A group of over 20 elected New York officials, including lawmakers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D), is urging Columbia University to reverse its recent decision to suspend two pro-Palestine student organizations amid Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. The push by progressives in the state comes as free speech rights for groups and individuals who support Palestinian rights is quickly eroding across the U.S.
Earlier this month, the university announced it would suspend campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace after the groups held a walkout in support of Palestinian civilians under assault by the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza. University officials said the suspensions were in service of “the safety of our community.” The move sparked outrage and was decried by the groups as well as hundreds of Columbia students and faculty, who said that the suspensions were an attempt to silence voices on campus speaking out against Israel’s brutal siege in Gaza and occupation of the West Bank.
In a letter sent Friday, progressive New York lawmakers said they were “disturbed” by the university’s decision, arguing that it doesn’t serve students’ safety; in fact, it does the opposite.
“We support the University’s stated desire to maintain an atmosphere that is safe and free of hate; however, suspending these student groups based on the pretext of ‘safety’ does the opposite,” the group wrote.
Demonizing the student groups over their protest only furthers “the dangerous narrative that those who express empathy for the lives and dignity of Palestinians, or who speak about the historical context of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, are antisemitic or inherently dangerous,” the lawmakers continued. They cited recent incidents like Columbia students being doxed, labeled as “Columbia’s Leading Antisemites” by trucks circulating around campus, and losing job opportunities, all over their support of Palestinian rights.
The letter was signed by 21 elected officials, including U.S. House Representatives like Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman (D) and Nydia M. Velázquez, as well as a slate of New York state senators and assembly members and New York City council members. The letter was organized by the Democratic Socialists of America and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, according to City and State New York.
State Sen. Kristen Gonzalez, an alumni of Columbia and a letter signatory, expressed her strong disappointment in Columbia’s decision in a post on social media.
“We reject antisemitism and Islamophobia in all of its forms, and we want every student on campus to feel safe,” Gonzalez said. “That’s why as a Columbia Alum, I was disappointed to hear that these groups were disbanded as a result of a peaceful silent protest on campus. The university has a vibrant history of activism and to honor that history we hope the university reverses its decision and instead commits to creating an environment where students are free from hate and free to protest.”
Columbia’s decision is just one of a rash of moves that other higher education institutions and government officials have taken in recent weeks — and in years past — to suppress speech critical of Israel’s military Zionist movement that pro-Palestine advocates have likened to a modern resurgence of Cold War-era McCarthyism.
Public support for Palestinian rights in the U.S. is increasing as the Israeli military massacres thousands of Palestinians in Gaza and violence and displacement intensifies across the occupied West Bank, and many politicians in both major parties are seeking to suppress speech in favor of Palestine — with groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, which has led numerous massive protests across the country calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, often finding themselves as a central target.
Late last month, for instance, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at Columbia and other prominent universities, labeling them as “anti-Israel, pro-Hamas student groups” in a discriminatory attempt to conflate support for Palestinian human rights with the October 7 attack by militant groups on Israeli communities that left 1,200 people dead.
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