The media should be celebrating college protesters instead of demonizing them

Columbia University played host to a historic moment Thursday as the NYPD arrested scores of students, making it the first time people were cuffed on the grounds since 1968.
Photo by Dean Moses

Mainstream-media reporters covering the growing wave of college protests against Israel’s war in Gaza have adopted an overwhelmingly negative tone about something they should be celebrating: the peaceful free expression of college students understandably devastated by the pulverizing of Gaza and the slaughter of over 34,000 Palestinians by the Israeli military.

The root cause of this journalistic dysfunction is that too many reporters have embraced the toxic presumption that any anti-Gaza-war protest is inherently antisemitic, and that any such protest legitimately makes Jewish students feel unsafe.

That’s actually a grotesque viewpoint: it both smears peaceful protesters (many of whom are Jewish) and trivializes real antisemitism.

Antisemitism is a serious problem. Defining it properly is important. Calling for the death of Jews is antisemitic. So is bias, stereotyping, using antisemitic language, and Holocaust denial.

But calling for a cease fire in Gaza, or divestment from weapons manufacturers, or freedom for Palestinians, or even the end of apartheid in Israel – that is not antisemitic. That is making a political statement shared by many Jews.

Certain chants have been unfairly demonized. Calling for Palestinians to be free from the river to the sea is not synonymous with wanting to drive the Jews into the sea, which would certainly be antisemitic. It can simply be a cry for freedom for all Palestinians. Similarly, “long live the intifada” is about resistance, not about killing Jews.

And empathizing with the suffering of Gazans in no way implies anything like an endorsement of the horrific Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas, or the ongoing hostage-keeping.

And yet, the presumption of antisemitism underlies almost all the mainstream-media coverage, which, like this New York Times story, emphasizes “chaos”, “turmoil,” and “the fears of many Jewish students.”

The coverage routinely conflates the peaceful protests with a few truly antisemitic acts that have in most cases been committed by trolls attracted to the protests rather than by the college students themselves. (Student newspapers are making the distinction that the MSM isn’t.)

College students giving a damn about the suffering of others – and doing something about it by protesting and committing civil disobedience  – is a long and admirable American tradition. If these students were protesting on behalf of Ukraine, or against hunger, the press coverage – if there were any at all – would be positive.

This is part of what college is all about. As Carleton College professors Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder wrote recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The shut-up-and-study crowd ignores the fact that virtually every college and university in the United States has a dual pedagogical mission: the development of students’ critical-thinking skills (via knowledge production and dissemination) and the preparation of students to be informed, engaged citizens. ….

The administrative impulse to avoid controversy at all costs is making a mockery of higher education’s avowed commitment to preparing students for citizenship. When rights to free expression are trampled on, students are deprived of the opportunity to practice the hard work of living in community with people who hold diverse views.

By casting this form of speech as threatening, reporters are wittingly or unwittingly following the playbook designed by far-right Republicans who have lately been using what they call insufficient action against antisemitism as part of their know-nothing attempts to undermine the reputation of the supposedly “woke” academy.

In December, two university presidents who went before a Republican-led House committee and defended nuanced actions regarding the protests ended up being hounded out of their jobs.

By contrast, when Columbia president Nemat Shafik went before the same committee last week, as New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote, she “readily agreed with Republicans’ premise that pro-Palestinian activism at Columbia is shot through with anti-Jewish bigotry, and explained how, under her leadership, Columbia is cracking down.”

The next day, Shafik “took the extraordinary step of calling the police…  and over 100 people were arrested.”

As Moira Donegan wrote in a Guardian opinion column:

The police raid against Columbia students that followed the next day can be seen as an extension of the policy of appeasement and preemptive compliance with the anti-Palestinian, anti-student Republican right that Shafik adopted in her testimony. In its war on education and ostentatious displays of grievance against “woke” universities, the far right has made itself hostile to academic freedom, peaceful protest and vast swaths of progressive speech. In her willingness to unleash state violence against student protestors, Shafik proved herself their willing ally. It is worth stating plainly what happened at Columbia: the raid was nothing less than the product of collusion between a university administration and rightwing politicians to suppress politically disfavored speech.

