Watch Nidhi Razdan: Pro Palestine protests spread across US University campuses Video Credit: Gulf News

American campuses have become the new battleground in the Israel- Gaza conflict. In unprecedented scenes, hundreds of students demonstrating against Israel’s actions in Gaza have been arrested across US universities over the last few weeks including Yale and Columbia.

Earlier this month, more than 100 pro Palestinian protesting students were arrested at Columbia University in New York. They had camped out on the lawns and have been demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and for the university to divest from Israel. Many Jewish students said they did not feel safe in such an environment.

It is incumbent on the university authorities to ensure that no student feels insecure on campus. And anyone indulging in hate speech must be taken to task.

But calling in the police to make sweeping arrests and suspending students for protests marks a heavy handedness for which Columbia is now facing a huge backlash. In fact, the protests have only grown. What happened at Columbia is a classic case of the debate between free speech and hate speech.

Hate speech and the glorification of violence can never be justified and action must be taken. But not every protester calling for an end to civilian killings in Gaza is supporting a call for violence or justifying the horror of October 7th.

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Focal point of protest

Today, as Israel faces growing criticism for its actions in Gaza, the rich Jewish donors to American universities are clearly ensuring that even peaceful pro Palestinian voices are silenced. ‘The New York Times’ has reported how donors, alumni and politicians sympathetic to Israel have put pressure on Universities to clamp down on protests.

The Oct. 7 attacks on innocent Israelis by Hamas were condemnable in the strongest possible terms. But Israel’s disproportionate response has killed more than 34,000 civilians in Gaza, majority of them women and children.

The UN has warned of a starvation crisis very soon as crucial aid is cut off. In the midst of this humanitarian disaster, American University campuses have become a focal point of protest.

Back in February, police were called in to the University of California, Berkeley where an event organised by Jewish students was thrown into chaos after pro Palestinian protesters broke the doors down. An Israeli speaker had to be taken out by the cops. Just as heavy handed action against pro Palestinian demonstrators is wrong, so was the hounding of this Jewish event.

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Peaceful protests continue 

Another incident has highlighted just how fragile American University spaces have become. The University of Southern California or USC cancelled the graduation speech of a Muslim student, Asna Tabassum, because of her position against Israel on social media.

The provost said “the intensity of feelings, fuelled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East … has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption”. Tabassum hit back saying “the university is succumbing to a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.” USC has been at the centre of widespread criticism for this.

At another campus, Washington’s American University, authorities have banned all kinds of protest since January this year including silent protests and posters. There are several other examples. What makes the current clampdown on US campuses even more stark is their history of protest and activism. Like the Vietnam War where the protests on college campuses were among the fiercest.

The latest incidents also highlight how younger Americans do not agree with Israel’s actions in Gaza and President Biden’s foreign policy. This has been reflected in key surveys over the last few months. Sharp divergences over what is free speech and what is anti Semitism have divided American college campuses right down the middle.

As an observer sitting thousands of miles away, I have a simple comment — the attacks by Hamas were horrific and cannot be justified. Neither can the ongoing Israeli massacre of people in Gaza.

This is a humanitarian disaster and one which should weigh on the world’s conscience. Peaceful protests cannot and should not be silenced.