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U.S.: Political repression backfires as pro-Palestinian campus protests grow

Originally published: International Socialism Project on May 10, 2024 by Sharon Smith (more by International Socialism Project)  | (Posted May 15, 2024)

Police arrested more than 2,300 protesters in at least 58 crackdowns at 44 colleges or universities between April 18 and May 3 as pro-Palestinian encampments spread like wildfire across the U.S. It can reasonably be argued that university administrators themselves provoked students into taking action, and it can certainly be proven that they fanned the flames of defiance after the protests began—by forcibly repressing the protests.

April 17 was a turning point for the student struggle for a free Palestine.

On that day, the University of Southern California (USC) canceled the speech that class valedictorian Asna Tabassum, a first generation South Asian American Muslim, was scheduled to give at the upcoming May 10 graduation, citing vague concerns for “safety” and “security”—and wreaking of anti-Muslim racism. Apparently, the campus organization Trojans for Israel had strongly (and publicly) objected to her speech, not on the grounds of any current activism, but because the bio of her Instagram page linked to an anti-Zionist internet site­—a post she made three years earlier.

USC Provost Andrew Guzman, addressing critics of the canceled speech, was entirely dismissive, stating “To be clear: this decision has nothing to do with freedom of speech. There is no free-speech entitlement to speak at a commencement.” When student pro-Palestine protests erupted, Guzman canceled the graduation ceremony altogether.

The same day that Tabassum’s USC speech was canceled, Columbia University president Nemat Shafik groveled before a hostile congressional committee on the subject of her record in combatting so-called campus “antisemitism”—a smear by the right wing used for protests against Israeli genocide in Gaza. As Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting (FAIR) explained, during the hearing,

Shafik had assured her congressional interrogators that Columbia had already suspended 15 students for speaking out for Palestinian human rights, suspended two student groups—Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine (Jewish Telegraphic Agency11/10/23)—and had even terminated an instructor (New York Times4/17/24).

The hearing was bizarre, to say the least; a Georgia Republican asked the president if she wanted her campus to be “cursed by God” (New York Times4/18/24). (“Definitely not,” was her response.)

The student coalition Columbia University Apartheid Divest also timed their encampment to begin on April 17, the same day that Shafik testified. Their demands were simple: The university should cut its financial ties with Israel and divest from companies that are profiting from Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, with a death toll now approaching 35,000, mostly women and children. As if to satisfy the congressional bloodhounds, Shafik called in the NYPD the following day to clear the peaceful encampment, claiming they had created a “harassing and intimidating environment” on campus. The cops arrested over 100 students, while the university immediately suspended them.

But this crackdown touched off what quickly became a massive Palestine solidarity movement on campuses across the country. And Columbia’s encampment returned the very next day, defiant, thereby becoming the epicenter of this growing movement.

The “antisemitism” panic

Israel and its supporters have long maintained that the Palestinian struggle for liberation is inherently antisemitic, and these accusations have reached a fever pitch in the face of Palestine protests since October. In January, the Anti-Defamation League (ADF) published a report claiming that antisemitic incidents increased by 360 percent in the three months following the October 7 Hamas attacks, representing a threat to Jews “unprecedented in modern history.” But it acknowledged that it had broadened its definition of antisemitism to include rallies that feature “anti-Zionist chants and slogans,” reflecting the surge in pro-Palestinian demonstrations, many of them organized by Jewish-led organizations, during that period.

ADL chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt also claimed that the rise in pro-Palestinian protests in late 2023 “clarified and confirmed that fanatical anti-Zionism from the hard left is as dangerous to the Jewish community as rabid white supremacy from the extreme right.”

Statements such as Greenblatt’s, widely and uncritically repeated in the corporate media, falsely create a sense of hysteria that the Palestinian freedom movement is anti-Jewish, while ignoring that the vast majority of antisemitic attacks actually come from right-wing white nationalists.

