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Columbia’s campus uprising

Pro-Palestine protests are sweeping America’s elite universities.

By Sohrab Ahmari

The director Alex Garland couldn’t have asked for better real-world headlines to accompany the release of Civil War, his new dystopian picture of a United States plunged into civil conflict by the inability of Americans to overcome partisan differences. In recent days, that spirit of irreconcilable enmity has seemingly swept America’s elite campuses, with pro-Palestinian students camping out on the quad in defiance of local authorities—and lawmakers in Washington who long ago cashiered law-making for the important work of skewering university administrators in front of cable-news cameras.

The student protest might appear ferocious, and it is, at times, downright ugly. Yet it’s unlikely to approach anything like a 1968 moment, let alone portend the breakdown of civic order.

Columbia University is the movement’s epicentre. I visited the campus on 22 April anticipating turmoil and violence. My expectations were bolstered by the security presence guarding the venerable Ivy League university on New York’s Upper West Side. With an NYPD helicopter hovering overhead and officers ringing the campus and blocking the entrances, you’d think an active-shooter terror threat was unfolding inside.

“I’m sorry, the campus is on lockdown,” said the nice African-American officer I approached at one of the checkpoints. She told me I’d have to coordinate my visit with the university’s PR department. The college flaks, in turn, told me I’d have to wait until the afternoon, when reporters would be granted a two-hour window to visit the protest site; I snuck in with the help of a student.

Entering the campus at Broadway and 117th Street, the first thing I encountered was a group of girls taking duck-lipped group selfies while trying on their light-blue graduation gowns, utterly oblivious to the controversies that have attracted national attention to their alma mater; commencement is coming up soon. My student fixer guided me to the Butler Library’s neoclassical edifice, in front of which the protesting students have pitched a tent city festooned with Palestinian and Pride flags and banners urging, “ADMITTED STUDENTS ENROLL IN THE REVOLUTION” and other slogans of the kind. Keffiyehs abounded, sometimes jarringly matched with midriff tops; young women seemed to dramatically outnumber the men.

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Like the NYPD, the protesters had their own “checkpoint.” As an outsider, I was immediately directed to study a whiteboard spelling out the camp’s “community guidelines”: “We recognize our role as visitors and, for many of us, colonizers. We camp on colonized Lenapehoking land…” “Respect personal boundaries — tight quarters are not an excuse to cross physical boundaries without affirmative consent.” And so on.

Most of the militants were chilling out in front of their tents, and it took not a little effort for one of the leaders to gather them in the centre of the encampment for a sort of reveille. “If you hear me, clap once. If you hear me, clap twice.” Her announcements gave the impression of a typical lefty jamboree: “Please bring toothpaste, we don’t have much, and we want clean teeth.” “There’s going to be a zine workshop.” “There’s going to be Palestinian music.” “We will also be having a drum circle in the art corner back there.” On a more serious note: “Please nobody engage with counter-protesters. Nobody should be speaking with [university] public safety or NYPD except our police liaisons. Nobody should be giving Zionists the time of day.”

The “press corner” not being set up yet, I was granted an ad-hoc interview by Grant Miner, a medieval-studies graduate student with a scruffy beard caked with what looked like dried soap or sunscreen lotion. Miner spelled out the group’s asks: amnesty for students who had been suspended by the administration over earlier campus protests (he being one of them); divestment from Israeli bonds and equity; financial transparency around how the university invests its $14 billion endowment.

Miner categorically denied allegations of anti-Semitic harassment associated with the camp, including footage circulating on Twitter of the campers forming a human chain to block the way to a group of Jewish students, whom the protesters repeatedly called “Zionists” in a creepy sort of call-and-response chant. “I’m not sure what people would be referring to,” Miner said. “I myself am Jewish. The narrative is that … we’re a violent mob, and there’s been no violence here. The only anti-Jewish sentiments I’ve received are from hard-core Zionist Jews calling me a fake Jew. In fact, I got a fun email to my work email calling me, just a subject line, ‘Judenrat.’” He added: “‘Sent from my iPad,’ must be a senior citizen.”

A group of Jewish students I interviewed elsewhere on campus had a different account. Said one: “I’m a student, I’m a senior, I’m a Jew. I’m also not a very religious Jew. I put this [kippa] on in solidarity with my friends who are religious, because I appreciate that I can take it off when they can’t.” He said he was walking around with a group of similarly kippa-wearing friends when one of the campers “started following us, yelling, ‘We’ll f***ing kill you, f***ing kill yourselves.’ ” Outside the university’s gates, he said he heard such slogans as “We say justice, you say how? Burn Tel Aviv to the ground!”

The protesters sully the Palestinian cause with such rhetoric. But a radical threat, a harbinger of civil conflict, or a revolutionary movement, the campus intifada is not. On the contrary, it’s by venting built-up pressures of this kind that democratic states like the US stabilise the social order. And anyway, the bright kids involved are too wedded to the logics of the corporate, safety-ist society against which they rebel to pose any serious challenge to it. It’s hard to imagine streetfighters such as Tom Hayden or Daniel Cohn-Bendit in their heyday tsk-tsking: “We want to ensure people feel comfortable in this space.”

These kids will do just fine in the HR department.

[See also: The bloodbath affair]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger