Politics

The Student-Led Protests Aren’t Perfect. That Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Right.

On Wednesday morning, on a corner across the street from Columbia University, a man dressed in black, a huge gold cross around his neck, brandished a sign that featured a bloodstained Israeli flag and the word “genocide” in capital letters. He was also shouting at the top of his lungs.

“The Jews control the world! Jews are murderers!”

I watched as a pro-Palestine protester approached the man. “That is horribly antisemitic,” she said. “You are hurting the movement and you are not a part of us. Go away.”

The man shouted vile, unprintable epithets back at her, but the woman, who told me she had come to New York from her home in Baltimore to support the protesting students, walked away.

Hours later, a well-known congressional reporter covering House Speaker Mike Johnson’s visit to Columbia’s campus posted a photograph of the same man. “One sign here at the Columbia protest,” the reporter, Jake Sherman, wrote. “This man is ranting about Jews controlling the universe.”

The man wasn’t “at the Columbia protest.” The university’s campus has been closed to outsiders for over a week — even as a journalist and an alumnus, I had trouble getting in. He was, several people on social media told Sherman, a well-known antisemitic crank completely unconnected from what was unfolding on campus. Indeed, last week I had seen a man wearing an identical cross carrying a similarly lettered sign that read, “Google it! Jews vs. TikTok” protesting outside Donald Trump’s criminal trial in Lower Manhattan. He was, for the record, standing on the pro-Trump side of the protest area.

But the incident is emblematic of how difficult it has become to make sense of what is actually happening on college campuses right now. As the protests have spread to dozens of campuses and counting, competing viral clips on social media paint vastly different versions of what’s happening inside these pro-Palestine camps. Are they violent conflict zones, filled with militant protesters who hurl antisemitic abuse and threaten Jewish students, requiring, as some political leaders have suggested, deployment of the National Guard? Or is it a giant love-fest of students braiding daisy chains and singing “Kumbaya”?

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