April 22, 2024 - 8:50pm

Columbia, New York

Around 30 rough sleepers are queuing outside the Broadway Presbyterian Church in the Upper West Side, New York. They are waiting for food, chatting amiably with the priest, gently shuffling their possessions forward in the line.

It is a far cry from what is happening just a few blocks north. Off 120th Street, protests and counter-protests are taking place outside Columbia University, one of the country’s most prestigious and expensive universities. In the last few days, protesters have been camped out on Columbia’s South Lawn, demanding financial divestment from Israel, an academic boycott of Israel, and a call for ceasefire. Their latest demand is to defund Columbia’s public safety and “sever all ties” with the NYPD.

Ironically, it is the NYPD that is keeping a few lone pro-Palestine protesters safe. Outside the campus, which has been sealed off to the public, a smattering of pro-Palestine demonstrators are trailing a pro-Israel demonstration by the Mathematics Hall. One is carrying a sign reading “Cool Jews love Palestine” while the other says “The Torah preaches life not death and theft — anti-Zionist Jewish!” They are immediately accosted by Jewish protesters, who grow increasingly agitated with their presence. “You are an idiot — you should go to Gaza,” shouts one. “Why the fuck are you here?” asks another.

During the confrontation, a Palestine protester is taken away in handcuffs. As police guide him to the back of a police van, he directs his gaze skyward and chants “free, free Palestine” on repeat. Other pro-Palestine protesters are masked up and refuse to speak with me. But they declare to the crowd slowly forming around them that they are against the Israeli occupation of Gaza.

Describing themselves as Jewish anarchists and communists, they begin a third worldist lecture to the crowd about the evil of America’s colonial superstructure. Asked if they are “proud to be American,” one responds “hell no” before a new group starts hurling insults and homophobic slurs (one of the protestors is trans) at them. They are escorted away by police, where another protester stands with a sign that reads, “Israel kills 14,000 kids”.

“Their behaviour is typical of 3,000 years of Jewish supremacy — Jews killing non-Jews, gentiles,” the protester tells me. “It goes back to Jews poisoning the water wells of non-Jews: child sacrifice and killing little Christian kids.” The man does not seem interested in Israel so much as using it as an opportunity to attack Jews. He tells me that they “control fucking everything”, and blames them for 9/11. “Bin Laden said that because US policy gave Israel control of Palestinians, that was why he attacked the United States — not because he was jealous of our freedom of speech, our movies, our culture.”

He is cut short by the arrival of a few local celebrities: a New York radio host, Congressman Anthony D’Esposito, and Michael Rapaport, an actor and comedian. With the Israeli national anthem playing in the background, each one offers a full-throated defence of Israel and support for Columbia’s Jewish students. Despite their different political backgrounds (D’Esposito is a Republican and Rapaport is virulently anti-Trump), the crowd warmly applauds both men. Most of the people here are Team Trump, but politics is secondary to the cause. “I’m just here to support our Jewish brothers and sisters,” Ronnie says.

One attendee, Emma, is left in tears by the 9/11 theorist’s slurs against Jews. “I am begging you to remove this man,” she pleads to one police officer, who says he is unable to comply. Emma came here to “protect and support Columbia’s Jewish students”, but now she is slumped to the ground begging the NYPD for her own protection.

Two blocks down, a rival pro-Palestine protest breaks out. Students are leading “free, free Palestine” chants from behind the university’s gates, with another 30 supporters providing the chorus in civilian New York. “I’ve been an activist all my life, but now we’ve reached another level of repression and suppression,” Joan tells me. “I think it’s really important to support the students who are putting their lives on the line.” I ask Joan in what sense these $66,000-a-year Ivy League students are endangering their lives. “They could be expelled,” she says.

Eventually, some pro-Israel protesters catch wind of the counter-protest occurring. They are led by a menacing-looking former IDF soldier, who carries his former battalion’s flag in one hand with his Alsatian’s lead in the other. He cries, “Jews are not afraid!” to the pro-Palestine protests until he is whisked away by a police officer.

Besides a few fractious exchanges, both protests are largely peaceful. The students might have been safely ensconced by the university gates, but they were not the only ones demonstrating in support of the Palestinian cause. Many, like Joan, were old-school Leftists who believed that America (and Israel) were settler-colonial dictatorships which exported tyranny and violence around the world. They were joined by Arab-Americans, African Americans, and even one Hispanic protester, drawing a sharp contrast with the almost entirely Jewish and white pro-Israel crowd.

In a strange way, it was the purest distillation of New York: diverse, angry and (extremely) loud. That these protests erupted in one of America’s most affluent neighbourhoods and outside one of its most expensive schools was perhaps no surprise either. But for those who were here today, few seemed interested in a fruitful exchange of ideas. As one protester succinctly put it to me: “excuse me, but I just need to go and say fuck you to those people.”

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.