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Resistance and Repression at Columbia

Students in Struggle for Palestine

May 23, 2024


On April 17  student activists at Columbia University began a peaceful occupation of the campus’s East Butler Lawn to protest the university’s participation in the ongoing genocide in Gaza. The Gaza Solidarity Encampment was organized by a coalition led by Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace and comprised of over one hundred other student organizations. This coalition known as Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) is clearly situated in the university’s history as a site of struggle. In the students’ words, they are building on a legacy of activism at Columbia “from the Vietnam War protests in 1968, to being the first Ivy League school to divest from apartheid South Africa in 1985.” The students also outlined clear demands to cut the university’s ongoing involvement in the occupation of Palestine by divesting “all finances, including the endowment, from corporations that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine.”

The students declared the encampment a liberated zone, set up tents, organized reading groups, held alternative classes, and provided food. The city’s left flocked to Columbia to support the students. In what would foreshadow the repressive measures to come, the university responded by closing the campus to the public.

Most obviously, the encampment was a clear physical rejection of the university’s complicity and investment in the genocide in Gaza. However, beyond this protest against the university, it was also a renewed moment of anti-imperialism among a generation in the United States with a political perspective shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement, the US state’s abysmal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the political failure of the Biden administration. Lastly, the encampment also provided a glimpse into a world beyond the oppressive system that fuels the genocide in Gaza.

That same day the encampment formed, Columbia University President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik—an economist by training whose career has included stints as a ranking official at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Bank of England, and as an administrator at the London School of Economics, where she gained repute through her repression of a faculty strike—appeared before Congress to testify in farcical hearings on the “crisis” of anti-Semitism on college campuses. Her fallacious testimony amounted to a complete capitulation to the right’s libelous vitriol that erroneously conflated the solidarity movement’s support for Palestine with anti-Semitism.

The Shafik administration revealed its reactionary character in a matter of hours. On April 18, 2024—a mere day after the encampment began—President Shafik called the New York City Police Department to arrest students participating in the encampment. Shafik’s decision clearly broke from established university policy towards student activists. The administration also closed the campus to nonaffiliates and, as protests mounted in the days that followed, restricted access to university buildings, suspended close to one hundred students, and made in-person classes optional for the remainder of the semester.

The uprising at Columbia—soon followed by dozens of universities across the country—reveals the critical role that the student movement plays in the resistance to the genocide in Gaza. As has been the case in other political contexts and other moments in history, the social position of the students within the university institution both allows for a radicalization against the genocide in Gaza and places the student movement in a place of power on the question of Palestine.

Consequently, students have faced brazen repression that reveals both the political stakes of their struggle and the hollowness of the US state’s commitment to “free speech.” The repression of student activists at Columbia and across the country clearly illuminates that the ruling class has lost the confidence of the student generation, which has effectively organized to resist the now over seven-month-long genocide however they can. It is precisely this context in which the US state will become increasingly repressive, and in which the student movement to end the genocide in Gaza can flower into a renewed antiwar movement against US imperialism in Palestine and beyond.

The Protests in Historical Context in the Student Movement

CUAD aptly cited its roots in the 1968 student protests against the Vietnam War. But to fully understand CUAD, a longer historical contextualization is needed. 

In the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a historic uprising erupted at Columbia to protest both the university’s participation in the Vietnam War through its affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analyses (a Department of Defense front) and its plans to build a segregated gym in a nearby public park in Harlem. Organized by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Afro-Society, students occupied major buildings on Columbia’s campus for months, effectively shutting down the university. While the university called the New York City Police Department (NYPD), resulting in the arrest of hundreds of students, the occupation successfully won its two demands of cutting university affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analyses and stopping the construction of the segregated gym.

The Columbia student body continued to be a relative bastion of progressive politics, even during years of the US left’s recession. In 1984, Columbia students again occupied Hamilton Hall—the main site of the 1968 protests—to demand that the university divest from apartheid South Africa. Organized by students in the Coalition for a Free South Africa, the occupation culminated in demonstrations of thousands of student supporters on the university’s campus and ultimately forced the administration to divest its endowment from all investments connected to South Africa. 



It is precisely because the state recognizes the potent threat that a renewed movement of young people in solidarity with Palestine poses to the US imperialist project that the repression has been so severe and will likely only worsen.

Later in the 1990s, a coalition led by organizations for students of color demanded the expansion of African American Studies and Ethnic Studies, as well as the inclusion of authors of color in the university’s core curriculum. Again, students occupied Hamilton Hall, along with hunger strikes and mass demonstrations. Reporting contemporaneously, the New York Times noted that the protests drew on a tradition that was “passed immutably from one generation to the next,” and the students were again victorious in their demands. 

