We’re Jewish students at Columbia arrested for protesting Israel’s war


When we accepted our admissions letters to Columbia University, we never expected to be marched out of our school in zip ties by the NYPD. But that is what happened last week, after hundreds of pro-Palestinian Columbia students came together on the campus lawn to form what organizers named the Gaza Solidarity Encampment.

We joined the encampment because Columbia funnels money that should be spent on our education into companies that build machines to kill, maim and displace our Palestinian siblings. The encampment will continue until students, faculty and alumni force the university leadership, who do not represent our community, to sever these financial ties.

As Jews, we are also obligated to practice the values we learned at synagogue and in the Torah, which counsel the value of all life and the preciousness of freedom. At a young age, we were taught the importance of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Each night when we say the Shema, for those of us who practice, we are reminded of our solemn vow to uphold God’s will on this earth. We exhort ourselves to remain steadfast in our mission to root out the cycles of violence and hatred that have plagued our people, and the world, for millennia. Pesach, which began on Monday, reminds us that liberation demands sacrifice but is always worth the cost. 

We chose to be arrested in the movement for Palestinian liberation because we are inspired by our Jewish ancestors who fought for freedom 4,000 years ago. When the police entered our encampment, we locked arms and sang civil rights era songs that many of our more recent ancestors recited in the 1960s. We belong to the legacy of progressive Jewish activism that has worked across race, class and religious lines to transform our communities. 

The beautiful encampment that has formed at Columbia could not be more different from its portrayal in the media. When American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked if he had prayed during the civil rights protests, he replied, “I prayed with my feet.” We, too, pray with our feet, each time we enter the encampment. Our days are filled with interfaith prayer, song, dance and learning.

To enter, students must affirm community agreements that state we will not cross one another’s physical boundaries, desecrate the space we have borrowed or engage with counter-protestors who wish us harm. A section written by “Jafra,” our Palestinian student contingent named after a love song, elevates values like humility, kindness and respect. Even NYPD Chief John Chell agrees that our camp was entirely peaceful, as it continues to be in our absence now that we have been suspended. Columbia University violated its written rules to demand our arrests, which is forbidden if we do not present a clear and present danger. 

Instead of following the law, our school has borrowed the Anti-Defamation League’s playbook, which conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Bad actors are elevating disinformation. And political opportunists like Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) use spurious House hearings to call Jewish protestors “antisemites.” Her lies and the lies of online trolls have now traveled as far as the White House, where President Biden is smearing protestors too.

The arrest and brutalization of over 100 pro-Palestinian Columbia students is the worst act of violence on our campus in decades. The moment Columbia asked the NYPD to arrest hundreds of student protestors, our university normalized a culture in which political differences are met with violence and hostility. Our so-called “antisemitism task force” recommended a law-and-order crackdown, but Columbia applies force unevenly depending on whether protestors support Israel. In January, 15 students were hospitalized after two former Israeli soldiers allegedly used a chemical weapon to attack pro-Palestine protestors with few consequences. As we write this, Israeli students passing by call us “animals” in Hebrew because they think none of us will understand — reminiscent of Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s remarks that Palestinians in Gaza are “human animals.” 

To squelch dissent, Columbia has created a miniature militarized police state on our campus — a microcosm of the apartheid state in which Palestinians live — where there is no free speech and checkpoints restrict movement at every turn. In-person learning has been canceled, students wear hoods and face coverings outdoors for fear of being tracked by facial recognition cameras used as evidence in Columbia’s kangaroo courts, and faculty under lockdown cannot enter their office buildings to do their research without a security escort. 

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Columbia is taking extraordinary measures to protect its investments in companies that profit from war and apartheid at the expense of students. Luckily, there is a solution. First, politicians and the media must not be baited by the vicious smears and distortions peddled by the backers of Israel and its far-right government. Second, alumni, donors, professors, students and parents with a connection to Columbia must call on the university to concede to campers’ three demands: divestment, financial transparency and full amnesty for faculty and students like us.

Finally, members of other universities should follow our lead and erect their own Gaza Solidarity Encampments. We will not rest until every university divests from genocide and Palestine is free.

J.S. King is a student at Columbia University. Soph Askanase is a student at Barnard College. Lea Salim is a student at Barnard College. 

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