Don’t compromise with pro-Hamas students; expel or suspend them

May 2, 2024 by Jonathan S. Tobin - JNS.org
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Negotiating with mobs is always a fool’s errand.

Faculty for Justice in Palestine at the Gaza solidarity encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles, one day before violent riots on campus, April 29, 2024. Credit: Noopur28 via Wikimedia Commons

That’s what Minouche Shafik, the president of Columbia University, learned in recent days when she attempted to talk her way out of an impasse with pro-Hamas students who set up an encampment on the school’s South Lawn and then occupied a building in order to force the administration to, among other things, divest itself from any investments related to Israel. In the end, talks with protesters failed, the situation escalated, and police had to be called in to restore order, albeit at the cost of shutting down the campus and making it impossible for the university to operate normally.

At colleges across the nation, administrators are being faced with similar choices as mobs of students chanting for the destruction of Israel and in favor of terrorism against Jews are crossing the lines from legal protests to illegal acts of intimidation and violence to get their way. But as much as universities are tempted to compromise with the protesters, doing so is a mistake. That’s true not just because appeasement of bullies—and that is what those conducting these protests are as they seek to silence dissent against their stands, and shield themselves from accountability and press coverage—always leads to escalating demands and further concessions.

The real danger in giving in to protests goes deeper than undermining the rule of law or making colleges hard to administer. Every concession to activists chanting for a “free Palestine” to exist “from the river to the sea” or cheering to “globalize the intifada” is a gesture that legitimizes Hamas’s genocidal cause of destroying the Jewish state and slaughtering its population.

Normalizing hate

The protesters rationalize, excuse or even label the unspeakable atrocities of Oct. 7 as justifiable “resistance.” Those are not reasonable opinions that deserve respect and understanding. Doing so normalizes what ought to be labelled as an outrageous expression of hatred. Agreeing to negotiate whether or not to boycott Israel is equally unacceptable. It means an acceptance of the vile idea that antisemitism is a legitimate form of discourse.

Yet that is exactly what those who are defending the students are doing. It’s true that many observers put this outbreak of chaos on campus down to students empathizing with Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip caught up in a war started by Hamas on Oct. 7. But as anyone who listens to their rhetoric knows, these are not anti-war protests. In fact, they are pro-war demonstrations since their cause is not really an end to the fighting but to keep Hamas in place, essentially declaring victory for terrorism and ensuring that it will continue. This is the same Hamas that intends to carry on with plans to eliminate Israel, which it falsely labels as a settler/colonial oppressor rather than the sole democracy in the Middle East and the only Jewish state on the planet.

The student mobs’ apologists characterize their actions as—like the Black Lives Matter riots of the summer of 2020—“mostly peaceful.” They excuse their use of facemasks that conceal their identity in much the same way the violent racists of the Ku Klux Klan wore white hoods. And they minimize their intimidation of Jewish students. In this way, those who condone or negotiate with these thugs cosplaying Palestinian terrorists with keffiyehs are saying that being a fan of Hamas and supporting an antisemitic ideology is acceptable or even laudable behaviour. That is something no fair-minded or decent person should be advocating.

And when one of the pro-Hamas students’ cheerleaders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), divides Jewish students into two groups — “pro-genocide” and “anti-genocide” — that’s nothing less than incitement to violence, even if it is couched in a disingenuous condemnation of antisemitism.

Chaos at Columbia

Having had the students evicted from their tents last week only to see them return the next day, Shafik was still trying to appease a group whose rhetoric and actions were creating an atmosphere of hatred for Israel and Jews. Sensing weakness, these students—assisted by outside agitators—seized Hamilton Hall, one of the campuses’ main buildings. Then, in a parody of Hamas terrorists’ demands in Gaza, they insisted that “humanitarian aid” be allowed for those who had violently seized the place and, if only briefly, taken some employees hostage.

Shafik had been roasted by the left-wing press, including The New York Times, for her first call to the police, because supporters of the students likened them to the generations who protested against the Vietnam War or South African apartheid. But as the situation on campus deteriorated into violence and chaos, the school’s trustees gave her the OK to ask the New York City Police Department to resolve the standoff. They did so with professionalism, evicting the occupiers of both the building and the tent city with a minimum of fuss and without any of the violence that ended a similar confrontation in 1968.

