I’m a Columbia Professor. The Protests on My Campus Are Not Justice.

Last Thursday, in the music humanities class I teach at Columbia University, two students were giving an in-class presentation on the composer John Cage. His most famous piece is “4’33”,” which directs us to listen in silence to surrounding noise for exactly that period of time.

I had to tell the students we could not listen to that piece that afternoon, because the surrounding noise would have been not birds or people walking by in the hallway, but infuriated chanting from protesters outside the building. Lately that noise has been almost continuous during the day and into the evening, including lusty chanting of “From the river to the sea.” Two students in my class are Israeli; three others to my knowledge are American Jews. I couldn’t see making them sit and listen to this as if it were background music.

I thought about what would have happened if protesters were instead chanting anti-Black slogans, or even something like “D.E.I. has got to die,” to the same “Sound Off” tune that “From the river to the sea” has been adapted to. They would have lasted roughly five minutes before masses of students shouted them down and drove them off the campus. Chants like that would have been condemned as a grave rupture of civilized exchange, heralded as threatening resegregation and branded as a form of violence. I’d wager that most of the student protesters against the Gaza War would view them that way, in fact. Why do so many people think that weekslong campus protests against not just the war in Gaza but Israel’s very existence are nevertheless permissible?

Although I know many Jewish people will disagree with me, I don’t think that Jew-hatred is as much the reason for this sentiment as opposition to Zionism and the war on Gaza. I know some of the protesters, including a couple who were taken to jail last week, and I find it very hard to imagine that they are antisemitic. Yes, there can be a fine line between questioning Israel’s right to exist and questioning Jewish people’s right to exist. And yes, some of the rhetoric amid the protests crosses it.

Conversations I have had with people heatedly opposed to the war in Gaza, signage and writings on social media and elsewhere, and anti-Israel and generally hard-leftist comments that I have heard for decades on campuses place these confrontations within a larger battle against power structures — here in the form of what they call colonialism and genocide — and against whiteness. The idea is that Jewish students and faculty should be able to tolerate all of this because they are white.

I understand this to a point. Pro-Palestinian rallies and events, of which there have been many here over the years, are not in and of themselves hostile to Jewish students, faculty and staff members. Disagreement will not always be a juice and cookies affair. However, the relentless assault of this current protest — daily, loud, louder, into the night and using ever-angrier rhetoric — is beyond what anyone should be expected to bear up under regardless of their whiteness, privilege or power.

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