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If the War in Gaza Continues, Student Protest Will Resume

Nara Milanich, professor at Columbia University: “Antisemitism is a Trojan horse; there is an intention to intervene in universities.”

Carlos F. Chamorro

7 de mayo 2024


 On April 17, 2024, a few hours after the president of Columbia University, Minouche Shafik, testified in a hearing of the United States Congress about alleged “antisemitic” activities on the university campus, the first student “encampment” against the war in Israel in Gaza erupted, which has caused more than 30,000 deaths, mostly civilians, including thousands of women and children, following the Hamas terrorist attack against Israel that resulted in 1,400 deaths and the capture of 230 civilians as hostages.

The day after, the students were evicted by the New York Police at the request of Columbia authorities, and the pro-Palestinian student protest spread to more than 40 universities, including Texas, Michigan, UCLA in California, Yale, Brown, Northwestern, Emory, Vermont, in 25 states across the United States, where more than 2,000 students have been arrested by the police.

Nara Milanich, a history professor at Columbia University, supports the right to student protest and attributes the claim of some congress members about the alleged “antisemitic threat” in universities to a political pretext. “It’s a Trojan horse from right-wing sectors, who are more interested in being able to intervene in universities and trying to control what is taught, what is said, and what is researched,” she states in an interview on the program Esta Semana.

The academic, a member of the Jewish community, believes that the student protest against President Joe Biden’s support for Israel’s policy could impact the November elections between the Democratic president and Donald Trump, and warns that “if the war continues in Gaza, if nothing changes, the student protest will continue after September,” when the academic year resumes at universities.

What was the main cause of the student protest erupting at Columbia University more than two weeks ago? Who called for it, and how do you explain the fact that this protest has now been reproduced at more than 40 universities in the United States?

This famous camp that started the whole story of the last two weeks began the same day that the president of Columbia appeared before a hearing of congress members in Washington to talk about the alleged crisis of antisemitism at the university.

In reality, that hearing was a public relations disaster in which she gave in on all the university’s values. That same morning of the hearing, a camp appeared, a series of tents in the middle of the university. These green tents seemed like mushrooms. This camp was organized by a group of students, unknown in number. It lasted just about 30 hours. And the next day, at one in the afternoon, the police appeared and arrested about 100 students.

Shortly after, another group of students took another space, right next to the first camp. A second camp was reestablished, and it lasted until Tuesday (April 30), when we saw this incredible display of police power. Hundreds of NYPD police officers arrived to dismantle the camp and to evict dozens of students who had taken over a university building.

Why is the United States Congress intervening in university environments? Some of them, like Columbia, are private universities, and they question the presidents and accuse them of allowing antisemitic expressions in their universities that threaten freedom of speech. Some have resigned, such as the presidents of Harvard and Pennsylvania universities. How does congressional intervention impact universities?

There has been a whole narrative since last fall, since the October 7 attack (by Hamas in Israel), about antisemitism on campus. And I want to describe a little what I saw as a Jewish professor at the university and in the camp. The camp was peaceful. A group of students organizing workshops on antisemitism, holding dinners, for example, for Jewish Passover. In other words, they were chatting, singing, and some students were attending classes via Zoom from the camp.

The idea that they were violent, antisemitic students seems entirely invented. Does antisemitism exist on Columbia’s campus? Of course. And it is known that prejudice against Jews, but also against many other groups, Islamophobia, are on the rise. But calling the New York City police does not help suppress antisemitism. We are not safer as Jewish professors or students or members of other groups when the police occupy our campus.

What seems to be happening is that certain elements of the right in the United States —and this explains a little why there was a hearing in Congress—actually have a different political agenda. I don’t think they are very interested in the welfare of Jews or the politics of the Middle East. I think they are more interested in being able to intervene in the university and try to control what is taught, what is said, and what is researched.

For example, in the state of Florida. I am a native of Florida, and in the universities there, there has been an open attack by Governor DeSantis on, for example, how the history of slavery is taught, how climate change is researched, and how voting rights are investigated. In other words, this has nothing to do with the Middle East or antisemitism.

Nara Milanich, professor of Latin American History at Columbia University. Photo: Screenshot

But the student protest has concrete flags. That is, it questions President Biden’s policy of supporting Israel.