Nothing remotely like that was reflected in the MSM coverage, which has also dramatically underplayed the noxious anti-speech views of university administrators.

Consider what former journalist Claire Shipman, now a chair of Columbia’s Board of Trustees, told the House committee: “One of the excellent recommendations of our antisemitism task force is that they have said that if you are going to chant, it should only be in a certain place, so that people who don’t want to hear it are protected from having to hear it.”

That’s not how protests work.

If Columbia is in crisis, the student-run Columbia Daily Spectator concluded last week, it is not because of the protesters, it’s because of the administration:

The administration has ignored our countless pleas to engage meaningfully with students, opting instead to continue down a path of surveillance, oppression, and authoritarian policies. Columbia should encourage free discourse on campus, not censor marginalized voices under the guise of “safety” and protection.

The assumptions baked into the corporate-media coverage of pro-Gaza protests is oddly reminiscent of the early coverage of the anti-Vietnam war protests. Those protests were initially seen as anti-American, which they were not. Today’s protests are being treated as if they are anti-Jewish, which they are not.

History was much kinder to the Vietnam-era protests than the early journalistic reports. Perhaps that will happen here, too.

Yes, there does appear to be a significant increase in hate crimes against Jews – much like there appears to be an increase in hate crimes against Muslims. And those bias-motivated threats and attacks should be prosecuted.  But they are in almost all cases not directly associated with the non-criminal, First Amendment-protected protests on campus.

If protests on campus called for death to the Jews, that would be abhorrent and antisemitic. But the actual campus protests are about the death of Gazans — tens of thousands of them — and students exercising their right to freedom of speech should be applauded and defended.


  1. As always, I endorse your main point here. It seems to me, however, that the motto “Palestine shall be free from the river to the sea” is quite specifically a call for the destruction of the state of Israel. People still have a right to say it, but one cannot evade its meaning. The painfully literal sense of the words becomes clear as soon as one looks at a map, and it cannot be erased or made into a mere metaphor. Most of the times I have heard this phrase being used directly, it seems in context to mean exactly this: the eradication of the state of Israel.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Froomkin, for once again being the voice of reason in the cacophonous din of American politics. If you didn’t exist, progressives like myself would have to invent you. Keep up the excellent work!

  3. It is a highly debatable proposition that the MSM had adopted an overly negative tone to its coverage. For example, a major article about this in the Washington Post had the decidedly anodyne and neutral headline “What to know about the protests at Columbia, Yale and other colleges”. Additionally, the allegation that negative coverage is rooted in an assumption that any anti-Gaza war protest is inherently antisemitic is false and can be easily disproven.

    To illuminate this, let’s start with Mr. Froomkin’s point that “empathizing with the Gazan suffering in no way implies anything like an endorsement of the horrific Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas, or the ongoing hostage-keeping.” That is valid and true.

    However shouting “We are Hamas, we are all Hamas pigs!” at Jewish students does. As does scores of students wearing full face coverings and carrying incendiary devices, cosplaying as terrorists, shouting “Hey Hamas we love you, we support your rockets too!”. Speeches celebrating the Al Aqsa Flood (Hamas’ name for 10/7) as legitimate resistance are clear endorsements of the rape, murder, kidnapping, and torture of Jews. As are chants that “we will repeat October 7th 10,000 times”. All of this has been recorded on Columbia University’s campus over the last few days.

    There is nothing progressive about the documented physical assaults on Jewish students or the hundreds of pro-Palestinian protestors linking arms when a student wearing the Star of David is spotted, calling them a Zionist, and encouraging their physical expulsion from the campus square they have occupied. This has also been recorded on Columbia University’s campus.

