US campuses erupt in solidarity with Palestine

27 April 2024
Luka Kiernan

US universities have exploded into action to oppose Israel’s genocide in Gaza. Protests, occupations, hunger strikes, faculty walk-offs and even rudimentary barricades are a feature of dozens of campuses across the country. So too are mass arrests of students and faculty members.

The movement has been building since the beginning of Israel’s invasion, protests having been held at hundreds of campuses.

Students have faced down a feral right-wing backlash. In January, Columbia University protesters were sprayed with “skunk”—a tear gas alternative—by former IDF soldiers studying at the university, according to reports in local newspaper Columbia Spectator.

At Harvard, scenes reminiscent of McCarthyite inquisitions resulted in the doxxing of students who had signed an open letter in support of Palestine. Conservatives paid for a truck to drive around the city with screens displaying the activists’ names and faces, slandering them as “Harvard’s leading antisemites”.

It hasn’t only been the political right attacking student activists. Palestine solidarity protests have caused a crisis for liberal university establishments, which make statements supporting free speech and intellectual inquiry but have tried to curtail activities critical of Israel. The contradiction came to a head in a December Congressional inquiry into anti-Semitism, at which presidents of various universities were grilled by Zionist politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, about whether they were doing enough to quash Palestine solidarity activism.

The university presidents called into this show trial generally accepted the bipartisan framing of the issue: that supporting Palestine is somehow inherently anti-Semitic. They just bumbled about the difficulty of balancing “the right to free speech” with the purported proliferation of “hate speech” (i.e. speech critical of genocide). In the wash-up, the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania were forced to resign. Other university presidents understood the lesson loud and clear: shut your students up or you’re next.

Yet the current wave of campus activism has taken the movement to new heights. It all started at Columbia University in New York on 17 April, when hundreds of students established a Gaza Solidarity Encampment. They demanded that the university disclose and divest from its financial ties to Israel and the weapons industry. The Columbia administration soon called in police to disperse the protesters. More than 100 students were arrested, and participants were suspended from their courses.

After the wave of further arrests and suspensions, students set up a new encampment on another part of campus, joined by New York University students, who marched over from their campus. Hundreds of Columbia faculty members stopped work to support the occupation and formed a human chain around the protesters.

In this re-established occupation, Jewish anti-Zionist activists celebrated Passover with a Seder dinner in the middle of the encampment.

“On Passover, it’s important to stand up for oppressed people everywhere, whether they are Jewish or not”, one participant explained to CNN. “I had seen so many statements online about how Jews weren’t safe, about how Columbia had turned into a hotbed of anti-Semitism. Each of those statements further galvanised me to use my voice as a Jewish person to come here [to the encampment].”

The encampment movement has since spread like wildfire. At the time of writing, more than 40 occupations are ongoing at campuses around the country, demanding divestment from Israel and transparency in university investments.

Police have been called to many, and hundreds of students and faculty from universities including Yale, Harvard, NYU and the University of Southern California have been arrested. Heavily armed state troopers, including some on horseback, were called into clear and arrest students in Texas.

Despite every effort she has made to undermine pro-Palestine sentiment, Columbia University’s president, Minouche Shafik, is under fire from the political establishment. All ten New York Republican congressional representatives signed a letter to demand her resignation, asserting that “anarchy has engulfed the campus of Columbia University”.

Shafik is the perfect embodiment of the modern university—a corporate institution integrated into global finance and the military industrial complex. She is the daughter of a wealthy Egyptian landowner whose assets were requisitioned under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalist government (1954-70). The family moved to the US.

A dual British-US citizen, Minouche later became vice-president of the World Bank, a deputy governor of the Bank of England and a deputy managing director of the IMF. She then moved into the education sector as vice-chancellor of the London School of Economics.

Shafik is the first Arab and first woman president of Columbia University. Alongside Eric Adams, the second Black mayor of New York City, and Edward Caban, the first Hispanic New York City police chief, she is carrying out the type of political repression not seen on universities since the 1970s. The actions of the three prove that racial or gender identity means little when it comes to politics. People of all colours and creeds are capable of joining the ruling class or doing its bidding.

Strikingly, the Palestine solidarity movement has generally been strongest at prestigious, Ivy League universities, where socially mobile students are putting their futures on the line to stand with Gaza. They are fighting not only against the genocide, but for a vision of universities beyond degree-factories.

The police and administration crackdowns so far have bred only more defiance and commitment. As one Yale student remarked to a Washington Post reporter: “Not only are we not deterred, we may even be more engaged now ... We’re resolute. I’ve been involved in this struggle for a couple of months now and plan to be for the rest of my life.”

Read More

Red Flag
Red Flag is published by Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist group with branches across Australia.
Find out more about us, get involved, or subscribe.

Original Red Flag content is subject to a Creative Commons licence and may be republished under the terms listed here.