Palestinian Students at Columbia Are Still Protesting. Is Anyone Listening?

June 4, 2024   |   Tags: , , , ,
A scale model of a Mark 84 bomb in front of the protest encampment at Columbia University. June 1, 2024. | Matthew Petti

Columbia University had its class reunion this weekend. And along with alumni like me trying to relive their college years, pro-Palestinian protesters came back to campus. While some students picketed outside, urging alumni not to donate to the university, another group inside the campus gates set up an "encampment-style installation" titled "Revolt for Rafah: Installation I."

Protesters unfurled a banner that stated "we're back, bitches." Later, they erected a scale model of a Mark 84 bomb, an American-made 2,000-pound weapon used by the Israeli military, next to a map of upper Manhattan showing the bomb's blast radius. A sign invited people to "ask us anything" but only a few alumni engaged with the protesters. Others snickered from a distance. After I left, one of them was filmed shouting rape threats against the protesters.

That was the strange, discordant vibe of the day. On one hand, there was the irreverent, almost festive air that comes with campus politics. (While students decorated model Israeli bombs, someone at the journalists' table joked that it was "summer camp.") On the other hand, Palestinian students tried to share serious grievances with the Israeli government and the U.S. role in the war, which has personally affected many of them.

"We're not just demonstrating for the sake of protesting," Palestinian refugee and Columbia graduate student Mahmoud Khalil said at an impromptu press conference outside the encampment. "We're doing that for the sake of Palestine."

Palestinian-American undergrad Maryam Alwan added that "we've all been particularly shaken by the horrific scenes that have come out, of a father holding his headless child, bodies being burned alive. For months, we thought there would finally be a red line where the world would wake up….We are going to draw a red line with this encampment."

Layla Saliba, a Palestinian-American grad student, chimed in. "I also want to say that this is something very personal for many students. Many Palestinian students at Columbia have lost family." In an April essay for the Columbia Daily Spectator, she wrote that the casualty numbers in Gaza don't "include the thousands of bodies trapped under the rubble, including the bodies of my family members, some of the last Palestinian Christians in Gaza."

The students' main demand is for the university to make sure that its endowment does not invest in companies "that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation." The list of proposed divestment targets runs the gamut from weapons manufacturers directly involved in the war—like General Dynamics, which makes the Mark 82 bomb—to companies with less obvious roles.

Amazon and Google, for example, provide cloud services for the Israeli government. The construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar sells bulldozers to the Israeli army. Barclays Bank, in which Columbia has a $2,600 stake though exchange-traded funds, invests in weapons companies. Columbia's investments are a drop in a very small bucket, often with very indirect connections to the war.

During the last wave of campus protests, Columbia University history professor Adam Tooze wrote that "the whole dispute has the feel of shadow boxing. A small group of students camped on one lawn, in a very large university complex, calling for relatively minor financial rearrangements in a baggy and poorly managed endowment, are turned by the repressive action of the University administration under pressure from politicians and donors, into a global news story."

When I asked about the connections between divestment targets and the war, Khalil said that the listed divestment targets were just "examples," since most of the university's investments are not in public markets and therefore not subject to public disclosure. Full disclosure of Columbia's investments, so that the protesters would know what to target, was another demand.

"We feel that this information should be accessible to everybody," Saliba said. "Columbia has made bad faith efforts in negotiations at transparency. They've said that, 'oh, we'll provide this information to one person if you sign a [nondisclosure agreement].'"

Asked about this claim, university spokeswoman Samantha Slater refused to comment.

Although the protesters can make the case that Columbia is connected to the violence abroad and many of them have a personal stake in the issue, it's also hard to deny that the nature of campus politics has worked to drown out their message. At the height of the student unrest, American media treated Columbia students' reactions to the war—and the reactions to the reaction—as a bigger story than the war itself.

The domestic debate in America shifted from U.S. military support for Israel, which most Americans are unhappy with, to the rules around campus protests, which a plurality of Americans want to crack down on

"The media can say whatever they want, but ultimately, what we are doing is about Palestine and about what is going on in Rafah, and we've made that as clear as possible," Khalil told me.

After the press conference, organizers pointed me to a spokeswoman named Layal, who declined to give her last name, for follow-up questions. She said she felt like a "fifth-class citizen" as a Palestinian growing up in Nazareth and expects to face trouble from Israeli security services when she returns home.

Layal was confident that young people around the world "are hearing us and in agreement," despite the fact that "any action we take is going to be villainized." When I asked whether certain actions—like sympathizers outside the gates shouting antisemitic chants—might make that villainization easier, Layal answered that "we know our values and we would just hope that anyone who's here would adhere to it."

As we were speaking, protesters raised a banner that called for an intifada, the generic Arabic term for a rebellion. In a Palestinian context, the word often refers to a wave of unrest that began in the late 1980s and another much more bloody uprising in the early 2000s.

A lot of ink has been spilled, including by members of Congress and the White House, over whether intifada is a form of violent incitement. I asked Layal if she thought protesters had any responsibility to make it clear that they weren't calling for violence with the phrase.

"We know that it's an Arabic word meaning 'revolution,' and that's really it," she responded. "Whatever you project onto it is going to be a symptom of who you're listening to."

Unlike the student occupation of "Hind's Hall" in late April, which was cleared out by heavily-armed police, the new encampment melted away quietly. When reunion weekend ended, protesters agreed to leave. According to the Daily Spectator, an unnamed organizer made a speech reminding participants to clean up their trash—and promising that the demonstrations will continue.

"Everybody in Palestine has always said change can only come from within America," the organizer said. "And the revolution is only in the hands of the youth. We are the youth and we are the change makers."

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