    These disturbing acts are not legitimate criticism of the tragic amount of civilian casualties in the Gaza War, or legitimate criticism of the reactionary, corrupt Netanyahu government, or even criticism of the Occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. They are manifest acts of antisemitism and sympathy for terrorism. There is nothing progressive about them and they deserve widespread condemnation.

    • Most of your examples come from trolls outside the Columbia campus, or are exaggerations encouraged by the right-wing media.
      The vast, vast majority of on-campus college protesters are peaceful and respectful.

      • I appreciate the response. And while it is possible that several of my examples may include outside agitators, there is no way of verifying this. In part because they are wearing full face masks when they make their terroristic threats.

        Notably, the specific examples of the speech endorsing the Al Aqsa Flood and the coordinated expulsion of the Jewish students from the square occurred on Columbia University’s campus at the site of the encampment. And those events that were not at the encampment occurred directly outside the university gates.

        While I have no reason to doubt your assertion that the vast, vast, majority of on-campus college protestors are peaceful and respectful, the failure to protect Jewish students and faculty from the violent, antisemitic, pro-terrorist protests is why the additional scrutiny is being applied. This is important whether the protests are on campus, or immediately outside the gates of the campus.

        And I have personally viewed video recordings of all of the examples. Nothing that I have cited is an “exaggeration encouraged by right-wing media”. As a progressive Jew, I would hope that people with a professed commitment to social justice and protection of minorities would extend that empathy to Jewish brothers and sisters too.

        The majority of students that are participating in peaceful, respectful protests, and their advocates should be the most vocal about demanding an end to this antisemitic and in some cases violent harassment because it tramples on and corrupts their message of solidarity with the oppressed.

  4. Too much of the mainstream media is not being objective about the horrors in Israel/Palestine. I was shocked to read this:
    “ THE NEW YORK TIMES instructed journalists covering Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip to restrict the use of the terms “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” and to “avoid” using the phrase “occupied territory” when describing Palestinian land, according to a copy of an internal memo obtained by The Intercept.
    The memo also instructs reporters not to use the word Palestine “except in very rare cases” and to steer clear of the term “refugee camps” “

    Assuming this is accurate the Times is distorting their coverage by banning phrases like “refugee camps” and “occupied territory” that are legally accepted terms. And discouraging the use of the word Palestine?? Palestine is officially recognized by the United States.

  5. Where is your evidence of what these calls/cries are “not”, in terms of what the people actually making them mean? (As opposed to your idealizations thereof.)

    “Calling for Palestinians to be free from the river to the sea is not synonymous with wanting to drive the Jews into the sea, which would certainly be antisemitic. It can simply be a cry for freedom for all Palestinians. Similarly, “long live the intifada” is about resistance, not about killing Jews.”

    And where is your evidence of the following in response to Mr. Miller:
    “Most of your examples come from trolls outside the Columbia campus, or are exaggerations encouraged by the right-wing media.
    The vast, vast majority of on-campus college protesters are peaceful and respectful.”

    Funny how you usually cite your sources, except when it comes to this particular issue.

    • Exactly this. In journalism, we’ve all made mistakes, but this column stands out for Dan’s curious abandonment of common and best practice. Many liberal, progressive Jews who abhor the 20 years of Bibi rule, Israel’s actions in Gaza, and also shudder at Hamas’ slogans going mainstream.

      I point folks to John McWhorter’s excellent column yesterday on the Columbia and college protest situation:

      “…[C]alling all this peaceful stretches the use of the word rather implausibly. It’s an odd kind of peace when a local rabbi urges Jewish students to go home as soon as possible, when an Israeli Arab activist is roughed up on Broadway, when the angry chanting becomes so constant that you almost start not to hear it and it starts to feel normal to see posters and clothing portraying members of Hamas as heroes.”

      • You conflate what is going on off-campus with what is going on on-campus. On campus, students — including many liberal progressive Jews — are protesting against the razing of Gaza and demanding that the university stop funding it. Likening that to supporting Hamas is really inaccurate and unfair.

