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Organized Student Labor Must Fight for Palestine

Newly unionized academic workers have a unique opportunity, and a duty, to support the movement for a Free Palestine.

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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As the pro-Palestine student movement in the U.S. has flourished in response to the recent siege on Gaza, reprisals from administration and campus police forces have escalated. From Ivy-League schools like Harvard and Columbia, to public institutions like the City University of New York (CUNY), universities are responding to their students’ overwhelming shows of support for Palestine with retaliatory measures, including academic discipline, legal action, termination, police repression, and physical violence.

At Columbia University in New York, students in the social work program who staged a sit-in for Palestine were threatened with suspension, and the campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) were suspended from campus activities just days after they organized a campus-wide student walkout. Harvard is attempting to evict a graduate student from campus housing for acting as a safety marshal at a pro-Palestine march. Brown University’s campus police arrested 20 Jewish students holding a peaceful sit-in. Thirteen students and two faculty were arrested at the University of Chicago, including a Palestinian student. At Brandeis University, administrators claimed that protestors’ pro-Palestine slogans constituted ”threats and harassing language” to justify the violent arrest of seven students. MIT students holding a sit-in were assaulted by pro-Israeli counter-protestors as campus security looked on passively. At CUNY’s Brooklyn College, Zionist NYC city councilwoman Inna Vernikov showed up to a protest with a handgun to intimidate protestors.

The eruption of a pro-Palestine student movement marks a qualitative change in the ongoing assault on academic freedom in the United States—it is now a bipartisan endeavor. While some Democrats stood against Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ earlier calls for draconian censorship and restrictions on academic freedom, they are now complicit in the repression against pro-Palestine students. When it comes to the defense of Israel, far-right senator Josh Hawley easily passed, with the support of Democrats, a resolution condemning student protests as antisemitic and pro-terror.  In flagrant disregard of the millions of students who fueled his insurgent presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, even progressive favorite Bernie Sanders is defending Israel’s “right to defend itself,” giving tacit support to the ongoing massacre of Gaza.

The bipartisan regime is rallying around Israel, but young and working people are making vocal breaks with Zionism at a rate unprecedented in the state’s seven-decade existence. To combat this loss of legitimacy, though, the upper layers of academic leadership, beholden to the ruling class, are pursuing a vigorous form of neo-McCarthyism. In direct contradiction to universities’ supposedly unshakeable commitments to academic freedom and freedom of speech, we are seeing how the progressive-liberal value placed on “free speech” does not exist in a political vacuum, and is not ideologically neutral. Every mealy-mouthed statement offered up by university presidents and provosts in one breath reaffirms their institutional commitment to free speech, and in the next, explains that pro-Palestine speech is exempt from this policy. This breed of speech, they explain, does not mean what the people expressing it say it means: the demand for a ceasefire is, to them, a call for violence; calls for an end to Palestinian genocide are calls for a Jewish genocide. There is no rational way to counter this type of deliberate misrepresentation: it aims to stifle debate, not welcome or engage it.

Like the McCarthyism of yore, this tactic of intimidation manifests directly, in the stories that make headlines, but also indirectly. CEOs of major companies have threatened to blacklist graduates who sign their names to pro-Palestine statements; professors have threatened or impeded the studies of anti-Zionist students; donors to major universities are leading witch-hunts against vocally pro-Palestine faculty. And, for every instance of intimidation that comes to light, there are a dozen cases of free expression chilled by the fear of retaliation. 

Free speech, for socialists, cannot be abstracted from the content of that speech. The speech of protestors for Palestine is of a fundamentally different character than that of Zionist counter-protestors or of administrators: a mirror image of the non-equivalence between Gazans trapped in a prison, fighting for freedom, and the IDF who keeps them there. Only one side has the full financial, ideological, and repressive apparatus of U.S. imperialism standing behind it. 

This affinity is not just an analogy: it is a manifestation of the fact that the student movement for Palestine can have more than just a symbolic or solidaristic character. The McCarthyism of this moment is a reaction to how U.S. students, especially in their role as academic workers, are beginning to flex their strategic power within major institutions of the ruling class’ reproductive apparatus to force material steps towards ending U.S. support of Israel. 

While universities occupy a progressive niche in the collective American imagination, we have seen with unmistakeable clarity over the past month that most large universities stand firmly and uncritically with the Zionist project, even in the face of their own students’ overwhelming condemnation of the genocide in Gaza. This is a moment to make a clear delimitation between the interests of large universities — many of which have deep institutional or financial entanglements with the U.S. security state, or even with Israel directly — and the interests of the vast working majority who constitute their student bodies. 

With administrations so strongly complicit in Israeli Apartheid and the rhetorical-ideological apparatus that normalizes it, students must take it upon themselves to fight the repression they face. The very administrations that issue citations and discipline cannot be appealed to for mercy or fairness: what’s needed is a militant student movement, pushing back against reprisal. From the strategic position of academic and campus workers, on whose labor universities rely, the organized student movement can mount both an independent defense of its own members, and a meaningful, escalatory series of actions to force universities to break ties with Israel. The Harvard Graduate Student Union is already taking up the defense of the student marshal facing eviction. At Columbia, Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) voted overwhelmingly to join the University Apartheid Divest coalition of student groups that pledged to defend SJP and JVP in defiance of the university’s decision to suspend them. At every university, student workers’ unions like SWC provide a venue for young voices to articulate their break from the universities’ decades-long accommodation to Zionism.

But these are just first steps: much more is needed. The labor movement in higher education has grown in huge numbers in the past few years. The massive strikes by academic workers in 2022 gave birth to huge, well-disciplined bodies of self-organization, which now find themselves in a strategic position to defend and expand the movement for Palestine on campuses. Students whose position as academic workers gives them the unique power to grind the universities to a halt must exercise this power, both to protect their own workers facing repression and to force their institutions to accede to the movement’s demands. The organized power of student labor must insist that the universities are accountable not to donors, boards of regents, or the U.S. security state, but to those on whose labor they run. And those students have an overwhelmingly clear demand: Free Palestine!

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