In defending the police action, New York City Mayor Eric Adams correctly identified the protests as profoundly un-American. Incidents on campuses where U.S. flags were torn down and replaced with Palestinian flags are symbolic of the contempt that the leftist ideologues’ agenda is not limited to their support for the destruction of Israel. Their disdain for America and its democratic values is part and parcel of a mindset formed by indoctrination in the woke myths of critical race theory and intersectionality. And they are insensible to the pride that most Americans feel for those instances in which police or students have defended the stars and stripes or returned it to its proper place.

Shafik and her board deserve little credit for her decision to act. She had tolerated an intolerable situation on the Manhattan campus for weeks. During that time, Jews on campus were subjected to an unprecedented atmosphere of intimidation and threats from students, faculty and others spouting lies about Israel committing a Palestinian “genocide” and who made no secret of their identification with the Hamas terrorists responsible for the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust. Rhetoric about not tolerating the existence of “Zionists” had become normative, as had advocacy for antisemitic BDS resolutions that seek to target Israelis and Jews for discrimination.

Buying quiet on campus

But as appalling as Shafik’s performance has been, it was far better than what happened at Northwestern University and Brown University. In both cases, the schools gave in to student demands and allowed them a say in whether these institutions would implement divestment from Israel in exchange for quiet on campus.

For those administrators, it seems like a good bargain; they probably thought that they bought peace rather cheaply. After all, implementing boycotts at these schools will be a long, drawn-out affair and may not ultimately lead to the discriminatory agenda the pro-Hamas students seek. Among other complications, the state laws of Illinois and Rhode Island rightly hold BDS to be a form of illegal discrimination.

Opponents of Israel, however, have reason to celebrate both the weakness of those school’s administrators and the willingness of mob leaders to take “yes” for an answer. Many of the protesters, outside agitators and their funders think that the ongoing spectacle of shutting down campuses and crowds at major institutions cheering on terrorists helps their cause. Some may even believe that outcomes in which the protests are ended by police action also turn them into martyrs or help make them appear sympathetic to liberals who view student demonstrations from the Vietnam era with nostalgia.

But the object of all the post-Oct. 7 protests is to mainstream the demonization of Israel and Zionism, and to essentially ostracize and silence Jewish students who refuse to bow to fashionable opinion on campuses and join the mobs. Schools that make these sorts of concessions only make that problem worse.

Authorities are not wrong to view the anti-Israel demonstrations as a challenge to the normal functioning of institutions of higher education as well as to public order. For example, Columbia’s very liberal regulations allow all sorts of protests but still require that, among other things, demonstrations be conducted in a manner that does not impinge on the rights of other students. Such rules cannot be flouted with impunity if the university is not going to be ruled by the whims of radical mobs assembled at the behest of any cause.

Nor should any university permit libraries to be commandeered by protesters, which occurred at Portland State University in Oregon. Or, in the case of the University of California, Los Angeles, its sprawling anti-Israel encampments made it difficult or impossible for students to access classes or parts of the school grounds.

At its heart, this nationwide struggle is not just a matter of preserving law and order on college campuses. It’s about a sinister movement whose aim is to single out Israel and Zionism—the national liberation movement of the Jewish people—for opprobrium, isolation and destruction. It is nothing less than a 21st-century variety of antisemitism rooted in woke ideology that grants a permission slip for Jew-hatred. If any other minority group—African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians—were being treated in the way that Jews are now being hounded on campuses, there would be no debate about the necessity of a zero-tolerance policy for such behaviour. Those who have broken school rules or gone so far as to commit violence to further their hateful cause should be suspended and expelled, not coddled as misunderstood idealists. Universities that tolerate this behaviour and allow hostile environments for Jews to be imposed by campus radicals should be stripped of federal funding for violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Statements from President Joe Biden that create false moral equivalencies to media coverage that legitimizes the protests or concessions from universities to the anti-Israel protesters, must all be seen as part of the same moral failure on the part of much of our political and educational establishments. Toleration of antisemitic mobs will only lead to more antisemitism.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

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