Exploring Pro-Palestinian Protests, Antisemitism, and the Right to Free Speech on College Campuses

It’s important to understand who is showing up at protests vs. who is leading them. Universities have to fulfill their educational obligations. Don’t call the cops on nonviolent protesters.

New York Police Department officers detain dozens of pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University after they barricaded themselves at the Hamilton Hall building near Gaza Solidarity Encampment earlier in New York City on April 30, 2024. (Selcuk Acar / Anadolu via Getty Images)

This story originally appeared on Jill.substack.com, a newsletter from journalist, lawyer and author Jill Filipovic.

This month, American campuses have exploded with pro-Palestinian protests, as students have marched, pitched tents, and camped out on their campuses. Student protesters at Columbia took over a campus building, prompting the arrest of nearly 100 students. Across the country, administrators have called the local and state police on student and faculty protesters, leading to hundreds of arrests, and in turn fueling more protests. Conservative politicians have encouraged even greater escalation, including calling in the National Guard.

I’ve found a lot of the conversation around these protests to be frustrating and flattening—either “these students are the unimpeachable moral center of the country and criticizing anything they do means you’re pro-genocide” or “call in the cavalry on these entitled little antisemitic criminals.” I think one major division comes in who one believes the protesters are: college kids who are horrified by a truly horrifying war and want it to end, or anti-Israel activists whose ultimate goal isn’t a resolution to this conflict but an end to Israel, and aren’t actually anti-war at all but who are just upset that Hamas isn’t winning. And that division shows up, I think, between the masses of people who show up to these protests, and the minority of more radical ones who make up some of the groups organizing them. These viewpoints shouldn’t have any bearing on how schools deal with these protests. But they should shape how we understand them and talk about them.

There are other important questions: What level of disruption should schools tolerate? What should schools do if protests cross that disruptive high-water mark? What about when protest crosses over into antisemitism, and how should we define that as opposed to criticism of Israel or anti-Zionism? And are these just kids, whose actions we really shouldn’t care so much about?

A few thoughts:

1. The protests are a big story in America, but they are not the biggest story of this war.

The protests are a big story, and they are worth covering. But none of this matters nearly as much as the actual war, which is still raging in Gaza. Some 34,000 Palestinians have been killed. As you have no doubt heard before, most of them are women and children. Even if you don’t accept these numbers — and I do, as do most NGOs and reputable media outlets in the U.S.—and even if you believe, as I do, that Hamas intentionally puts civilians at risk because that furthers their cause, I don’t think anyone denies that the civilian casualties have been staggering.

It is clear, to me, that the Israeli response to a horrific terrorist attack has been vastly disproportionate, and frankly sloppy—that it is fueled by a combination of rage and humiliation, that sufficient care is simply not being given to civilian populations, that many Israeli soldiers are acting with (to put it mildly) profound unprofessionalism with the seeming consent of their higher-ups, and that some are committing serious crimes. There is not enough food, there are not hospitals, humanitarian aid is being blocked—it is a horror show and a moral catastrophe. Allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity must be thoroughly investigated by impartial bodies, and prosecuted if they were committed.

In U.S. publications, reporting on the protests currently does seem to outweigh coverage of the war itself. I’m hoping that this doesn’t persist. Coverage of the protests is important, and it makes sense that U.S. papers are going to cover U.S.-based protests that truly are destabilizing colleges across the country; the idea that this coverage is somehow overblown or silly given the broader context doesn’t quite fit with the reality that most news outlets consider proximity as much as weight—and that the war in Gaza itself has been afforded much, much more coverage that most other devastating conflicts. But even given all of this, coverage of the protests is obviously not as important as coverage of the war itself.

There is not enough food, there are not hospitals, humanitarian aid is being blocked—it is a horror show and a moral catastrophe.

As journalists have turned our eyes to college campuses, a lot of people who like to comment on journalism have responded by asking why adults are so obsessed with whatever college kids are doing. And I agree that the war itself is the biggest problem and the bigger story, and since October, the war itself has been given much much much more airtime than anything college kids are doing. But I also don’t think we can have it both ways, arguing both that Joe Biden must listen young people’s views on Israel-Palestine or he’ll lose the election, and that young people are the future, and that college protesters are beacons of moral courage and we should listen to an emulate them, and also we shouldn’t really care about what they’re doing or cover it, at least if that coverage is critical.

If these protests matter socially and politically—and I think they do—then they merit coverage, including coverage that does not necessarily serve the aims of the protesters.

