Hunter College’s campus, in New York, features buildings that are tall and nondescript, blending in with the apartment and office towers around them. Nearby sidewalks are labyrinths of construction fencing, pushing students and commuters shoulder to shoulder as they make their way to the 6 train, on the East Side of Manhattan. This landscape forms a natural stage, referred to as “the pit,” outside Hunter’s West Building, which is where students from the Palestine Solidarity Alliance gathered in mid-November for yet another protest against Israel’s bombardment and blockade of Gaza.
The crowd started small—maybe seventy-five people. Several young women in combat boots and hijabs, who had organized the rally, came out carrying homemade posters and a bullhorn. “Free, free Palestine!” a woman shouted into the bullhorn. “Free-free-free Palestine!” The crowd of students cheered and joined in, echoing her rhythm and words. Many of the protesters appeared to be Muslim. Some of the chants, in Arabic, were explicitly religious. “Takbir!” a woman shouted into the bullhorn, calling for the glorification of God. “Allahu akbar” (“God is greater”), the crowd replied. “There is no god but God,” they shouted, in Arabic. “The martyrs”—all those who have died in Gaza and Palestine—“are beloved of God.”
Hunter is part of the City University of New York system—the largest system of its kind in the United States, spanning twenty-five campuses. The student population at CUNY is more representative of its generation than that of any small liberal-arts school: sixty per cent of those enrolled at CUNY are first-generation college students, and CUNY colleges are among the best in the country at helping young people from low-income backgrounds move into the middle class. During the twentieth century, CUNY’s colleges became a home for working-class Jews who were boxed out of more prestigious universities because of antisemitism, and, over time, the university has become a destination for working-class and immigrant kids of all backgrounds. Hunter, which is among the most academically competitive of the CUNY colleges, tends to be a commuter school, and students often work part or full time.
At the rally, Jannatul Nila, a senior in sociology and media studies, stepped into the circle and took the bullhorn. “Look at the people around you,” she told the crowd. “We are so much more than tokens of diversity. We are a people, and we have the power of the truth on our side.” She started running through a verbal syllabus: “We are the students of Frantz Fanon,” the psychiatrist and anti-colonial writer best known for his reflections on violence in the Algerian resistance movement. “We are the students of Edward Said,” the Palestinian American scholar who helped to establish the discipline of post-colonial studies. Up above, protesters standing in a glass skybridge raised red posters, spelling out F-R-E-E P-A-L-E-S-T-I-N-E big enough for people in passing taxis to see.
And then everyone got quiet. A plastic container full of red paint went around. Students dipped their palms and held up their hands, cactus-arm style, as they sat on their knees on the ground. An organizer began reading names and ages into the bullhorn: Jaana al-Astal, fourteen years old. Najia Hasoona, eighty-six years old. The crowd had grown; roughly two hundred young people had stopped what they were doing to listen to the names of people who had died thousands of miles away in Gaza. At least twenty-two campus security officers and N.Y.P.D. cops watched, from behind metal police barriers. Every so often, adults who were well out of college—almost always men—would walk by and shout. “Am Yisrael chai!” (“The people of Israel live”). Or: “You are all terrorists!” A group of young women standing at the back of the crowd, one with a large Palestinian flag draped over her backpack, flipped them the bird.
If someone were looking for clichés about achieving peace in the Middle East, they would not find them here. “It is right to rebel!” the students shouted. “Israel, go to Hell!” Their politics did not follow the nineties script of calling for Palestinian statehood within limited borders. “We don’t want no two states! We want ’48!” they yelled. “Settlers, settlers, go back home. Palestine is ours alone!” One student wore a bumper sticker on her vest: “Resist colonial power by any means necessary.” Many student groups have adopted the same tone on social media. On October 7th, after Hamas attacked Israel, Hunter’s Palestine Solidarity Alliance posted an image of bulldozers breaking through the Gaza fence, overlaid with a cartoon of a person wearing a kaffiyeh over their mouth and nose. “The resistance movement has initiated ‘Al-Aqsa Flood,’ ” the post said. “This initiative, led by Mohammed Dief, the commander-in-chief of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, marks a significant moment.” It went on, “Similar to Dief, we demand ALL educational institutions to stand up against the occupation and actively support the Al-Aqsa Flood Initiative.”