There has been a rise in antisemitism in the U.S., demonstrated by the horrific 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Attacks on Jewish places of worship, including bomb threats and fascist graffiti, pose a real threat to the safety of Jewish people. To make the blanket statement that the peaceful solidarity encampments make Jewish students feel “uncomfortable” and “unsafe” ends up trivializing incidents of genuine antisemitism.

Moreover, those contributing to this hysteria do not acknowledge the thousands of Jews who are very much a part of the pro-Palestinian protests or the fact that attacks on Arabs and Muslims have also increased sharply in recent months and years.

But as Israeli atrocities accumulate, the claim that anti-Zionism is antisemitic has been much more difficult to sustain. It has not been lost on college students around the world that Israel has destroyed every university in Gaza, while bombing aid workers, hospitals, and homes. A full-blown famine is currently raging in Gaza.

Students in the U.S., as elsewhere, have been protesting en masse against Israel’s horrific war on Palestinians since October, and university administrators have been cracking down on them all along the way. Columbia University was no exception.

Shafik’s administration had recently issued new “policies” to govern student protests—only allowing protests on campus on weekdays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and requiring students to register protests with the university at least two days in advance. It would be very easy for students to violate these strict regulations, giving administrators an excuse to crack down on them.

But Shafik also broke university policy when she called in the city police to attack demonstrators: She bypassed consulting with the faculty senate, which had been required since 1968—the last time that Columbia called in the NYPD to arrest large numbers of student antiwar protesters. In response, Columbia faculty members staged a walkout and joined the pro-Palestine demonstration on campus. And the encampment only grew in size after the police were called in.

Over the following two weeks, thousands of students from at least 140 colleges and universities joined in solidarity with the pro-Palestinian encampments, in the largest antiwar movement here since Vietnam. At the time of this writing, the protests remain ongoing at schools still in session.

Why the U.S. political elite is so threatened: Israel is central to U.S. Middle East strategy

Since its formation, Israel has been at the center of U.S. imperialism’s Middle East strategy—sometimes known as the U.S.’ “watchdog” in the region. But Israel is far from a U.S. puppet state—as illustrated by Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza despite the U.S.’ timid suggestions for (a tad) more moderation. Of course, none of the U.S.’ criticisms have been accompanied by even the slightest decrease in military aid to Israel; rather, U.S. weaponry has only increased along with Israel’s military aims. This is because Israel serves the long-term interests of U.S. imperialism and its own domination of the Middle East region.

Hostile to its regional neighbors and ready to attack them on a moment’s notice, Israel enjoys its military superiority thanks to the billions of U.S. tax dollars in military aid that the U.S. funnels to it annually. Israel is currently the only nuclear power in the Middle East—and preventing the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran is one of its (and the U.S.’) top priorities.

Unflinching support for Israel is shared by both the Republican and Democratic Parties, allowing Israel to kill with impunity, whether or not it officially declares war. The current genocidal war on Palestinians has been challenging, however, especially in the age of social media, when it is easy to access images of Israel’s slaughter. Netanyahu’s government contains fascist elements who have openly and actively encouraged organized West Bank settlers to physically attack Palestinians, sometimes killing them. These images are also available on social media.

And the sight of large numbers of Jews actively supporting the struggle for a free Palestine has been especially tricky for the U.S. ruling class because it changes the long-standing narrative that Israel is the beleaguered protector of persecuted Jews worldwide. It has become obvious that Israel is a murderous Jewish supremacist state.

“Lawless mobs” or peaceful protesters?

This is part of the reason why the political class so enthusiastically revved up its massive propaganda machine, alongside police and political repression, in a hysterical response to the peaceful protests that have swept U.S. campuses since October.

How peaceful were these protests? Very. News outlets captured Jewish and non-Jewish students at Columbia University celebrating at a Seder on the first night of Passover days into their encampment. Other reports of students singing and dancing together also demonstrate their commitment to multicultural solidarity.