Also: These protests have mattered a great deal. They are making a difference. Whether that difference is entirely good is a different question, but I think there is no question that they are having an impact—including on Joe Biden and Democrats, and how the party and its leaders are thinking about and acting with regard to Israel.

2. Don’t call the cops on nonviolent protesters. Do look at who has demanded it.

Calling the cops on the nonviolent student protesters creating encampments was unduly aggressive, unnecessary and draconian. Administrators who did so, and those cheering them on, should be ashamed.

It seems unlikely that this would have reached such a fever pitch had Columbia administrators specifically not called the NYPD on students. Yes, the students were breaking the rules with their encampment, and had broken protest rules many times before. But also, Columbia does not call the cops every time students break the rules (or even every time they break a law like trespassing), and colleges are particular kinds of places where young people should be afforded significant leeway (more on that below). Calling the NYPD was a huge escalation, and it had the predictable effect of escalating an already-tense situation.

Columbia administrators probably wouldn’t have called the NYPD on students had congressional Republicans not exploited the student protests, the real antisemitism that has been a problem on college campuses, and the bad-faith politicized claims of antisemitism that have also sprung up, for their own political gains. Republican members of Congress don’t care about how students feel on campuses, or if they are upset by offensive comments; these same people have spent years mocking college kids as snowflakes and trying to undermine university anti-discrimination efforts. Hauling college presidents before Congress was never about actually fighting antisemitism, which again is a real problem. It was a power play from a group of people who are hostile to higher education, who are looking for excuses to cut funding to universities, and who have career interests in being perceived as sticking to egghead elites. This mess isn’t entirely the fault of Republicans, but they shoulder much of the blame, and you can be sure they are reaping nearly all of the benefits.

Watching police officers tackle, teargas, and haul away faculty members, students, journalists, and others has been horrible to watch. It has been overwhelmingly unnecessary.

Now, things seem like they’re just getting uglier, and like violence may escalate even further. We did not have to be here.

It seems unlikely that this would have reached such a fever pitch had Columbia administrators specifically not called the NYPD on students.

The right to protest, of course, is not and should not be unlimited. Colleges should give students a lot of leeway because colleges are particular kinds of spaces (more on that below). But colleges also have an obligation to make sure that all students can learn—not that they are never offended, not that they feel emotionally safe, but that they can access an education, and that they can access common campus spaces. To the extent that protesters are infringing on that—and it is pretty clear that, on several campuses, protesters have infringed on that—colleges must act. But again, calling the cops does not have to be the first, second or third reaction.

Colleges that cancel graduation, cancel classes, or move classes on online or hybrid systems are behaving cowardly, and are not affording their students the educations those students deserve (and are legally entitled to). It seems to me that at least some colleges (hello USC) are using spurious claims of “safety” to neglect their obligations.

3. The protester/organizer difference

It is heartening and a sign of goodness that young people see daily horrors on the news and decide: I have to do something. And in the absence of much else they can do, they take to the streets.

I have not been at the protests because I don’t live in the U.S., but my sense is that the overwhelming majority of protesters, on campus and off of them, are good people who are appalled at what is happening (and where some of their tax dollars are going), not hardcore anti-Zionists or people who even are all that well-versed in the conflict or the region’s history. That’s a good thing: You don’t need to be an expert on the legal and social history of women’s rights to show up at an abortion rights protest. You don’t need to be an expert on Zionism, proportional warfare, the history of the Middle East, or U.S.-Israeli relations to show up at a protest to voice your opposition to one of the bloodiest wars currently raging.

But that does mean, I suspect, that there are significant ideological differences between the people who are organizing these protests and masses showing at them. And it’s the organizers who are publishing their positions on social media, making statements to the press, etc.

I am sure that the opinions of protesters vary pretty substantially: that all of them want the war to end and that most of them do want their colleges to divest from companies that do business with Israel’s military (legitimate aims and the latter certainly a legitimate ask from college students, even if you disagree with divestment), but are not nearly as united when it comes to, say, boycotting all Israeli academic and cultural institutions or wanting an end to the state of Israel itself, if they’ve given the particulars of those questions much thought at all.

The organizers, by contrast, seem fairly united in supporting not just campus divestment or the broader the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement but PACBI, the campaign for a total academic and cultural boycott of Israel. They seem pretty united in anti-Zionism, and in a definition of Zionism that includes even those who want to see a liberated and independent Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one. Despite the prominence of these positions within the protests movements, they’re pretty fringe in broader American politics, and I suspect are not, in fact, representative of many (most?) of the protesters who have gathered over the past several months. (They may be more representative of the particularly enthusiastic ones who camp out rather than simply pass through for a period, take over university buildings, and so on.)

