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Inside the Columbia University protests

NYPD stand guard on the Upper West Side.

April 22, 2024 - 8:50pm

Columbia, New York

Around 30 rough sleepers are queuing outside the Broadway Presbyterian Church in the Upper West Side, New York. They are waiting for food, chatting amiably with the priest, gently shuffling their possessions forward in the line.

It is a far cry from what is happening just a few blocks north. Off 120th Street, protests and counter-protests are taking place outside Columbia University, one of the country’s most prestigious and expensive universities. In the last few days, protesters have been camped out on Columbia’s South Lawn, demanding financial divestment from Israel, an academic boycott of Israel, and a call for ceasefire. Their latest demand is to defund Columbia’s public safety and “sever all ties” with the NYPD.

Ironically, it is the NYPD that is keeping a few lone pro-Palestine protesters safe. Outside the campus, which has been sealed off to the public, a smattering of pro-Palestine demonstrators are trailing a pro-Israel demonstration by the Mathematics Hall. One is carrying a sign reading “Cool Jews love Palestine” while the other says “The Torah preaches life not death and theft — anti-Zionist Jewish!” They are immediately accosted by Jewish protesters, who grow increasingly agitated with their presence. “You are an idiot — you should go to Gaza,” shouts one. “Why the fuck are you here?” asks another.

During the confrontation, a Palestine protester is taken away in handcuffs. As police guide him to the back of a police van, he directs his gaze skyward and chants “free, free Palestine” on repeat. Other pro-Palestine protesters are masked up and refuse to speak with me. But they declare to the crowd slowly forming around them that they are against the Israeli occupation of Gaza.

Describing themselves as Jewish anarchists and communists, they begin a third worldist lecture to the crowd about the evil of America’s colonial superstructure. Asked if they are “proud to be American,” one responds “hell no” before a new group starts hurling insults and homophobic slurs (one of the protestors is trans) at them. They are escorted away by police, where another protester stands with a sign that reads, “Israel kills 14,000 kids”.

“Their behaviour is typical of 3,000 years of Jewish supremacy — Jews killing non-Jews, gentiles,” the protester tells me. “It goes back to Jews poisoning the water wells of non-Jews: child sacrifice and killing little Christian kids.” The man does not seem interested in Israel so much as using it as an opportunity to attack Jews. He tells me that they “control fucking everything”, and blames them for 9/11. “Bin Laden said that because US policy gave Israel control of Palestinians, that was why he attacked the United States — not because he was jealous of our freedom of speech, our movies, our culture.”

He is cut short by the arrival of a few local celebrities: a New York radio host, Congressman Anthony D’Esposito, and Michael Rapaport, an actor and comedian. With the Israeli national anthem playing in the background, each one offers a full-throated defence of Israel and support for Columbia’s Jewish students. Despite their different political backgrounds (D’Esposito is a Republican and Rapaport is virulently anti-Trump), the crowd warmly applauds both men. Most of the people here are Team Trump, but politics is secondary to the cause. “I’m just here to support our Jewish brothers and sisters,” Ronnie says.

One attendee, Emma, is left in tears by the 9/11 theorist’s slurs against Jews. “I am begging you to remove this man,” she pleads to one police officer, who says he is unable to comply. Emma came here to “protect and support Columbia’s Jewish students”, but now she is slumped to the ground begging the NYPD for her own protection.

Two blocks down, a rival pro-Palestine protest breaks out. Students are leading “free, free Palestine” chants from behind the university’s gates, with another 30 supporters providing the chorus in civilian New York. “I’ve been an activist all my life, but now we’ve reached another level of repression and suppression,” Joan tells me. “I think it’s really important to support the students who are putting their lives on the line.” I ask Joan in what sense these $66,000-a-year Ivy League students are endangering their lives. “They could be expelled,” she says.

Eventually, some pro-Israel protesters catch wind of the counter-protest occurring. They are led by a menacing-looking former IDF soldier, who carries his former battalion’s flag in one hand with his Alsatian’s lead in the other. He cries, “Jews are not afraid!” to the pro-Palestine protests until he is whisked away by a police officer.

Besides a few fractious exchanges, both protests are largely peaceful. The students might have been safely ensconced by the university gates, but they were not the only ones demonstrating in support of the Palestinian cause. Many, like Joan, were old-school Leftists who believed that America (and Israel) were settler-colonial dictatorships which exported tyranny and violence around the world. They were joined by Arab-Americans, African Americans, and even one Hispanic protester, drawing a sharp contrast with the almost entirely Jewish and white pro-Israel crowd.

In a strange way, it was the purest distillation of New York: diverse, angry and (extremely) loud. That these protests erupted in one of America’s most affluent neighbourhoods and outside one of its most expensive schools was perhaps no surprise either. But for those who were here today, few seemed interested in a fruitful exchange of ideas. As one protester succinctly put it to me: “excuse me, but I just need to go and say fuck you to those people.”


is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.

james_billot

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T Bone
T Bone
29 days ago

The great thing about America is that we not only need to endure the whining of socially destabilizing crybullies…but we also need to pay off their student loans.

What percentage of social justice advocates plan on working a full time job in the near future? Why are we paying off their debts?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
29 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

Universities are the class war boot camps of the elite. Paying off student debts provides a spur to suburban parents, many of whom may be beginning to wonder whether they may not just be a waste of money, but actually harmful to their kids and the wider society, to go on supporting them.