Yet the U.S. ruling class, assisted by its media minions, quickly gained control of the official narrative, despite all evidence to the contrary—with a massive barrage of accusations against the campus protesters. When rational argument is futile, the U.S. ruling class is schooled in changing the subject, by accusing the protesters of criminality.

House speaker, Republican Mike Johnson, held a nationally televised press conference at Columbia days into the encampment, stating without evidence:

The cherished traditions of this university are being overtaken right now by radical and extreme ideologies. They place a target on the backs of Jewish students in the United States here on this campus. A growing number of students have chanted in support of terrorists. They have chased down Jewish students. They have mocked them and reviled them. They have shouted racial epithets. They have screamed at those who bear the Star of David.

As the New York Post reported, New York City Mayor Eric Adams seemed to have keenly observed that the tents at various student encampments “all seemed similar, if not identical”—perhaps suggesting that they were purchased in coordination with “outside agitators,” rather than being the cheapest available tents on Amazon.

Meanwhile, the corporate media assisted in making the time worn accusations that the protests were the product of radical “outside agitators” as the NYPD Commissioner of Operations Kaz Daughtry stated that the NYPD has identified “known professional agitators” at Monday night’s protests who wanted to ‘rouse up the mob mentality to agitate the officers to get the officers to react, to get one of them to assault one of the protesters, so they can get that image [that shows] ‘Look, I’m getting brutally assaulted by the police.’”

In a different article, the New York Post accused billionaire George Soros of funding the pro-Palestine campus movement: The SJP parent organization has been funded by a network of nonprofits ultimately funded by, among others, Soros, the billionaire left-wing investor.” The Post added, ” At three colleges, the protests are being encouraged by paid radicals who are “fellows” of a Soros-funded group called the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR).

Yet, as NBC News noted,

Despite accusations by some pro-Israel groups and former U.S. and Israeli government officials of potential ties between protest organizers and terrorist groups, public records show no clear evidence financially linking Hamas or any foreign governments to the American protests.

Undeterred, Biden declared that the very term “intifada”—an Arabic word to describe rising up against oppression, which has become integral to protests for Palestinian liberation—is “hate speech.” On May 1, the House of Representatives followed suit, passing the Antisemitism Awareness Act, ostensibly to reject the “drastic rise of anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world”—which defined antisemitism to include “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”. Ipso facto: Pro-Palestinian protests are deemed automatically antisemitic and therefore subject to suppression.

But, as Harvard professors Adam Haber and Matylda Figlerowicz argued in Jewish Currents on May 2, much of what has passed as evidence of antisemitism has been misrepresented by the media:

To give the impression of “hard facts,” traditional and social media sources have also used exaggeration and falsehood, often misconstruing or outright misstating the rhetoric that is deployed at pro-Palestine rallies. For example, in separate incidents at UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania in October, protesters were accused of calling for “Jewish genocide”; the chants in question were, actually, “We charge you with genocide,” directed at Israel. While media sources eventually concluded that the protests were peaceful and not antisemitic, the reports had already incited panic. This month, as campus protesters call on U.S. universities to divest from Israel, the same pattern is already visible. Last week, a Jewish Zionist student at Yale—editor of the campus’s right-wing newspaper—claimed that she was “stabbed” in the eye by a Yale encampment protester with a flagpole; video of the incident appeared to reveal that the protester had walked by waving a Palestinian flag and bumped her as she pressed up against a line of marching demonstrators. Soon after, there were reports that protesters at the Northeastern University encampment had called to “Kill the Jews,” but the phrase was quickly revealed to have been chanted by pro-Israel counter-protesters. In addition to maligning the protesters, these distortions risk emptying the word antisemitism of any meaning, and seriously hinder opportunities to analyze and discuss genuine threats to diasporic Jewish communities.

Whose “violence”?

The U.S. ruling class is very experienced at forcefully shutting down dissent, with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Smearing its opponents is a part of a well-worn playbook used to stifle dissent, which it rolls out whenever protests threaten to become mass movements.