Some of the most prominent organizers of the pro-Palestinian movements, both individuals and organizations, also have a violence-fetishization problem. I know college leftists (and some older leftists) love to cosplay radicals, but the whitewashing of, or overt embrace of, violence in the supposed service of progressive and liberationist causes has been stunning and disturbing.

Students for Justice in Palestine, for example, characterized Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attack as “a historic win for Palestinian resistance” and proclaimed “glory to our resistance, glory to our martyrs” (this was on Oct. 8, and not a response to the current war in Gaza, which had not yet begun). They claimed that Israelis essentially cannot be considered civilians as they are all “settlers,” and that “Responsibility for every single death falls solely on the zionist entity.” Under the heading “Unity Intifada,” they state that “This is the first time since 1949 that a large-scale battle has been fought within ‘48 Palestine”—just in case you’re unclear on what these particular groups mean when they use the term “intifada” (a contested term that does have multiple meanings) in chants and on signs. The National Day of Resistance that they organized was advertised using images featuring paragliders, which is how many Hamas terrorists entered Israel for the Oct. 7 attack that left 1200 dead.

Violence fetishization is not new, of course—this same ideology fueled all kinds of bad politics and deadly acts in the leftist movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Most of those people, though, learned their lesson, grew up, and outgrew the revolutionary violence bit (a few continued to champion repressive and murderous regimes; a few others who brought the violence home went to jail; and some have found cushy homes in academia). It does seem like we’re in a moment of late-’60s deja-vu here, with a similar dynamic at play: Most of the people showing up to these protests are legitimately anti-war, and that’s why they are there. But some of the ones organizing them are not anti-war, and certainly not anti-violence, by any reasonable definition. They have different, if overlapping, aims.

Historical memory here can be misleading. The last major, successful, and truly roiling anti-war movement in the U.S. was against the war in Vietnam, and it is seen in hindsight as a success. It was, and the protesters today are adopting many of the same strategies. But the excesses of that movement have largely been memory-holed. I have to wonder if ’70s radicals had avoided violence and maximalism (some siding with the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge, for example, or saying awful things about U.S. service members), whether they would have seen far better long-term impacts, and whether the right would have been nearly as ascendant and powerful in the next decade.

Most of the people showing up to these protests are legitimately anti-war, and that’s why they are there. But some of the ones organizing them are not anti-war, and certainly not anti-violence, by any reasonable definition.

As you can probably tell, I am not a particularly big fan of some of the organizations leading these protests; I think a lot of what they say is not only nutty, but counterproductive and, if they had their way, would extend war, suffering, bloodshed and death, not end it—and I think they know that, but don’t actually mind war, suffering, bloodshed and death, as long as the right kind of people are the ones on the receiving end. I think it is worth looking critically at what these organizers and leaders are actually say and what their aims are, while also not assuming that the masses at the protests actually agree or even know what, say, leaders of their college Students for Justice in Palestine chapter are saying at meetings or posting on Instagram. (This was a dynamic, albeit on a much smaller scale, at some of the anti-Iraq-war protests I attended as a college student—most of us were protesting the war, while some of the organizing groups had much broader agendas, and some of the leading organizers were full-on nutters. It did not, in my opinion, undermine the broader point, which was opposition to the war.)

I think this is important not because I want to bash a bunch of college students, but because I think there is a much quieter majority of college protesters whose moral compasses are very well-calibrated and who are very righteous in their desire to see this war end—and I think they’re being done a massive disservice by some of the groups and individuals in charge.

4. Antisemitism is a real problem. Most protesters are good people with legitimate aims even if some of them are absolute knuckleheads.

Antisemitism is a problem in the global pro-Palestinian movement. Yes, there is a difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, although the lines get awfully blurry.

Take, for example, the Columbia student who recorded himself saying that all Zionists “don’t deserve to live” and that people should “be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists.” He doesn’t use the word “Jews,” but his comments have been widely (and I think rightly) understood as antisemitic, because Zionism and Judaism are, for pretty obvious reasons, indelibly tied together, the overwhelming majority of Zionists in Israel are Jewish, and most Jews are Zionists—even if one can of course be Jewish and oppose Zionism in concept and practice. And I personally find it difficult to see comments calling for the destruction of the state of Israel, which would inevitably involve (at best) the mass expulsion of millions of Jews and (at worst) the mass murder of millions of Jews, as having nothing at all to do with antisemitism, given Israel’s unique character as a Jewish state (and it’s very not-unique one as a state with a repressive, authoritarian, anti-democratic right-wing government).