Some critics of pro-Palestinian activists see posts like these as calling for the death of Jews—an issue this crowd was clearly attuned to. At the rally, the protesters always used “Zionist” or “Israel” to talk about their enemies, never “Jews.” An adjunct history professor, Sándor John, took the bullhorn and spoke about being the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors. “We are told that to stand in defense of the Palestinian people, under the bombs provided by the U.S. government . . . is antisemitism,” he said. “Shame!” the crowd shouted back.
The argument that John was making—that anti-Zionism is not the same as antisemitism, and that opposing Israel’s military actions does not make Jews less safe—has gained traction on the Jewish left in recent years. But Jews, along with the rest of the country, are divided about where the line between the two lies. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a resolution declaring that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” but Jerry Nadler, a Jewish congressman who represents a large Jewish population in his congressional district in central Manhattan, voted “present” and spoke against the resolution. At a recent hearing, Representative Elise Stefanik grilled the presidents of M.I.T., Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania about whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” violates their schools’ codes of conduct. Stefanik seemed to be alluding to chants such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a slogan that is frequently used at campus rallies, including the protest at Hunter. Some interpret the phrase as a call to eliminate or remove all the Jews currently living within Israel’s borders en route to establishing a Palestinian state. None of the three presidents gave a categorical “yes” in response to Stefanik’s question. Shortly afterward, Elizabeth Magill, the head of Penn, resigned under pressure.
Across CUNY, many of the most vocal pro-Palestinian advocacy groups include Jewish organizers. But other Jewish students and faculty on CUNY campuses feel personally targeted by the pro-Palestine activism. “There’s stickers all over CUNY, everywhere, that say things like ‘Zionist donors stop censoring CUNY students.’ But we all know when it says ‘Zionist,’ they mean ‘Jewish,’ ” one CUNY professor, who asked not to be named, told me. “We have been totally and completely betrayed by the left. We don’t have any allies. We’re just out here on our own.” One flyer posted in Hunter’s school of social work included the statement that “Israel is a state built to put Jews over all others.” Outside the Hunter campus, a poster of the hostages being held in Gaza was defaced with swastikas. Merav Fine Braun, the head of Hunter’s Hillel, a Jewish campus organization, told me that she gets fifteen to twenty reports of antisemitic graffiti every day. Many Jewish students care about Palestinian rights and are critical of the Israeli government, she said, but don’t feel like there’s space for them to engage with the protests. “The chants that we’re hearing at some of these rallies are hate speech,” she said. “When you say something like ‘Globalize the intifada’ or ‘From the river to the sea,’ and if you’re not acknowledging Hamas as a terrorist organization—which the students are not doing—that is where that gray line becomes really black and white.” Jewish students, she said, understand phrases like these “to be direct threats.”
After the rally, I sat down with three of the protesters at a coffee shop across the street. “I don’t understand the rhetoric of people being threatened by ‘from the river to the sea,’ ” Jonathan Isla Rampagoa, a first-year student, said. “It’s quite literally geography—that we just want that whole land belonging back to the people who are now refugees.” Rampagoa, who has braces and long, floppy bangs that cover his eyes, has had a tumultuous few weeks. A local resident filmed him and a friend tearing down hostage posters near Hunter’s campus, and the video was picked up by the New York Post. The newspaper contacted the New York Civil Liberties Union, where Rampagoa had participated in a program as a high schooler, to ask whether the organization condoned his behavior. “The Upper East Side is historically very white, very non-Muslim, and openly Zionist,” another student, who asked to go by her nickname, Hümy, added. She wore a black sweatshirt with “FREE PALESTINE” in silver rhinestones.
“Those ‘KIDNAPPED’ posters are purposefully put there as bait so that people like me, who are aggravated and see those posters, take them down and somebody around the block has their camera ready to film,” Rampagoa went on. He described the posters as “a microcosm of the puppet actors that are playing in the media to enact Israel sympathy and Zionist sympathy.” If people “really cared about the hostages,” he continued, “they would understand and condemn their own government.”
