Columbia’s crackdown on Palestine protests serves imperialism

Columbia wants to prevent demonstrations against Israel’s crimes. 

Michael Nigro SIPA USA

Universities across the US are stifling free speech on Palestine.

This assault on expression is neither novel nor unique. It reflects the long-standing role of the American university as an apparatus of empire, rooted in settler colonialism and white supremacy.

Today, this means being complicit in Israel’s genocide of the Palestiian people.

At Columbia University – where I study – the administration has silenced and criminalized speech that opposes Israel and its state ideology Zionism, as well as the broader imperial project in the region.

While Columbia claims it is “committed to free and open debate,” it has demonstrated that such debate is welcome only when it does not surpass the ideological limits established by the state. Whenever discourse does surpass those limits, the rule of force and repression quickly comes into play.

This was demonstrated vividly in Columbia administration’s latest set of policy “reforms,” such as the “Interim University Policy for Safe Demonstrations.”

Clearly targeting student-led demonstrations opposing the Israeli and US-backed genocide of the Palestinian people, and emerging in response to mounting Zionist donor and government pressure, these various regulations codify explicit limits to “free and open debate,” including the time and place of acceptable demonstration, as well as establishing ideological limits to which language is deemed acceptable.


Despite using language around safety, the administration has in fact grossly neglected the safety of students who have been targeted for their principled stances, effectively ignoring a widely documented chemical attack on pro-Palestine students by former soldiers in Israel’s military, as well as a racist doxxing campaign smearing Arab and Muslim students as anti-Semites.

Even before the “Interim University Policy for Safe Demonstrations” was issued, the administration suspended Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Citing supposed policy violations, it later became evident that these policies were altered by administrators just a few weeks prior in an attempt to facilitate the administration’s ability to shut down Palestine solidarity groups and protests. Student and faculty representatives were not consulted about the alterations.

At universities across the US, like at Columbia, a long litany of repressive tactics against anti-imperialist, pro-Palestine speech have been drawn from. They include cooperating with anti-terror police on campuses and allowing police brutality of student demonstrators, suspending or expelling students who participate in protests, and sanctioning and threatening to fire faculty members.

The list could go on.

When university leaders do allow discussion of Israel’s assault on Gaza, they do so only after proposed events have gone through their censors or when pre-approved speakers are handpicked by administrators keen to toe the imperial ideological line. Those that do not are hurriedly canceled by administrators.

An event examining the legacy of Columbia’s most celebrated Palestinian intellectual, the late Edward Said, was among those canceled.

It was Said who, in the introduction to his monumental study Orientalism, explained that “political imperialism governs an entire field of study, imagination and scholarly institutions” and that imperialism “reaches into … realms of … the academy and saturates them with significance of direct concern to it.”

It is a stark, if unsurprising irony, that Columbia – which leverages Said’s legacy for its branding – demonstrates his point so vividly.

Such ideological policing should not be seen as anomalous. Rather, what is often called the “Palestine exception to free speech” should also be understood as operating fully within the broader logic of imperialism.

This is evidenced by the consistent history of university repression which targets anyone who opposes US imperial interests, as occurred during protests against the illegal US invasion of Vietnam, campus segregation in the 1960s, and against US support for the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s.

Throughout these struggles, as they are doing today, Columbia administrators gave out disciplinary notices and expulsions to those who opposed its imperial politics, and cooperated with police in the mass arrest of student demonstrators. When Columbia finally did divest from South African apartheid, its leadership denied that student agitation had anything to do with the decision and even tried to falsely take credit for divestment.

It is precisely because calls for Palestinian liberation directly confront imperial interests that they are forcibly repressed. That explains how quickly liberal pretenses about free speech fall to the wayside on presumably liberal campuses.

Imperial logic

These repressive practices are a continuation of the foundational logic of the imperial university.

Columbia was founded under the British imperial crown in 1754 and chartered by King George II for the benefit of white male “inhabitants of [the] province of New York … and all our colonies and territories in America.”

Then King’s College, Columbia was built on stolen, unceded land of the Lenape people of Manahata (now Manhattan).

That land was colonized by Europeans who gradually dispossessed the Indigenous population through the introduction of disease, the systematic destruction of the social, economic and environmental order, forced displacement, military invasion and broken treaties.

In this context, as historian Craig Wilder has argued, early colonial colleges “supplied the administrations of the colonies” and were “instruments of Christian expansionism, weapons for the conquest of Indigenous peoples and major beneficiaries of the African slave trade and slavery.”

Columbia’s first campus was built on the site of the first colonial separation wall, now the center of predatory capitalism known as Wall Street. The wall was erected to prevent Lenape resistance to settler colonial land theft.

By Columbia’s founding, this area had become the site of New York’s slave market and was frequented by Columbia’s community of slavers.

According to the university’s records, Columbia presidents, administrators, trustees and professors enslaved hundreds of people in the years after the university’s founding.

The university moved to its current campus in Morningside Heights in the late 19th century. The campus was built in part from the fortune of Marcellus Hartley, an arms dealer whose work helped facilitate the genocide of Indigenous people.

His name still adorns Columbia’s first residence hall, Hartley Hall.

During and after campus construction, the administration ensured that the neighborhood was zoned and developed in a way that allowed for university elites to be separated from neighboring Black Harlem communities. Over the years, the university continued this gentrification, justified by one administrator in characteristically racist, inversive, colonial logic, as protection against the “encroachment of Harlem” upon the university.

War economy

In the 20th century, Columbia served an important role in imperialist policy and propaganda production linked to the CIA and the US State Department, as well as arms and military research.

The Manhattan Project, partially hosted on Columbia’s Manhattan campus and led by Columbia physicists, produced the world’s first nuclear bombs that the US government used to kill an estimated 200,000 Japanese civilians. Columbia continues to celebrate the role it played in the development of nuclear weapons.

And today, Columbia’s material participation in imperialism continues to be maintained through direct financial profits accrued from the war economy. Columbia trustees hold investments through Columbia’s $13.6 billion endowment in corporations that directly profit from Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, its construction of illegal settlements and its apartheid system.

Columbia has also convened two programs in Israel: a dual degree program with Tel Aviv University and the forthcoming Columbia Global Center in Tel Aviv. Israel’s universities are complicit in denying Palestinian rights.

Israel is a settler colonial outpost within a larger US-led imperial project.

Israel’s imperial backers have used its genocidal campaign against Gaza as an opportunity to expand their military presence, capitalize on resource extraction in the region and expand weapons sales through the continued funding and arming of the Israeli genocide.

Columbia’s leaders could choose to challenge the historic role of the university.

A first step would be to honor demands made by diverse and forward-sighted student-led coalitions. This means ending the systematic repression of free speech and activism, demilitarizing campus, upholding the student body’s call for divestment from companies that uphold and profit from the Israeli settler colonial project and ending the university’s programs in Tel Aviv.

If Columbia’s leaders don’t take that step, the university will remain what it has always been: an apparatus of imperial power, represented by the crown which still adorns its coat of arms.

Ahmed Zakarya Mitiche is a PhD. candidate in anthropology at Columbia University, New York. His research explores the legacy of the liberation struggle against French settler-colonialism in Algeria.


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