Palestine protesters at Columbia University face National Guard threats

US House Speaker visits New York City campus as student demonstrators negotiate safely continuing protest

US House Speaker Mike Johnson near the pro-Palestinian student gathering at Columbia University in New York City on Wednesday.  AFP
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US House Speaker Mike Johnson visited Columbia University on Wednesday and suggested the National Guard should be called in to clear what he called anti-Semitic protests against Israel's war in Gaza.

“There is an appropriate time for the National Guard,” Mr Johnson said in remarks just steps from a pro-Palestine protest camp, which has been a focal point for a fast-growing anti-war movement at universities across the US.

His comments echo those of Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, two far-right Republican senators who this week advocated for the National Guard to be sent.

Republicans and protest critics say demonstrators, many of whom are Jewish, are being anti-Semitic by criticising Israel's actions in the Gaza Strip, where health authorities say more than 34,200 people have been killed.

“We just can't allow this kind of hatred and anti-Semitism to flourish on our campuses,” Mr Johnson said.

“It must be stopped in its tracks. Those who are perpetrating this violence should be arrested.”

He was joined by fellow Republican representatives Nicole Malliotakis, Mike Lawler and Virginia Foxx, all of whom were met with loud boos from protesters.

They said they spoke to Jewish students who told them they are “in fear” and have dealt with bullying.

“This simple truth is neither Israel nor these Jewish students on this campus will ever stand alone,” Mr Johnson said.

The Republican House leader also said they met Columbia University President Nemat Shafik and other school administrators.

Mr Johnson suggested that she should resign “if she cannot immediately bring order to this chaos”.

On Tuesday evening, Ms Shafik said in a statement that “a small group of faculty, administrators, and University Senators … [were] in dialogue with student organisers to discuss the basis for dismantling the encampment, dispersing and following university policies going forward”.

She said the university would “have to consider alternative options for clearing the West Lawn and restoring calm” if an agreement is not reached.

Student protest organisers claimed that university leaders “threatened … to call both the National Guard and NYPD if we do not acquiesce to their demands”, and negotiators left discussions as a result.

Columbia said the claim was “untrue” and “unsubstantiated”.

A university cannot request the National Guard be brought in. Only a state governor has that authority.

Organisers referred to the Kent State shootings, an indelible moment in US protest history when National Guard troops shot into an anti-Vietnam War campus protest in Ohio in 1970 and killed four students.

Organisers later issued a new statement saying they had received a “written commitment and concession not to call the NYPD or the National Guard”, calling it an “important victory”.

Columbia said discussions will continue for at least 48 hours.

Columbia's protest – and the university-ordered police arrests of more than 100 people last week – have inspired student protest camps and pro-Palestine demonstrations at university campuses across the US.

“This is a deeply painful, painful moment for many communities,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Most of the student protests have called for their schools to divest from companies working with Israel, shut down academic relations with Israeli institutions and a ceasefire in Gaza.

“The President believes that free-speech debate and non-discrimination on college campuses are important – they're important American values,” Ms Jean-Pierre said.

Pro-Palestine protests sweep across US campuses

Pro-Palestine protests sweep across US campuses

The new movement has drawn the attention of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“What’s happening in America’s college campuses is horrific. Anti-Semitic mobs have taken over leading universities,” he said in a video on Wednesday.

“It’s unconscionable. It has to be stopped. It has to be condemned and condemned unequivocally.”

Universities have seen anti-Semitic and Islamophobic incidents since Israel launched its war in Gaza in response to the October 7 Hamas-led attacks. which Israel says killed about 1,200 people.

Pro-Israel supporters say that criticism of the country is an attack on Jewish people.

But many pro-Palestine campus gatherings have Jewish students taking part, and others are led by Jewish Voice for Peace affiliates.

“I think that it's a really clear, repressive tactic meant to attempt to silence and chill us,” New York University graduate student Alana told The National.

She said she was Jewish and took part in similar anti-war protests calling for divestment at New York University.

“They can use various forms of anti-hatred, anti-Semitic law, different modes of legalised attack on our movement by calling it anti-Semitic, even though a large percentage of every single Palestine protest is Jewish and young Jews,” Alana said.

Pro-Palestine protests at US universities – in pictures

Updated: April 25, 2024, 8:23 AM