Nila, the rally organizer, who is a senior at Hunter, told me that she grew up ambiently aware of what was happening in Palestine. Her parents, who are immigrants from Bangladesh, would talk about it at home, and she started researching the issue on Tumblr as a young teen. “I saw a picture of Zionists sitting on top of a hill and watching bombs fall on Palestinians, and they were clapping and cheering,” she said. “That was one of the most disgusting things I had ever seen openly on the Internet. It really shook me. And I was, like, no matter how anyone tries to justify this or tries to label it as anything else, I know for a fact what the truth is.” All three students agreed that “the mainstream media” in the U.S. does not report factually on Israel and Palestine. Nila said she gets most of her news from journalists in Gaza who post on Instagram.
Pro-Palestine activists commonly argue that what’s happening in the Middle East did not start on October 7th, when Hamas led its attack on Israel—a long context led up to that day. Over the past two months, October 7th has seemed to slowly recede into the collapsed buildings and desperate hunger of Gaza; the focus has shifted to Israel’s violence, not Hamas’s. And yet the question of how the activists think about October 7th illuminates the moral logic of a generation: What is the role of violence in the pursuit of justice?
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.”
Hunter’s Palestine Solidarity Alliance is connected to Students for Justice in Palestine, or S.J.P., which is arguably the most prominent pro-Palestine advocacy group in America—not just among campus groups but in general. In the past two months, the organization’s visibility has grown considerably as some Americans have sublimated their anxiety about what’s happening in Israel and Gaza into rage-filled debates over what’s happening on U.S. college campuses. At the end of October, the United States Senate passed a resolution condemning several S.J.P. chapters for statements they made after October 7th, calling their rhetoric “antisemitic, repugnant, and morally contemptible.” S.J.P. chapters have been the primary force in mobilizing major, widespread student demonstrations in support of Gaza and Palestinian rights—and they’ve provided the intellectual frameworks for those protests.
Palestine is a central case, and a central cause, within decolonial studies, an academic field that has “exploded” in the past twenty years or so, according to Ziad Abu-Rish, a scholar of the modern Middle East at Bard College. Its premise is that even today’s world, which is almost exclusively composed of sovereign countries, is “still organized by colonial boundaries, colonial resources, and colonial ideas and philosophies,” Linda Martín Alcoff, a philosopher and decolonial theorist at Hunter College, told me. A rising generation of scholars identifies with a new subfield, settler-colonial studies, and a new journal was created to explore this framework, which posits that powerful nations resettle new peoples in conquered territories in order to permanently alter their character and make use of their resources. These ideas have gained significant traction in the academic disciplines that have expressed the most support for Palestine: associations for American studies, critical ethnic studies, Indigenous studies, and several others have voted to support the B.D.S.—or Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions—movement, which aims to end international support for Israel.
As these younger scholars have crafted syllabi and designed courses on these subjects, their students have helped their ideas make the jump into the popular imagination. In the hands of activists, dense concepts are transformed into digestible slogans, with terms like “settler colonialism” sliding easily into Instagram posts. When I spoke with students involved with S.J.P., they insisted that what’s happening in Gaza is not “complicated.” Instead, they cited these academic concepts as evidence that Israel—“the Zionist entity”—can be understood solely as an oppressive, colonial power, settled by a non-Indigenous population at the ongoing expense of native Palestinians. The narrative of Israel as a refuge for survivors of the Holocaust, and, later, for Jews who were expelled from Arab states, is obscured.
Students mostly get involved in S.J.P. in one of two ways, Carrie Zaremba, a member of the organization’s national steering committee who graduated from college last year, said: they feel connected to the cause because of their identity, or they’re looking for a leftist organizing space. Chapters tend to be diverse, and differ wildly across campuses; although some are primarily Arab and Muslim, others are equally likely to attract white and Jewish students. Sean Eren, another steering-committee member, told me that “S.J.P. is oriented in a special way. The idea is to appeal to people who know nothing.” Chapters start “small, with more tangible, visible elements of the Palestinian struggle,” and link those to prominent historical episodes elsewhere, such as apartheid in South Africa or the oppression of Native Americans in the U.S. “We go from apartheid to understanding what settler colonialism means. And then, from settler colonialism, we move to imperialism. And then, for example, what does Marxism have to do with Palestine?” After just one year of involvement with S.J.P., he said, “I really had a pretty solid grasp of what Palestinian liberation meant, and how interconnected it was to all the other struggles we see on the streets.”
