NYC Councilman on Israel–Palestinian Campus Protests: I Never Dreamed There’d Be a US ‘Movement to Back Terrorists’

Democrat New York City Councilman Robert Holden expressed dismay at the ongoing protests against Israel at Columbia University and criticized members of his party for not doing more to condemn what he described as radical elements expressing support for terrorism.

“I never in a million years would dream that there would be a movement in the United States to back terrorists, Hamas,” Mr. Holden said in an interview with NTD’s “Capitol Report” on Thursday. “I mean, that’s what this appears to us in New York City, many of us.”

Columbia University has become a flashpoint for heightened protests focused on the long-running Israel–Palestinian conflict, and the ongoing Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip. Activists recently set up an encampment on the university campus and expressed pro-Palestinian sentiments and criticism of the Israeli government.

Jewish students on campus have reported receiving threats and harassment from these protesters. Amid the contentious atmosphere, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik this week halted in-person classes and has urged de-escalation and calm.

Mr. Holden said there are “radical anarchists” among those engaging in these protests at Columbia University, and at other universities across the country.

“We’ve been infiltrated, apparently, by people that are unhinged, I would say radicals, I mentioned before anarchists,” he said. “I don’t know, again, where they’re coming from, but many of them are products of our universities. And that’s, that’s distressing, to say the least.”

A Contentious Atmosphere

Columbia University and other colleges across the country have seen sporadic protests for months following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel and the ongoing Israeli military response operations throughout the Gaza Strip.

The Columbia University chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), released a joint statement on Oct. 9, referring to the breach of the Gaza–Israel barrier on Oct. 7 as “an unprecedented historic moment for the Palestinians of Gaza, who tore through the wall that has been suffocating them” and described the ensuing attacks as a Palestinian “counter-offensive against their settler-colonial oppressor.”

SJP’s Columbia chapter also planned a Nov. 2 event titled “Let’s Talk Palestine” with the Palestinian writer and poet Mohammed El-Kurd, but the group said the university administration canceled the event.

The Columbia University SJP and JVP chapters also staged an unauthorized student walkout in November over the conflict. The university in turn suspended the pair of student groups, cutting them off from university funding and barring them from being eligible to host on-campus events.

Multiple students at a pro-Palestinian event on the Columbia campus in January reported being sprayed by counter-activists with a foul-smelling chemical. Several of the students identified the chemical spray as Skunk, a malodorant crowd-control chemical used by Israeli military and law enforcement units. A plaintiff identifying himself as John Doe, a Jewish student at Columbia who formerly served in the Israeli military, filed a lawsuit this month claiming he was unfairly punished for the January chemical spraying incident. The plaintiff student’s complaint insisted the spray was a “gag gift” item he sprayed in the air over the crowd, not at any individual, as “a harmless expression of speech to demonstrate discontent with the pro-Hamas pro-Palestine message” of the protestors.

Itai Driefuss, a third-year Columbia undergrad and Israeli military veteran, said in a recent interview with Fox News that Jewish and Israeli students don’t feel safe on campus after dark. Mr. Driefuss told Fox News he has been spat on and yelled at, that his girlfriend has been followed home, that Jewish students are afraid to go to religious institutions and gatherings, and that a friend of his was beaten up.

“It’s scary. It’s violent,” Mr. Driefuss added.

Reacting to the Mr. Driefuss’s remarks, Mr. Holden said the incidents the Jewish student described are “disgraceful.”

“It’s not only Columbia, there’s many other universities across the United States that are mishandling this. This should be called out as hate,” Mr. Holden continued. “This is nothing but hate. It’s reprehensible. But it’s, again, it’s accepted and it’s accepted by the far left and the left fringe of my party.”

Though he is a registered Democrat, Mr. Holden has positioned himself as a moderate and broken ranks with his party in the past. He received the support of Republicans and conservatives in his 2017 run to oust then-incumbent Democratic Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley.

Police Response and Criticisms

On April 18, Ms. Shafik authorized the New York Police Department to begin clearing a pro-Palestinian protest encampment on the South Lawn of Columbia’s Morningside campus. The Columbia president said warnings were issued and attempts were made to negotiate with the protestors but to no avail.

Time Magazine reported the move to send in police officers marked the first time Columbia University had called the NYPD onto campus to clear a protest since 1968, when activists had organized in opposition to the Vietnam War.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) criticized Columbia for again calling NYPD units to campus on April 24.

“Not only did Columbia make the horrific decision to mobilize NYPD on their own students, but the units called in have some of the most violent reputations on the force,” the congresswoman wrote in an X post. “NYPD had promised the city they wouldn’t deploy [the Strategic Response Group] to protests. So why are these counterterror units here?”

The NYPD’s Strategic Response Group (SRG), is a special unit established for counter-terrorism operations, as well as for policing political protests.

SRG and other NYPD components have been criticized for their past handling of protests, including a June 2020 protest in the Mott Haven neighborhood over race relations. Last year the city of New York agreed to settle a class action lawsuit brought by demonstrators who alleged police brutality during the June 2020 Mott Haven protest.

NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell responded to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez to defend the police deployment on campus and castigate her for her remarks.

“Truly amazing! Columbia decided to hold its students accountable to the laws of the school. They are seeing the consequences of their actions. Something these kids were most likely never taught. Good SAT scores and self-entitlement do not supersede the law,” the NYPD official wrote in his own X post.

The NYPD official said the only incidents officers encountered “were the student’s hateful anti-Semitic speech and vile language towards our cops.” He further called on Ms. Ocasio-Cortez to reframe her criticisms into an expression of appreciation for NYPD officers and to say “hate has no place in our society.”

Mr. Holden joined in criticizing Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.

“She’s anti-police. she’s anti-law enforcement, she’s anti-public safety—you name it, she’s against it if it’s right,” the NYC councilman said. “So that’s my party, by the way. She’s a Democrat, I’m a Democrat, but she’s the far, far left, and again, it’s a really a socialist movement.”

Columbia University faces continued pressure to prevent harassment and threatening behavior targeting Jewish students. This week Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) called on President Joe Biden’s administration to strip the university of federal funding for not doing more to prevent such intimidation and harassment, and deport foreign nationals attending Columbia on student visas if they espouse support for terrorism or are suspended for anti-Semitic behavior.

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