It should be recalled that Nelson Mandela, the heroic fighter against South African apartheid—now revered in U.S. official history—remained on a U.S. terrorist watchlist until 2008, partly to combat the movement to oppose apartheid on U.S. campuses in the 1970s and 1980s.

To the extent that there has been violence at the encampments, it was overwhelmingly instigated by police in riot gear. As the encampments spread rapidly in late April, the news media was filled with video coverage in what was often described by news outlets as “violent protests,” showing helmeted police, often with riot shields and batons, and/or shooting rubber bullets, throwing flash-bang grenades, and using teargas as they moved in on protesters. Just a few of examples, with video links, among many of police crackdowns:

  • UCLA: On the night of April 30, a Zionist group of thugs numbering between 100 and 200 physically attacked the protesters, while police stood by and did nothing to stop it. Tuesday’s attack on the largely peaceful encampment began just before midnight. As the Hollywood Reporter described,

A group of counter-demonstrators in black getups and white masks marched in, some carrying flags indicating solidarity with Israel and reportedly yelling pro-Israel slogans, then swarmed the encampment and began an attempt to dismantle its makeshift barriers. Tear gas and objects including fireworks, water bottles, and a scooter were reportedly thrown at the pro-Palestine group, members of which attempted to defend themselves and the encampment.

None of the Zionist counter protesters was arrested. But Los Angeles law enforcement moved in overnight on May 2 to forcibly clear the encampment.

  • Emory University in Georgia: Noëlle McAfee, chair of the Philosophy Department, was dragged off and arrested when officers told her to leave while she was filming police “pummeling” a student protester and she refused. She also stated that although officials said the protesters were “outside agitators” everyone in the group of about 25 arrested with her were connected to the university.
  • University of Texas at Austin: Administrators twice called in state police in riot gear, including some on horseback, to arrest students on the misdemeanor charge of “criminal trespass.” The university told student organizers that rallies that support Palestinians in Gaza would “violate our policies and rules.” Video footage shows students standing and watching as the cops moved in on them, throwing many to the ground. The university claimed protesters brought guns and other weapons and were “assaulting” others on campus. But the county attorney told reporters that there was no evidence of weapons or assaults.
  • Columbia University: Student protesters began an occupation of Hamilton Hall on April 29, renaming it Hind Hall, after six-year-old Hind Rajab, who was killed alongside her family by Israeli forces in Gaza. As is now well-known, hundreds of police in riot gear swarmed Columbia’s campus at the behest of Shafik, who asked that police remain on campus until May 15—two days after the university 2024 commencement ceremony. Democracy Now! shared its video footage of the crackdown. The police siege of Columbia Palestine protesters occurred on April 30, 56 years to the day after 1,000 police in riot gear arrested 700 student anti-Vietnam War protesters occupying campus buildings, including Hamilton Hall.

The movement will continue and grow

There is no indication as yet that pro-Palestinian students will retreat in the aftermath of the repression they have faced—especially as Israeli genocide continues. Repression against dissent can sometimes shut it down, but it also can backfire, by radicalizing students as it did in the 1960s—by exposing the hypocrisy of U.S. rulers who claim to support free speech yet forcibly shut down those who challenge its imperial interests.

Such a radicalization is currently growing, at long last, on U.S. campuses. There is nothing like a war to expose the brutality of imperialism, and a massive anti-imperialist movement has returned to U.S. campuses, after decades of absence.

As Haber and Figlerowicz argued,

It is increasingly clear that resistance to Israeli oppression, in Palestine and abroad, is too strong to be silenced. We may be seeing, as the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has said, that ‘the Zionist project is entering . . . the beginning of the end.’

For the first time in a very long time, we have hope that the anti-imperialist project might succeed.

Sharon Smith is the author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Haymarket, 2006) and Women and Socialism: Class, Race, and Capital (revised and updated, Haymarket, 2015).

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