According to Hatem Bazian, one of the group’s founders, the first S.J.P. chapter was started by roughly ten people at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1993. This was around the time of the Oslo Accords, diplomatic negotiations that resulted in mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Bazian, who was beginning his doctoral studies at Berkeley at the time, was part of a significant group of Palestinians who opposed the agreements, arguing that they were made on Israel’s terms in order to facilitate Israel’s security aims. “There was a targeting of anyone who would speak against Oslo, because you’re speaking against apple pie and ice cream,” he said. A few years later, S.J.P. organized a conference at Berkeley intended to explore other frameworks for understanding the future of Palestine—ones that were not premised on apologia for Israel, as Bazian put it. “The post-Oslo framing, and the lack of a critique of Oslo, presented a platform to discuss where Palestinian political empowerment rests,” he said.
S.J.P. chapters began to proliferate in the early two-thousands, during the early years of the Iraq War and amid the second intifada, a series of Palestinian uprisings against Israel. Global attention was focussed on Israel and Palestine, and students were looking for a way to get involved in the cause. But, at the time, student activists didn’t agree on how to interpret and talk about Israel and Palestine. Will Youmans, an associate professor at George Washington University, who helped organize a 2srcsrc2 conference at Berkeley, told me that the students who came had a lot of political disagreements. “The East Coast groups were much more conservative,” he said; they wanted to see the end of Israel’s military occupation and the birth of Palestinian statehood. West Coast students “had more of an analysis of Israel as an apartheid state,” calling for Palestinian refugees to be able to return to their homes within the borders of Israel. “We kind of all just came away with, we’re each on our own campus, and we can learn from each other, but we can’t have one national platform because everyone’s so different,” he said.
Over the years, S.J.P. has evolved. A national group, called N.S.J.P., formed to organize conferences, and later grew to be able to provide more robust support to students. But the decentralized spirit still exists. “I used to pay for flyers out of my pocket,” Youmans said. “There was a power in that. We didn’t need grownups sitting around telling us what to do.”
Bazian said that Students for Justice in Palestine has been most successful at creating “a localized engagement with Palestine.” It can be challenging to get Americans, and especially students, to care about foreign-policy issues “when you’re only debating what is taking place over there,” Bazian explained. So S.J.P.s have drawn attention to the ways that their campuses, and their country, play a role in the conflict. Chapters tend to focus on getting their universities to divest from companies that operate in or sell weapons to Israel, or that do business there. S.J.P. chapters have also strengthened the relationship between advocacy for Palestine and for other leftist social-justice issues. Since the nineteen-sixties, Black nationalists in America have expressed support for Palestine. The sense of common cause between anti-racist and pro-Palestine advocacy was strengthened in 2src14, when Palestinians in Gaza reached out to Black Lives Matter protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and provided them with tips on dealing with tear-gas inhalation. The connection between pro-Palestine and anti-racist activism in the U.S. deepened in 2src2src, after the murder of George Floyd; there is a mural of Floyd on the border wall separating the West Bank from Israel. At the time, Eren was a student at a New England arts school, where an S.J.P. had recently been started. “Our chapter became pretty active on the scene, helping our Black comrades organize events and protests against our campus and local police,” he told me.
Today, the kinds of intellectual and political disagreements that divided early S.J.P. organizers have smoothed out. To borrow Youmans’s description, the West Coast won. It’s not just fringe activists who believe that Israelis are colonizers who have unjustly forced Palestinians from their homes. “The wellspring of criticism is far beyond the S.J.P.s,” Ziad Abu-Rish, the scholar at Bard, who was involved in S.J.P. activism for about a decade when he was a student, told me. The students who are showing up to rallies “don’t really attend meetings,” he said. “They might have come to one event in the past two months. But they hold a lot of the same views.” The appeal of activism for Palestine also seems to be growing. Zaremba told me that there were around two hundred and fifty S.J.P. chapters before October 7th; since then, the National S.J.P. has received more than eighty requests from students looking to form new groups at their schools. “There’s a whole new generation of people who are currently being politicized,” Abu-Rish said.
