torn up and apart

Who Gets to Protest at Columbia?

What led the university to suspend pro-Palestinian student groups.

November 9: Zionist students counterprotest during a demonstration by SJP and SVP. Photo: Thomas Prior
November 9: Zionist students counterprotest during a demonstration by SJP and SVP. Photo: Thomas Prior

After standing through a three-hour protest on Columbia University’s quad, Mohsen Mahdawi and a few other students grabbed salads and soggy pizza slices from the dining hall and collapsed onto couches in a quiet, glass-walled room inside the student center. “I originally tried to reserve this room as a place for Palestinian students to mourn, but the school delayed and delayed,” said Mahdawi, co-president of the Palestinian Students Union. “Finally, they gave it to us for a few hours tonight.”

The protest on November 9 was the latest in a string of actions organized by student groups since early October, and, as far as campus protests go, it had been boilerplate. A few hundred students gathered on the Low Library steps, staged a die-in, showed off an art installation, and read demands through a bullhorn. Mahdawi watched from the periphery. At 33, he is conspicuously older than almost all of his undergrad peers. He was born in the West Bank and spent most of his childhood in the Far’a refugee camp, where, at age 10, he says he saw an Israeli soldier shoot and kill his best friend. A few years later, a soldier shot Mahdawi through the leg, leaving a scar.

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Halfway through the rally, a passerby unaffiliated with any Palestinian organization made a scene, shouting an antisemitic, racist rant. Mahdawi confronted the man even before campus security arrived, then took the bullhorn to condemn him. “Shame on him! Shame on him!” Still, hours later as he sat in the student center, the interaction vexed Mahdawi. He worried the outburst would reinforce the perception that protesting Israel’s military campaign was antisemitic. “I wanted to say, ‘This guy does not belong to us. This guy is confused. We condemn this,’” he said, his voice tired and raspy, “‘and we reassure you that we are against anybody who is antisemitic.’”

Mahdawi’s condemnation did little to mollify campus administrators. The next day, Gerald Rosberg, a senior vice-president at the university, suspended Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, the organizations that staged the protest, for the remainder of the semester. Columbia isn’t alone — Brandeis no longer recognizes SJP, and George Washington has suspended it. Ron DeSantis has ordered all of Florida’s public universities to disband their chapters, though that effort may be hindered by a First Amendment lawsuit.

In a statement, Rosberg said the protest had been an “unauthorized event” that had “included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.” Mahdawi texted me an hour later: “Brother, campus is on fire.”

A commemoration of Palestinians killed at the SJP and JVP protest on November 9. Photo: Thomas Prior

Columbia is no stranger to unrest (see 1968), but the past several weeks have been especially tumultuous. Many Jewish students feel as if they are walking targets, as evidenced by brazen acts of antisemitism around campus. SJP members and their allies believe they are being silenced by the university and that instances of Islamophobia have gone unacknowledged. Much of the profoundly emotional split boils down to semantics: What is, according to the university, “threatening rhetoric and intimidation” and what is free speech?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it all started with an open letter. On October 9, Palestine Solidarity Groups, a coalition of nearly two dozen student organizations, issued a statement that said “the weight of responsibility for the war and casualties undeniably lies with the Israeli extremist government.” Signatories of the letter defended the statement as important context for understanding Hamas’ attack, but many said it read more like a justification.

Three days later, hundreds of students gathered on Columbia’s quad for dueling protests, one organized by Students Supporting Israel and another by SJP and JVP. Some Jewish and Israeli students believed the Palestine rally was another example of insidious antisemitism taking hold on campus. Noa Fay, a Barnard senior, described it as “pro-Hamas.” “I started crying when I was there. It was a Nazi rally, just with a different flag and different language,” said Fay, who was especially unsettled by the “From the river to the sea” chants.

Elsewhere on campus, in what prosecutors allege was a hate crime, a 19-year-old former student assaulted an Israeli student who was hanging up flyers of hostages that read KIDNAPPED. A few weeks later, someone drew a swastika on a bathroom wall in the School of International Affairs. The incidents received national media coverage, and on October 30, Fay joined a group of Jewish and Israeli students at a press conference to say they felt unsafe on campus. Jewish students had been subjected to antisemitic slurs, they said, and their fear was high enough that some had taken to escorting one another around for protection. Later, Fay appeared with other Barnard and Columbia students on Fox News to sound the alarm, the kind of media offensive that would rankle any administrator and get the attention of wealthy donors.

While Zionist students lobbied the administration, some of their supporters took aim at student leaders whose organizations signed on to the Palestine Solidarity Groups’ initial statement. On October 25, a nonprofit called Accuracy in Media began plastering students’ names and faces on a billboard truck circling campus under the headline COLUMBIA’S LEADING ANTISEMITES. The group, whose president, Adam Guillette, is an alum of right-wing “gotcha” masters Project Veritas, also created websites to name and shame the student leaders. “It’s obviously a target-rich environment of hateful antisemites on campuses throughout the country,” Guillette told me.

