere.

The NYPD, at Shafik’s request, came in and brought down a tent put up by students and arrested about 100 of them. Her decision to call the police was criticized by the university’s senate, which passed a resolution calling for an investigation into the university’s leadership, accusing the administration of “violating established protocols, undermining academic freedom, jeopardizing free inquiry and breaching the due process rights of both students and professors.” 

However, the senate refrained from blaming Shafik by name. The president is appointed by the trustees whose trust she seems to retain.

Shafik’s offer to start examining the investments in Israel-linked companies and to send humanitarian aid to Gaza if the protesters voluntarily dismantle their encampment was rejected by protesters. In reaction, she started suspending students, pouring oil over fire.

The encampment expanded, and protesters used force to occupy the Hamilton Hall, the famous site of anti-war protest in April 1968. 

The protesting students said they took inspiration from the 1968 student uprising in Europe and America, and the anti-Vietnam war protests in the US. 

The 1968 uprising had begun in Paris and as it gained momentum, France President Charles de Gaulle secretly fled to West Germany. The anti-war protests played a role in then US president Lyndon Johnson’s decision to withdraw from seeking re-election.

Before starting their protests, some students had taken an optional course called “Columbia 1968”.

Frank Guridy, the Columbia history professor who has been teaching that course since 2017, came to the protesters for a ‘teach in’. 

The protests are in part a reaction to the skewed teaching style in universities, including Columbia.

Mahmoud Khalil, a student leader, told CNN that over the past six months, even after more than 34,000 Palestinians had been killed, Columbia has pushed “only one narrative—an anti-Palestinian on campus.”

The protests have since spread to universities across the US, including University of California-Los Angeles, University of Texas at Austin, Princeton University, and New York University.

The authorities have responded with force, arresting over 1,300 protesters over the past two weeks. The biggest crackdown came in New York on Tuesday, 30 April, when police broke up protests at Columbia University and City College and arrested nearly 300 protesters.

The protests persist at other campuses and are likely to spread even more. 

Mounting trouble for Biden

Obviously, President Joe Biden is concerned.  Some protesters have started referring to him as “Genocide Joe” for his unconditional support to Israel.

The general impression right now is that Biden will stick to his ‘iron-clad’ support for Israel, unless Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu begins his planned operation in Rafah that might result in huge civilian casualties.

Secretary of state Antony Blinken must certify by 8 May whether Israel has been using the weapons supplied by the US in the right manner.

Several state department officials have sent ‘dissent’ notes, stating that Israel is guilty of misusing American weapons.

Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris are unlikely to go to universities to give the commencement addresses this season for fear of demonstrations.

Considering a large chunk of Democratic votes comes from young college students, Biden is also looking at electoral repercussions.  

Meanwhile, Trump and his supporters have attacked Biden for his inability to keep order in campuses.

Redefining antisemitism 

In a move largely seen as a reaction to the protests in campuses, the House of Representatives on 1 May overwhelmingly passed a bill that would expand the federal definition of anti-Semitism.

Despite opposition from civil liberties groups, legislators voted 320-91 to pass the bill, which now heads to the senate. 

The bill adopts a definition of anti-Semitism created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

The IHRA defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities”.

The controversial part of the IHRA definition is the inclusion of anti-Israel criticism as antisemitism. The IHRA says “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity” is also anti-Semitism. 

Coined in 1879 in Germany by Wilhelm Marr, who preached that Germany should be saved from Jews, the word ‘anti-Semitic’ means hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious group or racial group.

According to a “working” definition of the term by the US department of state, “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”  

One of the many examples given reads: Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

It is ironic that the same word has been made use of by the pro-Israel lobby to propagate their views. The new bill will further encourage the Zionists to target pro-Palestinian protesters in the US.

It should be obvious to all human beings that calling for an end to the genocidal war is not an act against Israel.

Global South untouched by protests

The campus protests have been confined to the Global North. Why aren’t there such protests in the Global South that accounts for 85% of humanity?

In India, there were protests in cities including Kolkata, Pune, and Mumbai, though the media largely ignored them.

Nearly 400 academics came out with a statement upholding freedom of expression.  

“We object to the way in which any discussion of the historical context of the occupation of Palestine and the barbaric Israeli assault on Gaza, along with the denial of food, fuel and water, since 7 October 2023, is being projected as support for the brutal terror attack on civilians in Israel by Hamas on October 7,” read the statement.  

The academics are right.

At the same time, it must be pointed out that the youth in India tends to be rather Indo-centric and are rather disengaged with the rest of the globe.  

I remember seeing young Italians staging a dharna in front of the UN office in Baghdad, protesting the genocidal economic sanctions against Iraq before the 2003 war. I wondered why there was none from India or the Global South. 

 Indians should adhere to the maxim, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family), in their behavior  rather than treat it as a slogan.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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