Campus intifada: Students across US rise up for Palestine


The student protest movement across the United States has shaken the conversation around support for Israel and raised questions about the limits of freedom of speech in the country. 

Politicians from both major parties have tried to demonize the protesters and smear them as anti-Semites. 

But the gap between the near bipartisan consensus against the campus demonstrators and the widespread support for their actions shows politicians’ disconnect from their constituents when it comes to Israel.

The demonstrations started at Columbia University in New York, where students set up an encampment to demand an end to the college’s investments in Israel-linked firms. 

The university responded by unleashing the might of the New York Police Department on its own defenseless students. Officers detained dozens of students during the first crackdown last month.

But the ironfist approach to the demonstration seemed to only fuel further protests. Soon enough, similar encampments were set up across the country, posing a challenge to the mainstream US support for Israel and universities’ ties with the country. 

Instead of listening to their students and discussing their demands, many colleges from New York to Georgia to Texas to California tried to forcibly end their protests. 

Columbia made headlines again this week when it sent police officers to clear student protesters who had taken over a campus building. 

While the police directly engaged protesters at Columbia and arrested dozens of them, law enforcement officers watched on at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) when a mob of Israel supporters assaulted demonstrators. 


Free speech

The violence against students – who are calling an end to their government’s and schools’ complicity in the suspected Israeli genocide that has killed more than 34,500 Palestinians in Gaza – has spurred international criticism. 

“Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly are fundamental to society – particularly when there is sharp disagreement on major issues, as there are in relation to the conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel,” UN rights chief Volker Turk said earlier this week. 

But in the United States, which promotes itself as the ultimate democracy, both Republicans and Democrats have called for an even more forceful approach to demonstrators. 

In Washington, many Democrats were quick to decry the protesters and paint them as antisemites.

“We cannot stand idly by as protesters call for the deaths of Jews on college campuses across the country,” Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer wrote in a social media post. 

However, student organizers have strongly rejected accusations of antisemitism, noting that many activists in their ranks are Jewish. 

For their parts, Republicans have seized on the moment and tried to portray the protesters as terrorist sympathizers and called for stringent measures against them.

For years, the Republican Party has slammed college culture as overly liberal and “woke”, often ridiculing left-wing students as authoritarian and unwilling to tolerate different opinions.

“Snowflake” has become a derogatory term that conservatives use to describe liberals who seek “safe spaces” from ideas they deem offensive.

But in the context of the campus protests, the Republicans themselves have been presenting pro-Palestinian speech as a threat to the safety of Jewish students. 

In Congress, Republican leaders have also slammed President Joe Biden and local Democrats, calling for a more firm approach against the protesters.

“University leadership across our nation are coddling terrorist sympathizers while failing to maintain the basic safety and security of Jewish students on their campuses,” Congressman Chuck Edwards said in a social media post.

“Congress must take action to protect Jewish students and hold these university leaders and pro-Hamas protestors accountable.”


White House criticism

While many Republicans took aim at Biden, accusing him of enabling the protests, the White House itself has echoed conservative talking points, linking the protesters to antisemitism.

White House spokesperson Andrew Bates has repeatedly criticized the Columbia demonstrators.

“While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous — they have absolutely no place on any college campus, or anywhere in the United States,” he said in a statement after the demonstrations broke out.

Bates returned to the topic days later, again citing alleged antisemitism. 

“President Biden has stood against repugnant, antisemitic smears and violent rhetoric his entire life. He condemns the use of the term ‘intifada,’ as he has the other tragic and dangerous hate speech displayed in recent days,” he said this week. 

Of course, “intifada” merely means revolution. But right wing commentators have seized on the chant, and the White House has joined them. 

Hours after the NYPD forcibly broke up the protest at Columbia, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean Pierre once again denounced the protests on Wednesday. 

“They should not be able to disturb or disrupt the academic experience that students have,” Jean-Pierre told reporters.

“It is important that students and communities feel safe here. And at the same time, we are going to be really forceful here and continue to underscore how anti-Semitism is hateful speech.”

While regularly condemning protesters, the White House has not denounced the anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and Islamophobic rhetoric being used by counter-protesters.


A distraction?

The intense coverage of the protests and backlash against them has raised concerns that the campus political drama in the US could take the eyeballs off the carnage in Gaza, where Israel has destroyed much of the enclave and brought its population to the verge of famine.

But student protesters often stress that their activism is about Gaza, not themselves. 

Still, the campus protests – rather than the mass graves being discovered in Gaza – have dominated Western headlines in recent days. 

It became apparent this week that many local leaders are trying to dramatize the protests to justify the use of force against them. 

Local officials, including New York Mayor Eric Adams, have claimed that outside agitators are involved in the encampments.

But to activists and journalists who covered Arab Spring uprisings, that charge is all too familiar. It has been often used by dictators to smear anti-democracy protesters 

For now, it appears that the crackdown is continuing. But this war has raised some essential questions about the US approach conflict. 

“”I suggest to CNN and maybe some of my colleagues here, maybe take your cameras, just for a moment, off of Columbia and UCLA . Maybe go to Gaza, and take your camera show us the emaciated children who are dying from malnutrition because of Netanyahu’s policies,” progressive Senator Bernie Sanders said on Wednesday.