Debunking three myths about pro-Palestine student protests in the US

Debunking three myths about pro-Palestine student protests in the US

An examination of three of the most pervasive myths that have sought to discredit the pro-Palestine movement on campuses finds them to be false

By Azad Essa, reposted from the Middle East Eye, May 2, 2024

It’s been called many names. The “student intifada”. The “American Spring”.

But while commentators search for a fitting description for the historic and unprecedented student protests that have captured the world’s imagination, a burgeoning movement for Palestine marches on.

Since Columbia students launched their encampment on 17 April, the student movement in support of Palestinians and in solidarity with the people of Gaza has mushroomed to more than 100 universities across 46 states.

The rapid expansion of student protests across the US against Israel’s war on Gaza – which has now killed nearly 35,000 Palestinians, including at least 13,000 children – have also triggered a parallel campaign to demonize and discredit the movement as violent, antisemitic and against peaceful co-existence.

Middle East Eye examines three of the most pervasive myths that have sought to discredit the pro-Palestine movements on campuses.

Myth 1: The protest movement has been violent

One of the staple myths since the Gaza solidarity encampments began is that they have been violent.

However, there is no evidence of pro-Palestine student protesters being engaged in violent protests of any kind.

MEE visited six university encampments in four states and found that students at each of the sites were focused on education through teach-ins, prayer and building community, and engaged in artistic forms of resistance.

Yes, students did take over buildings at Columbia and Princeton. It is also true that slogans have called for the Palestinian right to resist occupation.

But there is no evidence to suggest that any student or faculty were threatened or harmed in the occupation of the halls.

The takeover of the respective halls comes in the footsteps of students from previous generations at both Columbia and Princeton who opposed the Vietnam War or the apartheid regime in South Africa – and have since been celebrated and even had those moments in time memorialised on campus.

After the first encampment at Columbia was dismantled and several protesters were arrested, the New York Police Department released a statement in which it noted that the protesters were peaceful and hadn’t resisted arrest.

Columbia University's encampment began on 17 April 2024
Columbia University’s encampment began on 17 April 2024 (photo)
The NYPD has been a regular fixture outside universities in New York over the past week
The NYPD has been a regular fixture outside universities in New York over the past week (photo)

When the police stormed Hamilton Hall – now popularly known as Hind’s Hall – on Tuesday evening, police admitted that there wasn’t substantial resistance.

According to a tracker, 99 percent of student protests for Palestine since October have been peaceful, substantiating anecdotal accounts that students have been disciplined and incidents of violence have been rare to none.

Since the encampments began in mid-April, incidents of violence were only reported when pro-Israel students attacked the encampments, as happened at UCLA on 2 May or when police conducted raids at the universities.

At Columbia, it was a police officer who “accidentally” fired a gun when they stormed Hamilton Hall on Tuesday night.

The other instances of violence have come from the police at Emory in Georgia, the University of Texas in Austin and Dallas, Columbia University, New York University, and City College of New York.

So far, police have arrested around 2,200 people across the US.

The NYPD claimed that a proportion of students arrested at Columbia and CCNY were outsiders. However, one Columbia staff member who was not authorized to talk to the media, cautioned that the NYPD has still not clarified what “outsider” means.

Several universities like Columbia University have affiliate colleges, like Barnard College, meaning that students from affiliates may have been misidentified as “outsiders”.

The NYPD did not reply to MEE’s request for clarity.

In several cases, the police have used riot gear and tactical vehicles to clear tent encampments and buildings. At UCLA this week, police placed snipers on rooftops, fired rubber bullets and used flash-bang devices to clear out the camps.

There have been no reports of any students being in possession of a weapon or posing a threat to police.

Myth 2: Jewish students have been harassed and intimidated

Right-wing media have circulated rumors that Jewish students have been harassed and targeted at the encampments across the country.

MEE has spoken at length to Jewish students at Tufts, Brown, Harvard, Princeton, Occidental College, and Columbia University.

The Jewish students who spoke to MEE at these campuses said that claims of antisemitism were being used as a crutch to silence criticism of Israel and to discredit the student movement.

“As a Jewish person, this issue is particularly important to me, as I have seen the ways in which Jewish grief has been weaponized and Jewish safety has been co-opted to excuse this murder,” Violet Barron, a student at Harvard University, told MEE previously in a video interview.

“Ideas of Jewish safety have also been co-opted here (at Harvard) and used to quash pro-Palestine speech and rhetoric and anti-semitism has been invoked falsely in order to silence those who speak out on Palestine,” Barron added.