In addition to the Columbia student movement’s rich history of victory through struggle, the university has a deeply repressive record, particularly on the question of Palestine. In 2004, Zionist students sat in on courses taught by distinguished Palestinian scholar Professor Joseph Massad, intending to concoct allegations that he had “intimidated” them in a manner that exposed his purportedly “anti-Semitic” views. This slanderous scheme culminated in the production of a “documentary” known as Columbia Unbecoming that led to a Zionist campaign to fire Professor Massad, a tenured member of the Middle Eastern Studies faculty and scholar of distinction in his field. Left-wing students organized in solidarity to defend Professor Massad, and ultimately the right-wing campaign was unable to remove him from the faculty. However, the repressive character of the campus’s Zionist elements and the administration’s resolutely anti-Palestine posture through the Massad debacle would foreshadow the university’s reactionary stance on the issue in the coming years.  

Drawing on this rich history of protest and repression, CUAD formed out of a decade of significant struggle across a number of political contexts on Columbia’s campus. Inspired by the embryonic Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, students campaigned for the university to divest its endowment from the private prison industry. After a year of demonstrations, occupations, and organizing, Columbia became the first university in the country to do so in 2015. In 2016, inspired by the prison divestment movement, Columbia Divest for Climate Justice occupied the university’s administrative building, successfully forcing the university to divest from thermal coal.

It was this recent history of student struggle—in the movements against anti-Black racism and mass incarceration and for climate justice—that inspired the formation of CUAD in 2016. Since its formation and the launch of its ongoing campaign to Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) Israel in 2016, CUAD has gone on to play a leading role in the escalation of the Palestine solidarity movement during the current genocide.

CUAD has organized a potent and visible opposition to the university’s complicity in Israel’s genocide, and has thus been subject to violent repression. At a demonstration in January, student protesters were attacked with skunkwater, a military-grade weapon, and experienced symptoms akin to those suffered by Palestinian protesters in the West Bank. President Shafik herself acknowledged this attack in her Congressional testimony in response to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (whose daughter, a leading CUAD organizer, has recently been suspended).  

Columbia’s long tradition of radicalism and recent history of organizing is the context out of which the encampment emerged. Crucially, the current student movement builds on prior struggles—in particular, the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings. The legacy of these struggles provides insight into the encampment’s potential role as a catalyst for a renewed movement beyond its immediate demands of transparency and divestment from Israel.

The university’s nakedly draconian strategy of repression reflects the fact that the protests are so damning to the state of Israel and to the US-Israeli relationship. The Israeli genocide of the Palestinian people in Gaza has revealed the brutality at the heart of the Zionist project to an entire generation in the West. This generation is now the tip of the spear of a new antiwar movement. Indeed, the heightened repression of student dissent in the United States should be understood as a part of the same process as the Zionist state’s escalation of war in the region, as the crisis in Gaza worsens and the risk of regional war instigated by Israel increases.

It is precisely because the state recognizes the potent threat that a renewed movement of young people in solidarity with Palestine poses to the US imperialist project that the repression has been so severe and will likely only worsen. The university’s institutional role as an ideological shield that distorts and conceals the dark reality of the Israeli state from the Western public is of the utmost importance to the propagation of the Zionist project. Indeed, to lose the support of an entire generation in the West—one with dwindling faith in the US state as a result of its inability to handle the myriad crises of the decade—is an existential threat to Israel.

In the weeks following the creation of an encampment at Columbia, student encampments spread through 133 campuses across the United States, as well as across universities in Europe, Canada, and Australia. Weeks after the establishment of the encampment, a group of Columbia student activists began an occupation of Hamilton Hall, the same building occupied in the 1968 protests. The activists renamed the building Hind’s Hall, in honor of 6-year-old Hind Rajab, who was martyred during Israel’s genocide in Gaza. Harkening back to the 1968 protests and the student movement against South African apartheid (during which Hamilton was renamed Mandela Hall), dozens of students occupied the building for two nights until the university called the police to arrest the students. 

Zionist propaganda can no longer uphold Israel as a bastion of civil rights and its claims to be “the only democracy in the region” ring increasingly hollow. The artifice has been entirely destroyed by the current genocide. The resurgent student movement across the globe has been both a product and a catalyst of this unmasking. The students deserve and need our deepest solidarity. They represent a renewed hope for a resurgent movement in the West against imperialism and for a more humane society. 



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