Afraid we just have to go on forking out until the mass of people understand just how corrupt these institutions have become.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
29 days ago

The ingratitude is mind boggling. These kids are amongst the most privileged people in the history of the world. Gotta love Joan, the lifelong activist. WTF is this? Someone who can afford to spend her life stirring up shit?

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
29 days ago

Low IQ convocations. Why not just stay at home and eat a cupcake

R Wright
R Wright
29 days ago

There is nothing more pathetic than wasting your time protesting or counter-protesting events happening on the other side of the world.

RM Parker
RM Parker
29 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

+1. Well said.

RM Parker
RM Parker
29 days ago

“ I’ve been an activist all my life, but -“ yeah, you can stop there, Joan. I’ve seen the professionally dissatisfied my whole life, was one for a while in my teens, but got that kicked out of me when I met real people with real problems. Activism never helped those people, it only served the activists.
Can’t believe I’m seeing scenes like this, though. Even I, sceptic that I am, really thought “never again” when considering the possibility of large scale antisemitism. How wrong I was

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
29 days ago

“I’ve been an activist all my life, but now we’ve reached another level of repression and suppression,” Joan tells me. “I think it’s really important to support the students who are putting their lives on the line.” I ask Joan in what sense these $66,000-a-year Ivy League students are endangering their lives. “They could be expelled,” she says.
And then they’d have to go to a state school and their lives really would be over.

Leigh A
Leigh A
29 days ago

Yes, how terrible – they might be forced to interact with the plebs in order to make a living. Call the ICC, there’s a crime against humanity in progress!

Jake F.
Jake F.
28 days ago

Horror of horrors

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
29 days ago

Almost all activism these days is an exercise in narcissism.

LeeKC C
LeeKC C
28 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

here here!

Frances An
Frances An
29 days ago

I think I recently watched a short documentary on the Columbia U protests (or maybe just generally on US campuses) on YouTube. This is an interesting account from the ground. It is quite sad how polarising this debate has become on campuses (and shocking given how ignorant most people are about the issue).

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
29 days ago

There must be American state and federal legislation to arrest those perpetrating public disorder in order to promote terrorist groups? Mind you, we have that in the UK and our right-on police won’t apply them.

John Tyler
John Tyler
29 days ago

In most Western countries the Israeli/Palestian problem has long been a purely political argument, but one that draws out horrific racism against Jews. It is a battle between autocracy and liberal democracy; the reason for the anti-Semitism is largely because Islamists hate individual freedoms for religious reasons, while the hard left hate free democracy for political reasons. Once they have destroyed liberal democracy both groups will seek the elimination of each other, with the agreement becoming purely religious, that is religion versus secularism.
What a delightful prospect lies ahead!

Dr E C
Dr E C
25 days ago
Reply to  John Tyler

Exactly. Cf Iran.

Arthur King
Arthur King
28 days ago

I’m past lamenation. How do we crush these antihuman movements.

Matthew Freedman
Matthew Freedman
28 days ago

If the protestors were for a 2 state solution they’d be worthy. Judging from online social media posts they want to destroy Israel entirely and “make Jews go home”. Totally immoral and totally blood and soil.

Siddhartha Naithani
Siddhartha Naithani
23 days ago

I agree completely. Chants like “from the river to the sea” and “we want ‘48” aren’t about Gaza or ceasefires, they are assertions of Israel’s illegitimacy. The student-activists’ simps insist that these slogans aren’t antisemitic. Though that might be technically true, that among the likely consequences of fulfilling these demands is the forced migration or dhimmitude of nearly half the world’s Jews, it’s a distinction without a difference. And where would they go? That millions of Jews would be welcomed in Europe, North Africa, Mesopotamia, and the Americas when the leftist-Islamist alliance—fresh off its greatest victory—is at its most confident and influential, is fanciful.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
28 days ago

Spoilt brats having a temper tantrum come to mind.

William Brand
William Brand
28 days ago

Revelations 13:3 One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. The fatal wound was the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII. The resurrection of Antisemitism among elite students is the fulfillment of the rest of the prophesy. They again call for the genocide of the Jews. Soon the 7 years of the antichrist will begin. Look for the rapture of the church in the next few years. Mathew 24:34 Truly I tell you; this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. The generation refers to those alive at the time of the restoration of Israel. Israels independent year 1948. A 12-year-old Jew in 1948 is scheduled to die at 90 years old in 2026 which is 7 years before the 2000 anniversary of Christs assertion into heaven.

Dr E C
Dr E C
25 days ago

Is the ‘menacing-looking former IDF soldier, who carries his former battalion’s flag in one hand with his Alsatian’s lead in the other’ the very ordinary-looking guy in the picture? ‘Menacing’ to my mind is much more the balaclava-clad, terrorist banner-waving mob on the other side.
Likewise, the Jews in the picture don’t strike me as ‘white’ but, unsurprisingly, Jewish: a minority ethnicity.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
23 days ago

Thanks for this piece. A couple of clarifications: I am a native New Yorker, a Columbia graduate, and a Zionist. I have been to many of these rallies to support Israel and advocate for the hostages along with friends and relatives, none of whom are Trump supporters. Not at all sure where you got the idea that most of us were. Also, there is an explicit directive from the pro-Palestine side not to discuss the issues with anyone who supports Israel’s right to self-determination, lest they “normalize” that view—might that be the biggest barrier to “a fruitful exchange of ideas”?