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When Columbia Students Are Under Attack, We Must Stand Up, Fight Back!

On January 19, two Columbia University students who are former Israeli Defense Forces soldiers attacked students with a chemical-based weapon called “skunk,” at a campus protest against the genocide of Palestinians. Students must unite with workers to defend our movement; from Palestine to Low, the attacks have got to go!

K.S. Mehta

February 2, 2024
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On January 19, students at Columbia University, in New York, were assaulted while holding a protest against the genocide of Palestinians. They were attacked by two Columbia students who are former Israeli Defense Forces soldiers. Students said they were sprayed with skunk, a chemical weapon regularly used by the Israeli military against Palestinians. According to one student, the skunk smelled “like feces, rotting decaying bodies.”

Students have been hospitalized, with symptoms of nausea, vomiting, eye irritation, and skin irritation. The attack may have long-term effects, since skunk can disrupt endocrine function. The federal government is now investigating the incident.

Meanwhile, the Columbia administration has spent much time, money, and resources on sending out PSAs about campus policies on protesting, creating meaningless “Dialogue across Difference” initiatives, and harassing student activists. It has done little to provide restitution to students whose property was destroyed or compensation to cover medical bills that students have accumulated seeking treatment for post-attack symptoms.

Columbia’s Hypocrisy

Despite all the resources that Columbia has invested in “student safety,” creating a task force on antisemitism and a special resource group on doxing, the alleged perpetrators were identified by student protesters.

 According to Aidan, a student at Columbia School of Social Work who volunteered to help with safety for the January 19 protest, “The two accused individuals stood out by concealing themselves and covering their faces. People felt that the way that they were standing was sketchy, and other protesters felt that too.” Before the attacks, Aidan said, the accused individuals started harassing people wearing “Jews for Ceasefire,” shirts, calling them “self-hating Jews.”

Columbia’s antisemitism task force has not yet taken up the actual antisemitism affecting anti-Zionist Jewish students on campus, yet it does not hesitate to use repressive forces against students. When Left Voice asked Aidan about the role of public safety, they said, “Public safety stepped in to try to mitigate it [counterprotesters], but were antagonizing Palestinian students, and wrongfully accused a Palestinian student of pushing a public safety officer. They did not show great signs of de-escalation.”

Columbia has become an important site of the struggle in defense of pro-Palestine students after the Ivy League university banned Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in November for the rest of the fall semester. Both groups remain banned. Students have been repeatedly threatened with disciplinary sanctions up to and including suspension for engaging in walkouts, sit-ins, teach-ins, and protests on campus.

Columbia students are continually threatened with suspension for participating in peaceful sit-ins and walkouts. No sanctions have been made on Columbia Business School professor Shai Davidai, who continues to accuse pro-Palestinian protesters of calling for violence, even after the January 19 attacks. “The organizers have to go,” he said, referring to the January 19 event, ignoring the attack. 

The crackdown on anti-genocide organizing is a national phenomenon. Florida is introducing a bill that would pull financial aid from pro-Palestinian student protesters. In the case of international students, they could be reported to the Department of Homeland Security as people who “promote terrorist organizations.” Rashida Tlaib has been formally censured for using the phrase “from the river to the sea,” because the U.S. Congress deems it a “genocidal call to violence.” Yet it is the State of Israel that is perpetuating an actual genocide on Palestinians.

From the university administration at Columbia, to both parties of imperialism, the Democrats and Republicans, these bourgeois institutions will use every force at their disposal to perpetuate the climate of McCarthyism that has led to repression and retaliation, making abstract denunciations of violence, without in any way addressing the actual violence against Palestinians abroad and on pro-Palestine protesters here in the United States.

As another Columbia School of Social Work student aptly put it, “Columbia is responsible for the environment that led to this attack. Their heavy repression and silencing of pro-Palestine voices on campus has vilified students who have been speaking out to condemn the genocide in Gaza and demand divestment. This vilification unsurprisingly has emboldened students like the perpetrators of this attack.”

