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"Said would be throwing stones": Columbia graduate students speak out against campus censorship

Last month, Columbia University suspended two pro-Palestine student groups: Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). In the 9th testimonial of our Palestine Uncensored series, Columbia grad students speak out against campus censorship and discrimination.

Palestine Uncensored 5 December 2023

"Said would be throwing stones": Columbia graduate students speak out against campus censorship

In her first statement on the war in Gaza, amidst platitudes about how ‘devastated’ she was by the ‘horrific attack on Israel’, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik made sure to promote an event entitled “Assessing Israel’s Next Moves,” whose panelists included Hilary Clinton, Yediot Ahronot Daily columnist Nada Eyal, and Robert O’Brien, one of Donald Trump’s former security advisors. No mention was made of Palestinian lives, nor were any of Columbia’s preeminent scholars of Palestine included in the advertised event, such as Rashid Khalidi and Nadia Abu El-Haj.

On October 12th, the day of the first pro-Palestine rally held on campus, Columbia made an unprecedented move: closing the campus to all non-University ID holders. Students arriving on campus were met with waves of NYPD and Columbia Public Safety officers, and several helicopters hovered overhead throughout the day, not to mention hordes of press photographing and filming the event (despite Columbia’s new policy allowing entry exclusively to ID holders). This new securitization policy would continue in the ensuing weeks, exclusively on days when pro-Palestine rallies were being held. When Israeli student groups held vigils, the campus gates remained open to all. There is a cruel and unsurprising irony in the fact that Columbia’s decision to make campus accessible only via ID checkpoint parallels Israel’s color-coded identification card system, which controls Palestinians’ freedom of movement in the occupied territories.

Finally, on November 10th, Columbia announced the suspension of the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) student groups for the remainder of the semester, citing an alleged violation of university policies and for the use of “threatening rhetoric and intimidation.” It was later discovered that the policies JVP and SJP allegedly violated had been unilaterally revised by a newly-formed Special Committee on Campus Safety without any input from the University Senate. Though students and faculty have protested against these suspensions, they have yet to be rescinded. In the wake of October 7th, Columbia’s administration made itself clear: they stand with Israel exclusively and perceive any expression of Palestinian solidarity on campus to be dangerous and threatening.

But as some Columbia faculty members have rightly stated, calling for a ceasefire, grieving the death of tens of thousands of Palestinians, denouncing the apartheid system that rules life in Palestine, and strongly condemning the actions of Israel before and after October 7th are neither dangerous nor threatening. On the contrary, what is dangerous is the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism in order to cast pro-Palestine movements as hateful and terroristic. This is precisely the vile rhetoric used by some voices within the Columbia faculty, such as Shai Davidai, an Assistant Professor in the Business School. Davidai has referred to SJP and JVP as “Pro-Hamas student organizations,” and has openly called on Columbia to “grow a moral backbone” and “Ban Pro-Terror Student Organizations” that he asserts “celebrate rape and murder and who call for the eradication of an entire people from their country.” Beyond Columbia’s campus, Davidai has deployed threatening rhetoric against students at other institutions. For instance, on October 13th, a University of Kansas graduate student replied to one of Davidai’s inflammatory tweets by calling for peace for all peoples and arguing that there was nothing wrong with pointing out genocide, apartheid, and systemic oppression. In response, Davidai threatened to destroy the student’s career. In a since-deleted tweet, Davidai accused the student of “justifying the massacre and slaughter of babies,” before going on to state that he was “[s]haring so that all my friends in hiring committees are aware of this.”

Such threats and accusations are baseless, deliberate mischaracterizations of voices that have called for nothing but freedom, peace, and justice. In a different world this clear distortion of fact and narrative would be correctly deemed as incendiary and false, but in the wake of almost 20,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza and in the West Bank – and the recent shooting of three Palestinian students in Burlington, Vermont for wearing a keffiyeh and speaking in Arabic – this type of rhetoric pervades mainstream discourse and continues to carry substantial, pernicious, weight. Indeed, the censorship and repression of pro-Palestinian voices at Columbia and elsewhere does not only have the intended effect of quelling dissent, it also fans the flames of systemic and material violence against Palestinians, Muslims, and Arabs, and all those who support them.

It’s a well-known story that one of the most famous and prolific Palestinian intellectuals, Edward Said, had bullet-proofed the windows of his office at Columbia. His office was fire-bombed and desecrated, and he famously had a panic button within reach of his desk – just in case. More than twenty years after his death, departments and professorships have been endowed in his name. He has been a touchstone of Columbia’s intellectual capital. University presidents, donors, trustees, and professors alike have salivated at the mere mention of his name. For them, Said is a true token, his affiliation with Columbia is indisputable proof of a forward-thinking Ivy-League institution – nevermind that Said was a victim of hate and constant threats within its walls. Columbia has profited, materially and symbolically, from Said’s name. However, in the context of the ongoing genocide and Nakba against Palestine, Columbia has gone so far as to cancel numerous Palestine-focused events, including The Legacies of Edward W Said: Academic Praxis and the Question of Palestine, co-organized by the Columbia Global Centers in Amman, Jordan. In response to Columbia’s acts of censorship and repression, many have remarked that Said would be rolling in his grave. We believe that Said would be throwing stones – either made of words or stones themselves – at the doors of the Columbia officials working tirelessly to keep those in solidarity with Palestine out. To keep them out of campus, out of events, out of classes, out of sight and out of mind.

Our voices, however, persist; we are inside the campus gates, and we keep getting louder and louder.

Free Palestine.

A & M, PhD Student Workers at Columbia

If you have a story to share, please send it to pdiaries@verso.co.uk. We are publishing testimonies from all over the world. To see the full collection of testimonials, check out the Palestine Uncensored series' main page.

Read Testimonial 10 in our Palestine Uncensored series → 

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