Colombia’s Gaza encampment seeks to revive the spirit of 1968

Colombia’s Gaza encampment seeks to revive the spirit of 1968

On a bright Tuesday afternoon, a masked young woman calling herself W stood next to the “Gaza Solidarity Camp” in the center of the Columbia University campus and denounced the genocide committed in Gaza by “the violent Zionist colonial entity.”

“Today, in the Gaza solidarity camp, we are in a good mood. We are united in our cause. We are building a community. We eat together. We keep each other safe and warm. We put our principles into action,” W told a small gathering of journalists.

The protest would continue until Columbia divests from companies that profit from Israel, including Microsoft, Boeing and GE, W promised.

“We will continue to occupy the West Lawn until our demands are met,” warned comrade Kyhmani James.

Hours later, Colombian President Minouche Shafik gave protesters a midnight deadline to evacuate the camp, and New York police officers prepared to move in. On Wednesday morning, the two sides agreed to an additional 48 hours of dialogue.

The “Gaza Solidarity Camp,” which took place a week ago, has had an eventful life, renewing the link between a new generation of student activists from Colombia and their predecessors who made the university a center protest against the Vietnam War when they occupied buildings in 1968. It also energized similar anti-political movements. -Israel protests on other American campuses, from New York University to the University of California at Berkeley.

It also plunged Colombia into a crisis over limits on free speech and harassment and tarnished the school in the eyes of many Jewish alumni as a hotbed of anti-Semitism. “Having our students demonstrate in favor of Hamas, the Houthis and Iran is not a good idea for the university,” one of them said.

Since his criminal trial in Lower Manhattan, former President Donald Trump has sought to link President Joe Biden to “disorder” on campuses across the country. “What’s happening is a disgrace to our country, and it’s all Biden’s fault,” he said.

Mike Johnson, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, was to travel to Colombia on Wednesday afternoon to meet Jewish students and probably to attack a Democratic party subservient to the radical left. Rudy Giuliani, a former New York mayor turned Trump lawyer, passed through campus in a limousine Tuesday evening.

Columbia University professors rally in solidarity with their students’ rights to protest without arrest ©AP

At the center of it all was an encampment the size of a football field, dotted with signs and banners, whose young inhabitants were difficult to characterize. Depending on orientation, they were sincere or stupid, admirable activists or useful idiots.

“Think what you will about the cause, [but] It’s nice to see people care about something and have a cause that they feel is worth sacrificing for,” said a law student as she looked out at the camp while smoking a cigarette.

Inside, a few hundred students gathered around dozens of tents to the sound of Arabic music. A banner read: “Demilitarize education.” Someone was banging a drum. Every so often, someone else would grab a bullhorn and the shouts and responses would begin, including chants that many people interpret as calls for the elimination of Israel: “Revolution Intifada. . . From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. . . Glory, glory to our martyrs!

An older woman who was a continuing education student at Columbia described the young singers as “scary and bigoted.”

An Israeli student asked why his classmates calling for free and open debate were “hiding their faces” with medical masks or the ubiquitous keffiyeh scarves that now symbolize Palestinian nationalism.

James, the group’s media liaison, insisted it was to keep students safe. But just steps away, students huddled on manicured lawns and posed under cherry blossoms in graduation gowns.

James hesitated when asked about the group’s stance on Hamas, which killed about 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7, including hundreds of young people at a music festival. Other protesters dismissed complaints of anti-Semitism as a “Zionist” tactic aimed at distracting from the war in Gaza, where Israel’s offensive against Hamas has killed more than 33,000 people, authorities say Palestinians.

The encampment poses a serious threat to Shafik, just nine months into her term as president. It came a week ago while she was in Washington to testify before a Republican-controlled congressional committee about anti-Semitism on campuses — and to try to avoid the fate of her peers at Harvard and from the University of Pennsylvania who resigned after their own questioning in December.

Signs supporting Israel are displayed on the campus of Columbia University, near the encampment in New York.
Signs supporting Israel are displayed on the university campus near the encampment ©Reuters

Shafik has also faced pressure from high-profile donors, including Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots football team, who described his alma mater as unrecognizable.

Last Thursday, after the second day of protests, she relented and asked the New York Police Department to clear the camp, leading to the arrest of more than 100 students.

The crackdown may have had the opposite effect: Students defied the president by simply jumping a fence and building a new camp on the land next to the original one, paving the way for the current standoff.

Calling the police was also considered an unforgivable sin for those who still cherish Colombia’s tradition of activism. In response, hundreds of teachers staged a walkout. This sentiment was reflected by a message scrawled on the back of one protester’s denim jacket: “Mi-nouche Sha-fuck you!”

Meanwhile, tensions escalated over the weekend. In one example of anti-Semitism, a protester held a sign with an arrow pointing at students holding an Israeli flag that read: “Al-Qasam’s next targets,” referring to Hamas’ military wing. Other groups of protesters, unaffiliated with the university, besieged it outside its gates.

Many students expressed distrust of journalists and mainstream media. And many are new to the movement. One student described herself as a champion of gay rights who joined the Palestinian cause only after hearing about it at Columbia from other activists. She monitored the encampment as other students arrived to pass bags of food and supplies over the barricade.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” one Jewish student, draped in a keffiyeh and wearing a Star of David, said of the camp. She had been arrested a few days earlier and, like many others, refused to give her name.

One young man, his head wrapped in a keffiyeh, described the encampment as a communist idyll, where labor was divided, everyone’s needs were met and “the federal government is trying to destroy you.”

There was a sense of kibbutznik excitement about building community in the real world – not online. The encampment has its own medical teams, as well as students who process food deliveries and date them to verify freshness. “De-escalators” wearing high visibility vests are available to defuse tensions with pro-Israel students who occasionally enter the complex. (Forcibly evicting them would violate the camp’s principles of non-violence).

There were Palestinian dance classes. In one corner, on a tarpaulin, school-age children painted Palestinian flags on Monday afternoon under the direction of older demonstrators. In relief, the nearby Lerner Hall student center, named for a Jewish graduate and philanthropist, offered restrooms, boxes of sushi and a cell phone charger.

Meanwhile, a daily call for supplies issued Tuesday by the camp requested, among other items, coffee, portable chargers, tank tops and shorts, and keffiyehs.

As they stopped in front of the barricade to observe the scene, two young people from the American South seemed exhausted by it all. It’s exam time and stands have already been set up in the quad for a graduation ceremony, scheduled for May 15. A week earlier, they were sunbathing on the same lawns.

“I knew Columbia was the Ivy of social justice,” one said. “But not as much social justice.”


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