You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Real “Outside Agitators” of These Protests Are Members of Congress

There’s blame to go around here, but this started because a showboating GOP congresswoman lit the match that started this fire.

House Speaker Mike Johnson at Columbia University
House Speaker Mike Johnson takes questions during his political stunt at Columbia University on April 24.

Protests on college campuses against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and against American support for that campaign are proliferating. Some of these protests have gone beyond peaceful dissent and have included the occupation of university buildings. At UCLA, the protesters have been attacked violently by an outside group of supporters of Israel while police took their time before intervening. Things could deteriorate further.

But in my view, all of this trouble really started in Congress. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce has a broad mandate, mostly focused on economic issues. Its official website says that it is “focused on promoting access to high-quality education for students and safe, productive workplaces for working Americans.” Yet somehow, the committee’s chair, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, a far-right Republican, aided and abetted by committee colleague Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, thought it appropriate for the body to hold a hearing on April 17 in which they both questioned the president of Columbia University, Nemat Shafik, on whether she was doing enough to suppress expressions of antisemitism and criticism of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza on the Columbia campus. 

Shafik, apparently eager not to follow in the footsteps of the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT at an earlier hearing of the same committee, made a number of statements at the hearing that exacerbated tensions on the Columbia campus and helped lead to some actions that punished students at Columbia for the peaceful expression of their views on the Gaza conflict.

This, in turn, inspired students at universities across the country to demonstrate solidarity with the Columbia students by holding what started out as peaceful protests on their own campuses against Israel’s campaign in Gaza. Some of these universities followed the path of president Shafik by calling in the police and suspending the student protesters. The House committee’s hearings became the precipitating factor in creating a crisis in American higher education.

I have personal reasons to be sensitive to antisemitism. I am a Jew, born in Berlin during the Nazi era, who survived because I was admitted to England as an infant two weeks before the start of World War II. In that period, when it mattered, other countries, including the United States, were turning away almost all Jewish refugees. In the case of the United States, the antisemitism of some high-level officials in the State Department was an important factor. In England, on the other hand, a small number of determined members of Parliament were able to overcome domestic resistance and secured the admission of more than 50,000 Jews fleeing Nazism in Germany and Austria in the year following Kristallnacht, the November 1938 pogrom against the Jews, when it became evident what lay ahead.

There has apparently been an upsurge in expressions of antisemitism on college campuses in the last several months. I think most of what is being labeled as antisemitism is criticism of Israel for its conduct in Gaza, and criticism of the U.S. for supplying Israel with heavy weapons and for blocking United Nations resolutions demanding a cease-fire. Some of those opposing Israel’s actions in Gaza go further and use slogans such as “From the river to the sea,” which seem to question Israel’s very existence. 

So far as I can tell, however, instances in which criticism of Israel veers into the racial antisemitism that became a scourge in Europe and the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century and eventually led to the Holocaust are relatively rare. Some such instances have involved outsiders coming onto college campuses to express antisemitic views. Also, as best I can tell, Jews—like me—are well represented among the critics of Israel’s actions in Gaza.

If there is a divide in the United States on the war in Gaza, it is not along racial, ethnic, or religious lines. It is a generational divide. Many young people, especially college students, who have grown up learning about such grave violations of rights as the annihilation of many Indigenous peoples, slavery, Jim Crow, and the Holocaust, feel a responsibility to speak up as they see tens of thousands of Gazans who were not involved in the crimes of Hamas being slaughtered.

Of course, there are limits on the rights of students to engage in protests on college campuses. They have no right to occupy buildings and disrupt classes or other important university activities. Even peaceful outdoor protests should not block access to buildings and should not be extended to interfere with events such as graduation ceremonies. Protesters may not engage in harassment of others on a campus or in physically intimidating behavior; and violence or the incitement of violence in circumstances in which it is likely to take place should be prohibited.

Yet the regulation of protests should not extend to the points of view expressed, however mistaken or even abhorrent they may be. Outsiders may be excluded, but students, faculty members, and others affiliated with a university should be free to gather peacefully on a college campus to denounce the actions of Hamas, or Israel, or the United States, or of the administration of the university.

The first time Columbia called in the police on April 18 and suspended students, it was not warranted. Reading the accounts of what happened immediately thereafter at other universities where the police were called in, it was probably not warranted at most of the universities that followed suit. Shafik seems to have tried to appease demagogic members of Congress. If so, it did not work. The members of Congress apparently had decided that they wanted to build on their success in securing the resignations of the presidents of two other Ivy League universities. They even enlisted House Speaker Mike Johnson to travel to New York to add his voice to their efforts.

Johnson used his brief visit to Columbia University to make a truly terrible proposal. He said he would call President Biden to demand that he send in the National Guard. Perhaps he was simply ignorant of what happened at Kent State University in May 1970 when the governor of Ohio called out the National Guard to deal with a student demonstration opposing the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The guardsmen opened fire on the student demonstrators, killing four students and wounding another nine, including one who became a quadriplegic. Fortunately, New York Governor Kathy Hochul responded sensibly by advising Johnson to stay in Washington and refrain from exacerbating the conflict at Columbia.

It is difficult to predict how this crisis on university campuses will evolve. What should be recognized is that the crisis is a product of efforts by a few members of Congress to advance their own political agendas, and of the failure of the leaders of some major universities to stand up to them appropriately. The members of Congress responsible should be reviled by their colleagues; and college faculties should demand that the leaders of their institutions should uphold the principles of freedom of speech that are intrinsic to a great university.