What we saw couldn’t be more different from the dire warnings of rampant antisemitic threats and pervasive danger coming from City Hall, Albany and the White House.

If you only go by the recent statements from Mayor Eric AdamsGov. Kathy Hochul, and President Joe Biden, you might conclude that a student protest against the mass killing in Gaza is worse than the killing itself.

These official statements, and so many posts on social media, depict the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on the Columbia University campus as a cesspit of antisemitic hatred and a threat to the safety of all Jewish students and faculty. The vilification of these students reached its climax last week, when Columbia President Minouche Shafik assessed that the encampment posed “a clear and present danger” to the university and invited the NYPD’s notoriously violent Strategic Response Group to crush the protest and arrest more than 100 students who participated in it.

On Saturday, we visited the reconstituted encampment ourselves to add our voices to the students’ calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and freedom for Palestinians. What we saw couldn’t be more different from the dire warnings of rampant antisemitic threats and pervasive danger coming from City Hall, Albany and the White House.

The encampment is completely peaceful – an assessment shared not only by NBC’s reporter on the scene, but even NYPD Police Chief John Chell, whom we are not accustomed to agreeing with. The demonstration is well-organized, clean and disciplined. New entrants are immediately asked to commit to sound community agreements, which include not engaging with provocateurs. Over 100 student groups are coordinating 24-hour programming, inspiring interfaith spaces, snacks and art supplies for children and musical performances. This is the exact sort of initiative that should be welcomed, not suppressed, by the university’s leadership.

This is particularly true in light of the saga that led to this moment. Students have respectfully uplifted a set of demands, centering on the university’s divestment from the oppression of Palestinians, for months. Over that time, their tactics have escalated from distributing pamphlets to organizing rallies and walkouts and now to this encampment, because at every point they have been met either with silence from university administrators or with repression. Last November, the administration suspended campus chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. The student protesters even endured an attack with a chemical agent – about which the mayor, governor, and president were largely silent.

Far from a danger zone where Jews should fear to tread, the encampment hosted a large kabbalat shabbat service on Friday evening, followed the next night by an equally well-attended havdalah service. These, along with the many statements from Jewish students and faculty testifying to feeling safe on campus and condemning Shafik’s crackdown on the protests, should call into question the glib narrative peddled by those in power that the protesters are antisemites and Columbia and Barnard are hostile to their Jewish populations.

Make no mistake: antisemitism is real and poses a danger to our beloved Jewish neighbors and friends. Physical violence, swastika graffiti, antisemitic conspiracy theory, Holocaust denial and more constitute serious threats to a community who has faced brutality and terror for centuries and centuries, all over the world. What’s more, antisemitism threatens other marginalized communities as well. Antisemitic conspiracy theories bind together all types of racist, sexist, queerphobic paranoia and hate. Those who peddle the myth that Jews control the world are not only liable to attack Jews, but also immigrants, Muslims, queer people and other members of scapegoated out-groups as well. We say loudly and clearly: none of us can be safe if any of us is in danger.

It is also true that, in recent days, some fringe agitators have made unequivocally antisemitic and hateful statements outside the encampment itself. We condemn these abhorrent actions wholeheartedly. There is no place for bigotry and violence in the movement for peace. It would be a grave error, however, to treat these actions as reflective of the larger protests, as Columbia student organizations have explicitly denounced them.

It does not combat antisemitism, nor keep students safe, to effect mass arrests of peaceful protesters, suddenly evict students from campus housing, unaccountably suspend leaders of the student movement for Palestinian rights or impose regimes of censorship. To the contrary, actions such as these stoke tensions, drive divisions and endanger everyone pursuing higher education. For a campus to be truly safe for all its students, it must welcome protest and foster free inquiry and democratic discourse. As Shafik herself said last fall, “The point of university is to be intellectually challenged and confronted with difference.”

Now, at the outset of Passover, we are moved by the Jewish freedom celebration’s commitment to welcoming the stranger, feeding all who seek food, humanizing the oppressed, resisting racism and hatred, standing in solidarity with those who seek redemption from bondage and asking questions – even, maybe especially, very hard ones. We pray that these values will prevail, not just at Columbia and Barnard, but around the entire world, and particularly in the Holy Land. 

We believe in freedom, safety and equal rights for all Palestinians and Israelis, and we celebrate the students fighting for those aims, undaunted in the face of hostile university administrators and armed police battalions.