Are chants like “From water to water / Palestine will be Arab” or “burn Tel Aviv to the ground” antisemitic, or merely anti-Zionist? But even if we define anti-Zionism in the broadest possible terms and antisemitism in the narrowest ones and pull out the anti-Zionist comments, chants, signs, etc., an antisemitism problem remains, and the response to it from many supporters of the pro-Palestinian movement has either been “it doesn’t exist” or “to the extent it does exist, it’s Israel’s fault.” This is bad, unhelpful and irresponsible.

Accusations of antisemitism have also been used in bad faith to manipulate the discussion. Criticizing Israel is very obviously not antisemitic, and Israel—especially its far-right government and the right-wing movement that has so destabilized the country and wrought so much destruction—has earned a lot of criticism.

An antisemitism problem remains, and the response to it from many supporters of the pro-Palestinian movement has either been ‘it doesn’t exist’ or ‘to the extent it does exist, it’s Israel’s fault.’ This is bad, unhelpful and irresponsible.

Antisemitism, like any other form of bigotry or discrimination, does not exist only within clear and universally-agreed-upon lines. The same way I see phrases like “boys will be boys” as pretty sexist but many people disagree, it is entirely possible for two good and decent people to look at the same comments or fact patterns and disagree on whether antisemitism is at play. So it’s not quite as simple as “antisemitism being downplayed” vs. “antisemitism being unfairly used as a cudgel.” People, including a great many Jewish people, have legitimate disagreements as to what counts as antisemitism.

But, just to say it again, from my vantage point, antisemitism is a real and pervasive problem that has become more obvious and more virulent over the last several months. And too many progressive groups and individuals really have engaged in campaigns of denial and downplay. It’s been deeply dispiriting and alienating to watch.

5. Colleges are particular kinds of spaces. And elite colleges have billed themselves as particularly activist spaces.

Private colleges like Columbia are not bound by First Amendment free speech and expression rules the same way public ones are, but all colleges should be places where speech and expression are as free as possible. This means that even if private institutions can crack down on student speech, they generally shouldn’t. The exceptions include threats, intimidation, harassment and legitimate safety concerns.

It’s pretty tough to argue that those who brought in law enforcement contributed to the health of their campus communities.

Colleges are also spaces where young people go to learn, explore, make mistakes and evolve. Yes, it is unfair that a 20-year-old electrician has less space to do this than a 20-year-old NYU student. But colleges should be spaces where students are allowed to have and voice unpopular, fringe, radical, ugly, controversial or add-in-your-adjective-here views and opinions. Schools have an obligation to ensure that all students can learn and are physically safe. They also have an obligation to let students have and express bad ideas.

Campuses are communities and living ecosystems. Elite ones in particular are very much not “the real world.” The way some students have behaved has no doubt frayed community ties and broken down community trust. But it’s up to the adults in the room to keep these ecosystems healthy, and to put the well-being of their students and their campus community first—not their job security, and certainly not the opinions of congressional Republicans. This is a very difficult task when campuses are divided. But I think it’s pretty tough to argue that those who brought in law enforcement contributed to the health of their campus communities.

A lot of students really don’t like the protests. A lot of parents really don’t like the protests and will be upset to see them at graduation. That’s okay. People can deal with seeing things they cannot stand, or feel deeply offended by. Threats to physical safety or acts of harassment, intimidation and discrimination are not okay, and neither is blocking communal areas or educational resources—but even campus demonstrations that for some fuel pit-in-the-stomach despair or hair-on-fire rage are not necessarily invalid or in need of being put down.

Yes, it is unfair for colleges to start here with telling students they have to tolerate even pretty extreme discomfort and offense. Yes, they should have started that a long time ago. Yes, this is a massive hypocrisy. But they should start now anyway.

Many elite universities have also billed themselves as spaces for activism and social change, which also makes this moment especially galling. Even when I was an undergraduate at NYU in the Stone Age, this was the pitch: NYU, and its home in Greenwich Village, was Ground Zero for some of the most important activist, artistic and creative movements in the United States, and that as students, we would learn how to take part in those storied traditions. Students at Columbia and Berkeley no doubt heard the same. So it does feel especially rich to then have administrators calling police on protesters. You told them this was good!

Up next:

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Jill Filipovic is a New York-based writer, lawyer and author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind and The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. A weekly columnist for CNN and a 2019 New America Future of War fellow, she is also a former contributing opinion writer to The New York Times and a former columnist for The Guardian. She writes at jill.substack.com and holds writing workshops and retreats around the world.