The Divestment Campaign at Columbia

Columbia University has deep investments in in Israeli corporations and companies that generate large profits for Israel, such as Hewlett-Packard, Mekorot, and Hapoalim, as well as defense companies that build and sell the weapons Israel uses to perpetrate the genocide, such as Elbit Systems and Lockheed Martin. Additionally, the university has strong academic ties to Israel, such as the dual-degree program with Tel Aviv University, through which many former IDF soldiers attend Columbia as students.

As such, the university will remain committed to the Zionist project while delivering platitudes about the unacceptability of violence or ambiguous tragedy in the Middle East. The student body of Columbia, however, overwhelmingly condemns the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), a coalition of more than 80 student organizations, is fighting for Columbia to divest all economic and academic stakes in Israel. The coalition’s other demands include calling for ceasefire, divesting from companies profiting from Israeli apartheid (which student body referendums voted for in 2020 and in 2018, and Columbia and Barnard presidents unilaterally ignored), canceling the opening of the Tel Aviv Global Center, stopping the repression and vilification of pro-Palestinian activism on campus, and the reinstatement of SJP and JVP.

When asked how they felt about Columbia’s response, Aidan stated, “These statements are just virtue signaling. They need to not just speak on it but do something. They need to open their purse and pay those medical bills, let alone their pain and suffering. Students that have to take off of school and work, they should amend policies to allow people to miss class without repercussions. But really to make change, they should get rid of these policies so that students aren’t coming out injured or in body bags.”

When a shooting occurred at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, classes were canceled and professors at nearby Colby College were given the option to teach classes remotely. Although skunk is not a lethal weapon, it is still a chemical weapon, and there has been no effort to accommodate students and faculty affected by its deployment on campus. Despite all this, students continue to show up to walkouts, sit-ins, and protests to demand a ceasefire and an end to the occupation.

Uniting the Student Movement with the Labor Movement

The next stage of the movement must be to unite the student movement in the universities with the labor movement in workplaces. Universities rely on the labor of academic and campus workers to keep things running, and withholding this labor through a calculated, escalatory series of actions could force universities to break ties with Israel.

Unions of student workers must also take up the defense of their members, following the example of the Harvard Graduate Student Union, which took up the defense of a student marshal facing eviction from campus housing.

At Columbia, Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) voted overwhelmingly to join CUAD and pledged to defend SJP and JVP. SWC drafted a statement of solidarity with Palestinians that was endorsed by a supermajority of union members. SWC also organized a rally against retaliation, calling for Columbia administration to reverse any disciplinary procedures targeting student workers for speaking out on Palestine; publicly affirm that the right to free speech and academic freedom on campus extends to expression of support for Palestinians; convene a binding democratic body of students, faculty, and staff to allocate university resources toward financial, legal, and security support for pro-Palestine students and workers facing attacks; and to commit to bargaining in good faith over protections of academic freedom in their next contract.

At every university, student workers’ unions can provide a venue to challenge deeply entrenched Zionism and attacks on pro-Palestine students, faculty, and staff from where we have the greatest strength — from our workplaces.

SWC is also a part of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, and the agitation of UAW academic workers and Arab autoworkers in Detroit pushed the UAW to publicly call for a ceasefire. Despite the UAW leadership’s recent endorsement of Genocide Joe, many UAW members are fighting for more, demanding not just a ceasefire but a complete end to “all forms of settler colonialism and violence.” One SWC member even got dragged out of the UAW CAP conference by the secret service for chanting “Ceasefire now!”

As students, we have been the ones running de-escalation at protests, raising funds for protesters injured by the attacks, and trying to identify the attackers who deployed chemical weapons. We are the ones who can keep us safe, so why not build out our self-organization, expanding from our strategic position to defend and enlarge the movement for Palestine on campuses? The universities depend on our tuition funds and our labor.

Universities should be accountable not to donors or to the U.S. security state but to us — students and academic workers! The McCarthyite repression is designed to quell our mass movement and stop us from fighting for the liberation of oppressed people everywhere; from Palestine to Low, the attacks have got to go!

Students must unite with workers to defend our right to protest on the streets and campuses, protect Arab and Muslim student organizations fight antisemitism and Islamophobia; and stop the firings, intimidation, and harassment of pro-Palestine activists.

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K.S. Mehta

K.S. Mehta is a research assistant in New York City.

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