Click here to read the opinion piece in The Forward

By Leo Ferguson

Today, on Columbia University’s campus and on campuses across the country, students have erupted in protest against the ongoing mass death we are witnessing in Gaza, where the Israeli military has killed more than an estimated 34,000 Palestinians since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks.

It is appropriate that many of the student protesters are Jewish: Jews have played a powerful role in American protest movements for decades. In Egypt, as we recall every Passover, Jews rose up against their oppressors. During this year’s tragically somber observance of Passover, what could be more Jewish — a more powerful expression of our deepest values as a people — than standing up not only for ourselves, but for others?

When Palestinians — our neighbors in the Middle East for millennia — are being decimated daily, whom should we emulate? Do we wish to emulate Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, who protected Moses and treated him as family? Or Pharaoh, who tyrannized the Israelites?

There have undoubtedly been antisemitic incidents surrounding the student protests. It is deeply disturbing that even amid and around a protest movement fighting for what’s right — a refusal to support an unjust war — there are those who would express hostility and prejudice against Jews. And it is the responsibility of all of us, but especially non-Jews, to recognize antisemitism when we see it, and speak up and shut it down. All Jews should feel safe and respected in our Jewish identity.

But the fact remains that these protests have thus far been non-violent. While some students may be uncomfortable or genuinely afraid, there is simply no evidence that anyone at Columbia or NYU is unsafe because of the protests.

Politicians like New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams, and Rep. Ritchie Torres and many in the media are busy fear-mongering about Jewish discomfort, or falsely characterizing protests for peace as being antisemitic or implying they are pro-Hamas. It is hard to take their speechifying about safety seriously when they have often held back from speaking out about Palestinian mass death.

In addition, their rhetoric has utterly erased the many Jews who have participated in this movement. When non-Jews pick and choose the Jews they want to silence and the Jews they want to pander to, they’re engaging in antisemitism while pretending to abhor it. As we say at Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, where I work, “all the Jews are Jewish.”

In the spring of 1968, before he called the NYPD on his own students, then-president of Columbia University Grayson Kirk declared “our young people, in disturbing numbers, appear to reject all forms of authority, from whatever source derived.” It is this type of appeal to respectability politics and the fetishization of “order” to which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was referring when he condemned “the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

And yet for all that university leaders valorize King, for many of them, his message about the perils of moderate politics appears to remain unheard.

Current Columbia president Nemat Shafik, who over the weekend called in the NYPD’s notorious Strategic Response Group to arrest her own students, would do well to take note: history has not looked kindly on those who jail and threaten student activists. When our institutions and elected officials value quietude more than they value human life, they have become truly hollow. From Vietnam, to the Southern Freedom Movement, to women’s rights, to LGBTQ rights, to the invasion of Iraq, it is the progressive activists — in all their messiness and imperfection — to whom we look for inspiration today.

During the Passover Seder, many Jews sing the Negro spiritual “Go Down Moses.” If this analogy between the Israelites’ apocryphal ancient bondage and the very real enslavement of African-Americans is to have any depth at all, it must be because it speaks to the universality of struggle against violent oppression, and because it invites our greatest moral leaders — people like Septima Clark, Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel — to our Seder tables.

These leaders were utterly clear about the necessity of human freedom and the non-violent means by which we must seek it. They were also willing to walk into the most egregious danger in pursuit of their own people’s freedom and safety, and for the liberation of others. If we are not willing to weather even discomfort in that same cause, then who are we?

Our Jewishness should demand that we take risks in pursuit of our highest values of justice and the preservation of life. We should not take refuge in vague fears about the inappropriate language of a few protestors — we should drown them out by flooding the streets with our own voices.

The greatest risk in this moment is that we allow ourselves to become distracted by the media’s focus on the manner of protest, rather than on the subject of the students’ demands. So this Pesach let us mourn the hundreds of Israelis killed on Oct. 7, and the tens of thousands of Palestinians killed since. Let us honor every Jew who is fighting for Palestinian lives, every Palestinian who is demanding the release of the hostages, and those among us who value life more than they value comfort.

Never before have the battle lines been so clearly drawn between those who countenance and enable mass murder, and those who bravely demand a ceasefire, a full hostage exchange, and an equal future for Palestinians and Jews during which we will never, ever, again witness airstrikes during Ramadan or discover mass graves on the eve of Passover. I suspect that in the years to come, today’s Columbia protesters and their cause will be regarded with the same respect as that of their forebears in the 1960s. But how many more will be dead by the time today’s critics change their minds?

Click here to read the opinion piece in The Forward