At least one of Guillette’s targets, Yusuf Hafez, is suing Accuracy in Media and Guillette for defamation. Hafez, a senior at Columbia, says the nonprofit mistakenly identified him as the current president of Turath, a student association that signed the joint statement. In fact, Hafez was president last academic year and, the lawsuit alleges, had nothing to do with Turath’s decision to sign the letter. In addition to putting his face on the doxing truck, Accuracy in Media created a website,, which has since been taken down.

The doxing truck had a chilling effect on campus protests. Fewer students showed up to the rallies, members of SJP told me. Those who did often hid their faces, fearing that a classmate would send their information to Accuracy in Media or that the doxing truck would park outside their parents’ homes, as it did those of a number of Harvard students. Their hypervigilance was just as much about safety as it was about being tarred as an antisemite. Soon after the first pro-Palestine rally on campus, the school-owned radio station, WKCR, played an interview with someone at the rally who identified himself as an administrator at Columbia’s medical center. “I’m Jewish, okay? I’m a Zionist, okay? I hope every one of these people die,” he said.

That interview unnerved Maryam Alwan, a Palestinian American undergrad. Before October, she’d been outspoken and welcomed tense exchanges with Zionist classmates. But there was something more sinister about how campus felt in recent weeks. “Swinging from a rope,” said the subject line of one email she read in SJP’s inbox. “That’s where islamic trash belong. We have plenty of rope for you,” read the body of the email. Alwan deleted her social-media accounts, and when she attended rallies, she removed jewelry that might identify her and wrapped her entire head with a keffiyeh. “I was fully covered to the point that I looked scary — because I was scared,” she said. “My friends didn’t even know it was me leading chants.”

On November 1, Columbia president Minouche Shafik formed a “special resource group” to address Guillette’s truck and websites. The next day, Hillary Clinton was about an hour into a two-hour lecture at the School of International and Public Affairs when half of her class walked out and sat in the building’s lobby to protest what they saw as the university’s inaction on doxing.

The following week, students gathered for a nine-hour sit-in at the School of Social Work. According to the student newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, Rosberg made it clear there would be disciplinary consequences. He also talked to the protesters, who told him the university seemed to be responding to students’ worries about antisemitism but not to Palestinian students who feel intimidated on campus. At one point, Rosberg pointed to a FROM THE RIVER TO THE SEA sign and said he “hears all day, every day, that that is a call for genocide.” Protesters argued it was a “land back” slogan, which students repeatedly told me wasn’t meant to intimidate anyone.

“We cannot allow ourselves to start killing each other,” Rosberg said. Two days later, he suspended SJP and JVP.

The university has been opaque about why, exactly, it suspended the groups. Student leaders have accused the administration of a setup, pointing to changes quietly made to language in the university’s student-group-event policy in recent weeks that could have provided cover to suspend the groups for holding an “unauthorized” protest. Students showed me side-by-side comparisons of the policies, marked up like an LSAT prep book. Where the old policy said that special consideration “will be made” for last-minute events, going forward it “may be made,” and “final approval,” rather than a “review” of an application, was needed before an event proceeds. According to members of SJP, administrators cried foul when the group applied for a permit over email, claiming it now needed to submit a paper application. (Rosberg did not respond to a request for comment.)

The suspensions seem only to have deepened rifts. Columbia professors and alumni condemned the decision. Downtown, New School professors released a statement expressing relief that their institution hadn’t “followed in the footsteps”of DeSantis. Soon after Rosberg announced the decision, Mahdawi was back in front of a crowd of 400 or so students in Columbia’s quad, telling them that more than 40 student organizations had formed a new coalition to pressure the university into divesting from Israel. It was twilight, and Mahdawi’s keffiyeh was draped over his shoulders, his pant leg rolled up to show his scar. “What Columbia has done under the name of safety and security is technically weaponizing the idea of safety and security. It’s the same technique that Israel has been using for 75 years to steal lands, to kill people, to commit genocide,” he said to cheers.

The threat of doxing still loomed. “Almost everyone here wears a mask because of how scared they are,” said Deen Haleem, a third-year at Columbia Law School. Two of Haleem’s classmates had job offers from white-shoe law firm Davis Polk rescinded, though the firm has since said it is reconsidering its decision.

For Alwan, censuring SJP was so infuriating that it was freeing. At the protest, she and a friend stood in front of the crowd and ripped their keffiyehs from their faces. “We are done hiding!” Alwan yelled into the microphone. “There’s no point in living a double life,” she told me afterward, “when I know in my heart that I’m not doing anything wrong.”

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