Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Pro-Palestine Protesters at Columbia University Refuse to Back Down After Chemical Attack

HomeU.S.Pro-Palestine Protesters at Columbia University Refuse to Back Down After Chemical Attack

NEW YORK – Tensions at Columbia University continue to escalate following the suspension of pro-Palestine student groups last November. The groups, Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, were accused of repeatedly violating policies around holding campus events, culminating in an unauthorized protest.

The university claimed the groups failed to follow proper procedures and were subsequently suspended through the fall semester. However, senior executive Gerald Rosberg later acknowledged during a Senate meeting that event policies had been changed without proper consultation.

He also conceded previous pro-Palestine events avoided violence and were well-managed. This contradicts the official reasoning behind the suspensions, hinting at an ulterior motive to restrict certain political speech on campus.

The speed at which administration moved to review and alter event policies is unprecedented. This coincided with nationwide attention on protests for Palestine following Hamas’s attack on Israel in October.

Nearby Barnard College also removed a pro-Palestine statement from its Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department website, despite faculty opposition. The college then quietly revised its policies on acceptable political speech and website content.

In response, Columbia’s Student Governing Board declared non-cooperation with changes to the University’s event policies, calling them suppressive of student speech. Over 100 faculty and graduate workers rallied in support, demanding recognition that critiques of Israel are protected speech.

Other student groups took action too. In December, the Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists called for a tuition strike to pressure the administration on issues like investment transparency, reduced NYPD collaboration on protests, and a binding referendum on divesting from Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

A similar referendum passed favorably in 2020, but former President Lee Bollinger rejected altering Columbia’s endowment, refusing to take sides. The recent strike was called off after an online vote, but organizers still plan to collect pledges from students to withhold future donations until demands are met.

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On January 19th, peaceful SJP protesters faced being sprayed with a foul-smelling chemical weapon. Many reported burning eyes, nausea and hospitalization. The weapon was identified as Skunk, an Israeli-developed crowd control agent also used against Muslim worshippers in Jerusalem in December.

The attackers were identified as former Israeli army officers and current Columbia students. The school banned them from campus during an NYPD investigation. But student groups continue to protest, demanding an end to Columbia’s ties with Tel Aviv University and its “IDF-General Studies Program.”

Since October, campus access has been restricted to ID holders only. Demonstrators chant things like “Medical bills are on the way!” and call for divestment. Despite facing dangers, pro-Palestine groups remain steadfastly committed to their cause and refuse to back down.

This complex saga highlights issues around academic freedom, open discourse and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As debates intensify, Columbia struggles to balance free speech with safety. But many students feel the suspensions and policy changes specifically target pro-Palestine speech and activities.

The groups argue their right to protest is protected speech. And previous events were overwhelmingly peaceful and well-managed. Critics say restricting them violates core academic principles of free expression. However, issues around anti-Semitism and potential threats to Jewish students contextualize the crackdowns.

As for divestment, administrators claim they must remain neutral, and altering the endowment would improperly advantage one side. But student activists frame it as a moral obligation.

The path forward remains unclear. But Columbia students have shown they will not stay silent when rights are violated or voices marginalized. This ongoing struggle exemplifies the power of youth activism and student solidarity.

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Pro-Palestine Groups Suspended, Claim Targeting of Political Speech

The saga began in November 2023 when Columbia suspended student groups Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), accusing them of repeatedly violating event policies, culminating in an unauthorized protest.

University administration claimed the groups failed to follow proper procedures and were suspended through the fall semester as a result.

However, senior executive Gerald Rosberg later acknowledged during a Senate meeting that the event policies in question had just been altered without proper consultation. This contradiction hints that stifling certain speech may be the real motive.

Critics argue the swift policy changes specifically target pro-Palestine activities. This coincided with nationwide protests over Israel-Palestine after Hamas attacked Israel in October.

Nearby Barnard College also removed a pro-Palestine statement from its Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies website, revising policies to prohibit certain political speech on Barnard websites and grounds.

In response, Columbia’s Student Governing Board declared non-cooperation with changes to event policies that suppress student speech. Over 100 faculty held a rally demanding recognition that critiques of Israel are protected speech.

Other student groups also took action. In December, the Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists called for a tuition strike to pressure the administration on issues like transparency, reduced NYPD collaboration on protests, and divestment from Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

A similar referendum passed in 2020, but then-President Lee Bollinger rejected altering Columbia’s endowment to take sides. The recent strike was called off after a student vote, but organizers still plan to collect pledges to withhold future donations.

Chemical Attack on Protesters Raises Tensions

On January 19th, SJP protesters were sprayed with a foul-smelling chemical. Many reported burning eyes, nausea and hospitalization. The weapon was identified as Skunk, an Israeli-developed crowd control agent also used against Muslim worshippers in Jerusalem in December.

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The attackers were identified as former Israeli army officers and current Columbia students. The school banned them from campus during an NYPD investigation.

But student groups continue to protest, demanding an end to Columbia’s ties with Tel Aviv University and its “IDF-General Studies Program.” Since October, campus access has been restricted to ID holders only amid the tensions.

Demonstrators chant things like “Medical bills are on the way!” and call for divestment. Despite dangers, pro-Palestine groups remain steadfastly committed and refuse to back down.

Debates Intensify Over Rights to Free Speech and Safety

This complex saga highlights issues around academic freedom, open discourse and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As debates intensify, Columbia struggles to balance free speech with safety.

But many students feel the suspensions and policy changes specifically target pro-Palestine speech and activities. The groups argue their right to protest is protected speech. And previous events were overwhelmingly peaceful and well-managed.

Critics say restricting them violates core academic principles of free expression. However, issues around anti-Semitism and potential threats to Jewish students contextualize the crackdowns.

As for divestment, administrators claim neutrality, arguing altering the endowment would improperly advantage one side. But activists frame it as a moral obligation.

The path forward remains unclear. But Columbia students have shown they will not stay silent when rights are violated or voices marginalized. This ongoing struggle exemplifies the power of youth activism and student solidarity in speaking truth to power.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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