How a Student Group Is Politicizing a Generation on Palestine
The Hunter students I talked to agreed that Palestinian resistance against Israel is justified, including Hamas’s attack on October 7th. “I have a human sympathy and understanding for people who were killed and deemed innocent,” Rampagoa said. “But innocence is only so limited when you are occupying land.” He added, “What happened on October 7th was led by volunteers—voluntarily armed fighters. People use Hamas as a decoy.” The people who took down the barbed wire around Gaza “were probably people our age or younger,” he said. They “took the conflict on their own arms, and, rightfully so, had to strike back.”
During the past decade, several organizations have been created with the mission of finding and posting the personal information of pro-Palestinian student activists. Canary Mission, a Web site whose funders have [reportedly](https://forward.com/news/411355/revealed-canary-mission-blacklist-is-secretly-bankrolled-by-major-jewish/) included a Jewish family foundation in the Bay Area, posts students’ pictures next to descriptions of their social-media posts, alleged protest chants, and affiliations with movements such as B.D.S. Accuracy in Media, an organization run by an activist named Adam Guillette, has purchased Web-site domain names to match the names of students who signed letters with “hateful, racist messages” about Israel, as he put it to me. The group has also rented mobile-billboard trucks, at a thousand dollars or more a pop, to drive around a half-dozen campuses, including *CUNY*’s law school, which has been a significant site of student activism. Guillette maintains that the group uses publicly available information, such as photos published by student newspapers or on Facebook, and doesn’t share anyone’s phone number or address. He also said the group has sent mobile-billboard trucks to the homes of two Harvard students. Greenblatt told me that students, even those as young as nineteen, should face consequences for what they say on campus. “They’re old enough to vote. They’re old enough to be drafted,” he said. “They’re adults as far as the law is concerned. Let’s not infantilize them, and hold them accountable when they incite violence against their peers.”
“College presidents have a problem on their hands. The problem is named S.J.P.,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the C.E.O. of the A.D.L., told me. “Individuals who literally are willing to celebrate violence, to laud murder, and to celebrate terrorism—that is a big problem for these campuses that parents entrust with their children to create environments where they can learn and be safe.” When I asked Greenblatt what basis the A.D.L. has for alleging that S.J.P. chapters might be funding or receiving funds from Hamas, he said that the chapters “are mirroring the position of Hamas,” adding that “there are those who have said that the span of activities could constitute material support.” Whether or not they agree with this argument, some college presidents have acted against S.J.P. Before the A.D.L. letter was sent, the chancellor of the State University of Florida had already ordered that two S.J.P. chapters be “deactivated.” After the letter, three private universities—Brandeis, [Columbia](https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-local-correspondents/columbia-suspended-pro-palestine-student-groups-the-faculty-revolted), and George Washington—announced that they were suspending their chapters. Columbia also suspended its chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which similarly supports Palestinian rights and the B.D.S. movement.
As an organizer shouted into the bullhorn, the pretend-dead activists shouted back, “Judaism, yes! Zionism, no!” A woman wearing a pendant necklace of the Hebrew word *chai*, or “life,” walked by and screamed, “It *is* antisemitism! You’re an antisemite!” Eventually, a few pro-Palestine protesters wandered over to engage her. Everyone involved seemed to be deeply invested in telling the true story of what had happened in Israel on October 7th, and since 1948, and since Biblical times. A graduate student at a different school, who just happened to walk by the protest, insisted that the images of Israeli civilians murdered on October 7th had been Photoshopped or generated by A.I. The *chai*-necklace woman claimed that “Palestine” was a term invented by the British in the twentieth century. Another protester, from the *CUNY* group, responded that Zionism had been founded as an antisemitic ideology following the Protestant Reformation. None of these claims are true.
Seyla Benhabib, a well-known Turkish philosopher and political theorist at Columbia who has long supported Palestinians’ right to self-determination, refused to sign a letter organized by professional philosophers in support of Palestine. “What I find most hurtful in this whole situation is the reduction of complexity,” she told me. “It’s as if people cannot hold two different kinds of thoughts in their minds.” In an open letter, she wrote that many of the faculty letters that have circulated since October 7th have framed “the conflict in Israel-Palestine through the lens of ‘settler-colonialism’ alone.” She told me, “I’m willing to accept that there is a situation of conflict. In a situation of conflict, there is resistance that is legitimate. And legitimate resistance should deal with the military. But what happened was an orgy of violence.”
Khalidi is part of a line of scholars revered by pro-Palestine activists on the left—he is literally the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia. But, in recent days, he has occasionally issued gentle warnings to student activists. “No liberation movement was ever successful without being able to make a case in the metropole,” he said, using an academic term for the central state of a colonial empire. “You have to understand what the limitations are, not just of your rhetoric, but the political and moral and legal implications of what you support and say.” He, too, has noted students’ invocation of thinkers such as Frantz Fanon to justify civilian killings. “You’ve got to read Fanon very carefully to understand he’s talking about the psychological impact of colonial violence on the colonized. He’s not justifying it. He’s a psychiatrist. He’s explaining it. And it’s a lamentable thing to him.” And yet, “students are students,” he went on. “They’re not scholars, or fully developed adults yet. I think you have to cut them a lot of slack.”