Some of the responsibility for S.J.P.’s rise lies with the group’s critics, who, in trying to discredit the organization, actually amplify its message. Many such critics have focussed on a tool kit circulated by the National S.J.P. in the immediate aftermath of October 7th, which called the attacks “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance” which broke down the “facade of an impenetrable settler colony.” The document provided tips on messaging and organizing events, and included a promotional graphic featuring a cartoon of a fighter on a paraglider, a reference to the militants who sailed into the Israeli desert and killed and wounded hundreds at the Nova music festival. Eren called the imagery “a little absurd” and “iconic,” and said he has no regrets about promoting its use. He also doesn’t think it’s relevant whether student activists support Hamas’s tactics, including on October 7th. “When students take to the streets in support of Palestinian liberation, when their families could be in the houses being levelled at that very moment, I think it’s really odd to question whether they supported the actions of an armed militia,” he said. According to Eren, Meta suppressed National S.J.P.’s Instagram posts promoting the tool kit, and Google restricted access to the PDF on Drive. But the conservative Web site the Daily Wire obtained and published a copy of the tool kit, which Eren credited with its wide circulation.
The heavyweight behind the efforts to take down S.J.P. is the Anti-Defamation League, or A.D.L., which was founded more than a century ago to document and combat antisemitism in America. At the end of October, the A.D.L., along with a legal nonprofit called the Brandeis Center, sent a letter to nearly two hundred college presidents condemning Students for Justice in Palestine for its “pro-Hamas” and “violent anti-Israel” rhetoric. “SJP chapters are not advocating for Palestinian rights; they are celebrating terrorism,” the letter said. It also urged colleges to investigate their chapters of S.J.P. for “potentially providing material support to Hamas,” warning that schools that do not do so may be “violating their Jewish students’ legal rights” under Title VI, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, skin color, and national origin.
“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, 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.
Participating in pro-Palestine activism can still be a fraught endeavor for students, even at schools that haven’t formally shut down their S.J.P. chapters. 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 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.”
CUNY’s top administrators have not banned any S.J.P. chapters, but they have taken a firm position. “We want to be clear that we don’t condone the activities of any internal organizations that are sponsoring rallies to celebrate or support Hamas’ cowardly actions,” the system’s chancellor, Félix Matos Rodríguez, wrote on October 9th. A group called CUNY4Palestine believes that the administration has been biased against activists, and has been tracking what it considers to be instances of “retaliation” against students. (“It is misleading to suggest that CUNY retaliates or is biased against any student or group,” a CUNY spokesperson said in a statement.) A group of Muslim women at Hunter reported that a public-safety officer followed them around, tore down flyers they were posting, and asked for their I.D.s. Members of the John Jay S.J.P. alleged that the school’s Student Activities Association tried to cancel a pro-Palestine panel over “contractual issues,” even though the club had followed all the rules in the student handbook. (CUNY disputes this version of events.) A Brooklyn councilwoman, Inna Vernikov, wore a gun visibly tucked into her waistband at a pro-Palestine rally hosted by Brooklyn College students, where she yelled at them and accused them of supporting Hamas. She later turned herself in for arrest, but the charges were dropped, because the gun was inoperable.
“Students have really felt betrayed on campus by administrations that are there to protect them,” Eren, the steering-committee member, said. “But, at the same time, I don’t think the bans have had the intended effect.” He added, “There’s so much people power behind the rallies, the protests, the events that have been held on campuses, and that’s a real threat to the Israel lobby.” The bans have demonstrated that “American institutions aren’t interested in free discourse,” he said. “They’re interested in encouraging students to conform to an American ideology, and what that really means is a colonial ideology. And students who resist that, when they get too loud, they’re punished.”