        • No, YOU conflate your fantasies of a clear division between “protests” you like and antisemitism — “on campus” vs “off campus”; students vs. “trolls outside the campus” — to a degree that would be laughable if the issue were not so horrific.

          See my links below to the JStreet student group at Columbia and the sickening antisemitic targeting of a Jewish law professor by UC Berkeley law students if you still care about facts.

  6. Columbia and many of the other universities are private institutions. If the university believes that the students are not behaving appropriately for any reason, it has the legal right, and probably the legal responsibility, to remove them. There is no freedom to occupy privately owned land. These students do have the right to protest, provided that they go somewhere else first. The university should remove the protestors and then expel them and refuse readmission since the students, even those ‘peacefully’ protesting, have refused to vacate the square voluntarily.

  7. I applaud Mr. Froomkin on making important points here, especially the distinction between what is happening on the Columbia campus and outside the gates.

    To Paul David Miller and Elaine, I would suggest reading excellent sources of reporting from on Columbia students that clearly distinguish from the trolling off campus referenced in comments. Specific events can be easily identified by buildings and streets. Their on-the-ground reporting is very different from the hearsay and soundbites that rally eyeballs to corporate advertising. Read about students’ clear use of terms within their historical meanings such as “Zionism” as having roots in the tenet of “transfer” — the complete removal of Palestinians — and “From the river to the sea” which has been used by Zionists and Palestinians alike, with students adding “all shall be free” to the end to provide context.

    And in McWorter’s column:
    • The rabbi who told students to go home was part of an ultra-orthodox center not sponsored by Columbia and was roundly rejected by Columbia’s rabbis and the Jewish students co-leading the protest
    • It is unclear which “clothing portraying members of hamas as heroes” McWhorter was referencing

    It seems apparent to me that, at least inside the Columbia campus, the students’ desire to move beyond the historically-tribal demonizations of otherness to a better future is similar to those protests against the Vietnam war and apartheid South Africa. It has been peaceful inside and a model for the rest of us what what a better world could look like.….

    • These Columbia students beg to differ:

      “Pro-Palestinian protesters have chanted antisemitic slogans at Jewish students like “go back to Poland” and stood in front of them with signs implying that they were Hamas’ next target. Many Jewish students on our campus feel unsafe solely because of their Jewish identity. Particularly in the last few days, antisemitic rhetoric has approached a fever pitch on and adjacent to our campus.

      We are dismayed by the failure of protesters to forcefully condemn this rhetoric. While we disagree with their stated goals of divestment and cutting off academic ties to Israel, we respect the right of protesters to advocate peacefully and without resorting to hateful speech. These recent incidents and the negligence of protest leaders are appalling, and we call on these protesters to conduct themselves in a manner to be expected in a healthy and safe democracy.”

  8. Remember the BRAVE protestors in 60’s? How they boldly showed their faces out of pride and conviction about their protests? Now look at the COWARDS hiding behind masks and hoodies. Pathetic. This is why nobody cares. We can’t even see your conviction or authenticity behind masks and hoodies. It devalues your cause. Man and woman the F up and be real protestors. Not timid tools hiding behind masks.

    • Is that a strawman argument? Students are being doxxed — even by billboard trucks driving around campus — and are in fear for their safety. What do masks have to do with bravery? Why post this anonymously?

  9. I posted this in a Columbia parents group:

    I am so proud of our students. They are getting (co-creating) the most powerful education of a generation, working to change the world for the better through action, above and beyond writing and tests. The value of Columbia is immeasurably improved globally by this advocacy for love, peace, and justice.

    Seeing the contrast between the safe campus and the trolling happening elsewhere is a demonstration of the maturity of our students. They are pointing toward our shared future and inspiring the world.

    Change requires moving beyond our comfort zones, seeing the world with eyes focused on the future not only the past. This year’s commencement will be an opportunity for all of us to commence our journey into their new world.


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