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Free Speech or Violence?

Student demonstrations at New York City universities are being used to divide and oversimplify the issue of free speech and antisemitism.

Students at Columbia University in Manhattan organized a protest against the war in Gaza. The protest movement has spread to many other schools now including Yale, M.I.T., New York University (NYU) and the University of Michigan.

Many have dismissed it as anti-Israel and antisemitic and surely some students do feel that way, as is their First Amendment right, but most reporting shows that the protests were peaceful. Those who attended the solidarity camps report that the majority of protestors are not antisemitic in their desire to stand with the Palestinians. In fact, Colombia Law professor Bassam Khawaja said this: “What I’ve seen is a peaceful group of students united for justice, putting their bodies on the line. Here they are hosting a Passover seder. It was beautiful.”

Colombia called in the NYPD to arrest protestors and now New York University has done the sameMany faculty walked out on Monday to oppose the decision to call the police on protestors.

Some Jewish students and faculty say that this makes them feel unsafe and threatened but many Jews were participants in the protests too. See the group who stands behind this pro-Israel protestor with a sign that says “Jews for a Free Palestine.”

This is not a time to simplify movements with slogans like “pro-Hamas” and “antisemite.” Neither is it a time to call all Jews “Zionists” or “pro-genocide.” These are humans we are talking about. These students have a right to peacefully protest U.S. involvement in any conflict that they want. Jewish students have a right to a safe learning environment.

While we wait to learn more about what is happening, it is worth asking: Who benefits from this division? Reporter Max Blumenthal discovered an Israeli lobbyist group offering cash for provocateurs to enter these protests. Why would they want that?

Also, why can’t universities prevent violence and allow for peaceful protests at the same time? As FIRE, the free speech advocacy group, points out: “Violence thus far appears to have been isolated, but things can change at any moment, and it must be made clear that any violence is unacceptable…. Peaceful protest must not be met with violence simply because of the viewpoints expressed.”

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