MEE observed at Princeton and Columbia that it was pro-Israel students with Israeli flags who approached students supporting Palestine and taunted them in an attempt to provoke them.

At Northeastern University, a student called on students to chant “Kill the Jews”. It was revealed that the person who did so was a pro-Israel agitator. The students refused to chant after him and asked the to leave. He faced no threats.

Violet Barron at the Gaza Solidarity Camp at Harvard University
Violet Barron at the Gaza Solidarity Camp at Harvard University (photo)
Jewish students hold a Shabbat service at Brown University, on 26 April 2024
Jewish students hold a Shabbat service at Brown University, on 26 April 2024 (photo)

At an earlier encampment at Stanford University, one Jewish student told MEE that it was pro-Israeli students and faculty who often walked by and called students at the encampment “terrorist” or “Hamas”.

“One of the main reasons I am here supporting the encampment is because in my experience, antisemitism and anti-zionism are often conflated,” Tobias, a student at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, told MEE.

“I think it very vital and powerful to have Jewish anti-Zionists to make this distinction clear because so often antisemitism is weaponized in a way that is extremely unhelpful, extremely harmful, and ultimately hurts the Jewish people,” Tobias, who offered just his first name, said.

In one documented case of violence at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where 90 pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested, Annelise Orlick, a Jewish professor, was thrown to the ground – but by the police.

“Those cops were brutal to me,” Orleck, the former chair of Dartmouth College’s Jewish studies department, said.

“I promise I did absolutely nothing wrong. I was standing with a line of women faculty in their 60s to 80s trying to protect our students. I have now been banned from the campus where I have taught for 34 years.”

Orleck said the cops “tried to hurt me. They did hurt me. And they seemed to enjoy it.”

Myth 3: Students are uncompromising and divisive

Students have been calling for an end to what human rights activists and lawyers are calling a genocide in Gaza.

Other principal demands from students involve calling on their university to disclose financials and divest from companies involved in the occupation of Palestine and the current Israeli war on Gaza.

Universities across the US have also carried other demands including dropping charges against students and faculty, bringing Palestinians from Gaza on scholarship to universities, or creating Arab culture centers.

Whereas some students have remained steadfast to the demands of disclosure and divestment, others have been open to various compromises.

At Princeton University, students set up the 'Popular University' after the encampment was shut down by police, on 25 April 2024
At Princeton University, students set up the ‘Popular University’ after the encampment was shut down by police, on 25 April 2024 (photo)
Students gather to talk, eat and learn at the Gaza solidarity encampment at Columbia University
Students gather to talk, eat and learn at the Gaza solidarity encampment at Columbia University (photo)

As evidenced by the recent conclusion of negotiations at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and at Northwestern University, in Illinois, as well as Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, students have adopted different strategies and tactics to reach their goals at their respective universities. These compromises may or may not prove effective in the months and years to come, but the students aren’t a monolith.

Several commentators have argued that slogans like “Globalize the Intifada” and “From the River to the Sea” are divisive, but students have been clear theirs is an inclusive movement with the goal of collective liberation for all people.

“We are a continuation of the Vietnam anti-war movement and the movement to divest from apartheid South Africa. We support freedom and justice for the Palestinian people and for all people. We know that true collective safety will arise when everyone has access to clean air, clean water, food, housing, education, healthcare, freedom of movement, and dignity,” the Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) manifesto says.

Many students and faculty have noted that the encampments have been models of community, learning and liberation.

The student community has been diverse. They have brought different flags, chanted many different slogans and stocked many books at their pop-up libraries.

Muslim students have offered prayers and Jewish students have offered Shabbat prayers on Fridays, often joined by students of other faiths.

The continued and heightened repression of student protests, the attack on free speech, and the targeting of pro-Palestine faculty and students have only enlarged the movement and made it more diverse in thought and perspective.

The students have also tried to ensure that the conversation is not just about free speech or student repression on campuses, but on ending the occupation of Palestine.

“I do believe that the role of the student movement is to demand divestment and that liberation in Palestine will come from Palestinians. Our role is just to support that movement, not to centre ourselves in it,” one Jewish-American student at Tufts University told MEE.

Azad Essa @azadessa is a senior reporter for Middle East Eye based in New York City. He worked for Al Jazeera English between 2010-2018 covering southern and central Africa for the network. He is the author of ‘Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel’


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