Of course, it rejects the war of Israel in Gaza and Palestine. The students have a very clear political agenda against genocide, against the bombing of Gaza. They do have a very clear political stance, but we are talking about the response from congress members. Why do they care so much about what is said and what happens on US campuses? It seems to me that antisemitism has become a kind of Trojan horse to enter the university and influence the policies, the conversations and what is taught.

How does the Jewish community at Columbia University and other universities react? The students, professors, and other sectors that are donors to the university —do they feel threatened by this movement?

It depends on how we define antisemitism. There is a large Jewish population, both students and professors, at Columbia University. But that doesn’t mean we are all united, sharing the same political opinions, the same identities, or the same experiences. It’s a very heterogeneous group with many different political opinions and relationships with Israel.

Antizionism has been confused with antisemitism. If one perceives pro-Palestinian discourse as antisemitic, then the camps are antisemitic. But in reality, this is a political stance, and we are confusing political discourse with prejudice against an ethnic or religious group. And they are two different things. It is important to distinguish between criticism of Israel and causing harm or discriminating against Jews.

Many of the students in the camp were Jewish; more than a quarter of the students arrested by the police, at least in the first group two weeks ago, were Jewish students. They are students from groups advocating for peace and justice in Palestine.

Columbia University has been intervened twice by the police. What impact does this police intervention and others that have taken place at the University of California, at UCLA, and the possible expulsion of students have?

I have been a professor for 20 years and have never seen anything like these days, the display of police power, the overwhelming show of force.

Surely your audience understands authoritarian contexts. For us here, it has been a huge shock to see hundreds of police officers with helmets and firearms arriving at the university.

This movement has spread to more than 40 universities in the United States, even some in France and Great Britain. What impact can it have on government interference in universities and the freedom of public debate?

There is a lot of concern about the impact on political reality, beyond the university. We are in an election year. There is a lot of concern about whether this will be another 1968; will it divide the Democrats? Will it help Trump win the White House again, and will the students be blamed?

In reality, I believe the blame should fall on the administrators for handling the situation so poorly. If the president of Columbia had left that entirely peaceful camp alone two weeks ago and entered into negotiations with the students, I believe we would be living in a different world. The moment she called the police, everything changed.

The New York Police Department enters Columbia University to arrest people participating in pro-Palestinian protests on April 30, 2024. Photo: EFE/Stephani Spindel

How does the international reverberation of this movement and the different readings of it look? For example, in Nicaragua, dictator Daniel Ortega, who massacred university students who protested in 2018, expressed solidarity with the university students protesting in the United States.

I think the students would not agree with Mr. Ortega’s support. They are organizing against the authoritarianism of the US government, which is trying, through these far-right congress members, to intervene in the university. They are against violence and in favor of peace. So, I don’t think the students would be very happy to hear Mr. Ortega’s stance.

What projections does this movement have once the university semester ends? You mentioned that it will influence the US election campaign. Will it have a lasting presence like other movements, such as Black Lives Matter in the United States?

That’s a very good question. I’m a historian, so I can talk about the past, but maybe not so well about the future. From what I’ve seen of my students who participate, I don’t think these protests will disappear. It’s true that we’re in May, the school year is ending, we’re already entering summer, and all the students will go home. Things will likely calm down in the coming months, but September will come, and the new academic year will start. I think if the war continues in Gaza, if nothing changes, if we are still in the same situation, the students will reorganize.

If the administration has not been able to inspire confidence in the students, nor the professors, it is very possible that the president of Columbia will not last until September. There is a lot of anger with her and her policies; we’ll see if there will be a different university leadership and if they can handle it better.

Some universities have managed to negotiate with students, convinced them to dismantle their camps. For example, Brown University and others have managed to end these protests peacefully.

Calling the police simply causes more problems. We’ll see if the rectors can learn from their mistakes and follow different policies starting in September. From the students’ point of view, I think they will be there with their tents, flags, beliefs, and values again in September.

You are a Jewish professor who supports this student movement. Are you an exception? What is the general reaction of academics, professors at various universities?

Professors are quite divided. Some support the students’ demands, and some are against them. Some are theoretically in favor but don’t like the strategies. Some were in favor of the camps but not the building takeover. We have many opinions on the subject. I am a professor of Latin American History. What I support is freedom of speech, academic freedom, and the right to protest at universities. That’s what I support.

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.


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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.