Debatt ● Sami Al-Daghistani

From Columbia University to Blindern — Student Protests Against the War in Gaza

Demands of Columbia University students are directly link to the ongoing war in Gaza. They have been labeled as antisemitic. But is this true or are they part of larger anti-war movements? And perhaps more importantly, for us in Norway, what can academics, students, and informed citizens do to successfully pressure politicians for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza?

In the last few weeks student protests have spread across the US and Europe, reaching also Oslo (pictured) and Bergen.

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In recent weeks, we have witnessed numerous protests at American university campuses against the brutal war in Gaza. It all started in mid-April at Columbia University where students set up an encampment, demanding divestment from Israel.

On April 17, president of Columbia University, Nemat «Minouche» Shafik, during the grueling congressional testimony before the Republican-led Committee, threw under the bus her own faculty members and students who have been opposing the war in Gaza under the pretext that there is a rampant antisemitism going on at Columbia. Under pressure from the political elite and the donors, president Shafik called in the NYPD who arrested over 100 students.

Yet the encampment returned to Columbia campus and student protests have spread across the US and Europe, reaching also Oslo and Bergen.

On May 2, Columbia University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors called for a vote of no confidence in President Shafik and the whole university administration.

The students at Columbia demand, among other things, an immediate divestment from Israel from all direct and indirect holdings, that Columbia does not trade in the blood of Palestinians for financial support from Israel, disclosure and full transparency about its collaboration schemes with Israeli institutions and companies, and amnesty of Columbia’s students and faculty who were disciplined and/or arrested.

In 2020, Columbia students overwhelmingly voted in favor of divestment, which means that it has been a continuing demand.

Sami Al-Daghistani

The demand for divestment is not new — in 2020, Columbia students overwhelmingly voted in favor of divestment, which means that it has been a continuing demand.

Similar events have been taking place throughout Columbia history, and one could argue with successful outcomes. In 1969, protests erupted after students found out that there are formal links between the university and the institutional apparatus that supported the United States’ military involvement in the Vietnam War. It was due to the students’ pressure that Columbia University withdrew its involvement with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), affiliated with the U.S. Department of Defense. Under the immense pressure from the students, Columbia also divested from apartheid in South Africa.

The recent student-led protests have been labeled as pro-Hamas and antisemitic. Yet, we must ask ourselves if this narrative holds any water. Is it true that thousands of students and professors in New York (many of whom are Jewish themselves) have been indeed protesting to hurt or insult their fellow Jewish colleagues, professors, and students?

While antisemitism is a serious issue everywhere, including in New York, the student organizers affirm that these protests have been organized to stop the brutal occupation of Palestine and Israel’s inhumane bombardment of Gaza and its civilian population.

Columbia’s numerous prominent Jewish faculty members who blatantly reject the weaponization of antisemitism at the campus stated that they affirm that antisemitism is a grave concern that should be scrutinized alongside other forms of hate, such as racism and Islamophobia, since these ideologies exist everywhere.

In their own words, however, it would be absurd to claim that antisemitism is rampant on Columbia’s campus. In an open letter to the university’s president, a number of Jewish faculty write: «To argue that taking a stand against Israel’s war on Gaza is antisemitic is to pervert the meaning of the term... Labeling pro-Palestinian expression as anti-Jewish hate speech requires a dangerous and false conflation of Zionism with Jewishness, of political ideology with identity. This conflation betrays a woefully inaccurate understanding — and disingenuous misrepresentation — of Jewish history, identity, and politics».

It would be absurd to claim that antisemitism is rampant on Columbia’s campus.

Sami Al-Daghistani

The student organizers at Columbia hold that they are by no means pro-Hamas or antisemitic. They don’t want their organizations to be complicit in war crimes.

They also carry on the legacy of the late Edward Said — until 2003 a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University — the author of Orientalism who believed in an inherent right of national self-determination for the Palestinian people.

Norway has been quite vocal against the war in Gaza, yet important debates take place not only in political circles but also among academics who might have the platform to (indirectly) influence the public and crucial political decisions. The situation in Norway, understandably, differs from the one in the US, both in terms of the state support of Israel and how universities are organized. 

While some academics in Norway believe that academic boycott equals anti-Zionism and possibly even antisemitism (such as my colleague at MF, Torkel Brekke, who called for a boycott of Norway in The Wall Street Journal), I think there is a clear distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. According to Rashid Khalidi (Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University), Zionism is a settler-colonial ideology. It is a colonial movement that supports the establishment (by any means necessary) of a national state for Jews in historic Palestine.

Several Norwegian universities have already cut ties or froze their agreements with Israeli educational institutions, including OsloMet, the University of Southeast Norway, and Nord University. On May 1, student encampments also reached UiO and UiB which were set up in solidarity with Columbia students and the anti-war protests, which is rather unprecedented.

Around 30 UiO students who also include students from nearby colleges (whom I visited yesterday at the encampment at the Blindern campus) are along with their counterparts at Columbia informing us that if universities and governments across Europe and the US are involved in the ongoing collaboration with Israel, then they are on wrong side of history.

Their demands are as follows: UiO must initiate a full academic divestment from and boycott of Israeli universities; it must cease official cooperation with Israeli institutions and universities; it must de-invest from companies that in some way contribute to or profit from the war in Gaza; increase support efforts in and from Gaza; and establish programs for academics from Gaza to be able to come to Norway.

Their encampment in Oslo was initially regarded as a «civil disobedient action» but the students were permitted to be on the UiO premises for 14 days in line with the Rector’s office, after which they will have to renegotiate their stance. Unlike in the US, as of now, there have been no conflicts with the police or the university administration.

We should note that, for those students, a boycott of Israeli universities is premised on their complicity in occupation, violations of international laws, and mass murder of Palestinians. Yet ceasefire has not yet happened and (academic) debates about how to stop the ongoing war in Gaza continue.

 The least we can do then — as academics and informed citizens — is to demand an immediate ceasefire and continuously express solidarity with the victims of the brutal war in Gaza on the streets, on university campuses, and elsewhere, as well as ask our constituents, policy makers, and employers to divest. This seems to be one of the core points also of the UiO encampment which is now part of the transatlantic university-wide anti-war protests.

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