On a recent Friday, thirty-six activists from CUNY4Palestine lay across the steps of the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown, wearing black clothes and red paint on their hands, pretending to be dead. These were not the first-gen students and hijabis who showed up at Hunter; many of them appeared to be white. On one organizer’s bullhorn, a red sticker titled “Globalize the Intifada” featured a detailed flowchart explaining that “settler-colonialism is an ongoing process, not a historical event,” with arrows pointing back and forth between terms such as “racial capitalism,” “gentrification,” “poverty wages,” and the “patriarchal white-supremacist nation state.”
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.
But some stories are self-evident. The CUNY activists rolled out a long, taped-together train of printer paper, a litany of the names of people in Gaza who have died since October 7th. They fixed it down with blue painter’s tape, but a couple of activists crouched nearby to make sure it didn’t blow away, jumping up every so often to stop a passing pedestrian from treading on it. The paper stretched two-thirds of the way down the block, listing people who died poor and probably hungry, people who died buried under bombed apartment buildings and in hospitals that couldn’t function because of the Israeli blockade. Children, old people, and, yes, almost certainly Hamas fighters who participated in the October 7th attacks. The paper could have stretched all the way back to Thirty-fifth Street, and all the way down to Thirty-fourth again, if it had included the names of all the people who have been killed by guns and rockets and bombs in Israel and Palestine.
The students who shout in the streets, or even the faculty who defend them, do not represent the full range of views among those who advocate for Palestinian rights—or even among Palestinians in Gaza, who, directly prior to October 7th, expressed little trust in Hamas, according to an October survey by the Arab Barometer, a scholarly-research network. There are plenty of leftist scholars who don’t see the establishment of Israel as an exclusively colonial enterprise, but who see the Palestinian situation as a humanitarian crisis. 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.” She went on: “If this distinction isn’t made, we are lost.”
Rashid Khalidi, one of the leading historians of Palestine, wrote a whole book making the case that the Zionist project is similar to other colonial ventures, and yet “there are differences,” he told me. “The Zionist project was a national project, as well as a settler-colonial project,” he said. “Zionism envisions the establishment of a Jewish state, not of a British state, in Palestine. Zionism is, in that respect, unique.” In his view, the point of applying academic frameworks, such as settler colonialism, to Israel is to illuminate its motivations and actions, such as its support for settlements in the West Bank. “Anyone who doesn’t see that as a settler-colonial process is not looking at the right things,” he said.
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.”
I recently spoke with the board of the S.J.P. at John Jay College, another CUNY school, whose members described feeling very alone. They’ve tried to get other student groups to partner with them, but leaders of those groups say they’re afraid to speak out. The S.J.P. board members are all immigrants from the Middle East or the children of immigrants from the Middle East. None of their parents want them to be involved in activism for Palestine; one student told me that she keeps her involvement in S.J.P. a secret from her family. “When we bring up to our parents that we want to join a club that, for some reason, is so controversial, they get worried that we’re putting all their efforts for us to have a better future at risk,” Z., a sophomore who, like the rest of the board, asked to go by an initial to protect her identity, told me.
S., a senior, said they resent being asked whether their words and actions make Jewish students feel unsafe on campus. “They are some of the most protected students—the administration does a lot for them,” she said. “No one asks Muslim or Arab students if we feel safe on campus.” (“All our students have the same protections under CUNY policies,” a university spokesperson said.) And the S.J.P. board members resent being asked whether they condemn Hamas. “It’s demeaning. You are belittling the fact that these people have been kicked out of their homes,” Z. said. “You’re saying that every person who has fought for their lives, that they’re a terrorist.”
J., a sophomore, has never been to Palestine. The village where her grandparents lived was destroyed in 1948—a year most Israelis remember as that of their War of Independence, and which most Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, referring to their people’s mass dispossession. “I feel like a piece of me is missing,” she said. “I want to rebuild our houses. I want to live there. I want to plant our olive trees. I really want to go back. I miss home.” She began to cry. “Both my grandmas are still alive. Anytime I go over to their houses, they tell me stories about how they grew up there. The way they describe it is so vivid, I could perfectly imagine it. I could see myself there. I could see myself baking with them, cooking with them. It feels so homey.” She added, “I hope I can go one day.” ♦