The encampment at Columbia University (Wikimedia Commons)

“Where you go I will go my friend / Where you go I will go / Your people are my people / Your people are mine…” A nightly song hummed on as hundreds of Columbia University students linked arms on the school’s south lawn to protest the university’s investments in Israel. As some students sang adjusted lyrics from the Book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible, others performed a Palestinian dabkeh dance, banged Malian djembe drums, and scraped Dominican güiras. It can be tempting to believe media declarations that these protestors were chaotic or malicious; but doing so misses the joyous spirit that arises from making oneself a neighbor with the people of Gaza.

Creating neighbors is fundamental to Catholic ministry. In his reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Latin American liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez summarizes Pope Francis’s call as expressed in Evangelii gaudium: “to look for neighbors, to make new neighbors,” especially in service of the poor. That’s just what Columbia students did. During the first week of the encampment, Palestinian civil defense crews uncovered a mass grave of nearly two hundred bodies inside the former Nasser Medical Complex in Gaza; many of the dead were children. The photos of mutilated and unnamed Gazan children are indistinguishable from the mutilated and unnamed Iraqi children, Afghan children, Kuwaiti children…the list of Middle Eastern countries with anonymous bodies where the West has “intervened” goes on. So, when students in the United States, France, Italy, Australia, and the United Kingdom raise Palestinian flags, they are not only demanding a ceasefire and economic divestment. They are recognizing—and insisting—that these deaths are not distant. They are happening to our neighbors.

In many ways, Columbia’s curriculum concurs with Guttiérez and Francis, calling students to go beyond the university’s walls, and to leverage their privilege for those in need. As part of a teach-in held on Day 8 of the protest, a professor taught excerpts from Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, a text included in the school’s Core Curriculum. Admittedly, Fanon is idealistic, and so are the students’ demands. Why shouldn’t they be? The students are practicing a moral theory driven by the texts Columbia gave them. The school has long taught students not to sterilize their knowledge, but instead to cherish the relationships created by a deeper understanding of others. The encampments are a literal ‘embodiment’ of the curriculum. When a mariachi band came to perform on the lawns after the Maghrib sunset prayer one night, one student told me: “The revolution doesn’t have to be boring.” She was referencing Mexican American activist Oscar Zeta Acosta’s motto, which she learned from her “Colonization/Decolonization” course. I recognized it because I took the same class my sophomore year at Columbia. A joyful revolution reframes justice as a virtue of kinship rather than destruction.

Shifting our focus from chaos and disruption to radical love is not easy. Indeed, university administrations around the country have found it almost impossible. The media, more interested in sensational images of violence, has barely covered the joy of the encampments. Where are the photos of Columbia students crocheting kippahs in their encampment art corner, or trading instruments for nightly singalongs?

The school has long taught students not to sterilize their knowledge, but instead to cherish the relationships created by a deeper understanding of others.

Instead we have repeatedly seen photos of students smashing windows during the occupation of Hamilton Hall on April 30, the night that the protestors’ message seemed to splinter. President Biden condemned their actions as "violent" during a recent speech on antisemitism. But was rage the only emotion present? Could the occupiers not also have retained their compassion with Palestinians in Gaza, who faced a looming invasion of Rafah by a defiant Netanyahu? Students had many reasons to be angry with the university, not just for its intransigence during bargaining negotiations—if Brown, Northwestern, and Wesleyan thought it possible to grant concessions, why didn’t Columbia?—but also for the administration’s decision to first threaten them with suspension and then have them arrested by police officers in riot gear. Rejected by those they considered community leaders, some students escalated in a manner that was shocking but totally foreseeable. 

Perhaps one day, our understanding of what happened on April 30 will make room for greater complexity. During the twenty-four-hour occupation, the mood at the renamed ‘Hind Hall’ remained positive. Students (and not, as the police later claimed, ‘outside agitators’ with links to ‘terrorists’) held community dinners outside, sang songs, and promised to protect one another, no matter the consequences. Whatever you think of their decision to occupy the building, such a promise could not have been easy to make. And they have accepted the consequences, including suspension, expulsion, and doxxing—all in order to demonstrate the seriousness of their commitment to stand in solidarity with Gazan lives.

Perhaps the present agony won’t have the last word. Gutiérrez acknowledges that communal joy is not easily earned: “It is not an easy happiness, easy to reach. It is a joy that has to go through the paschal mystery, through the suffering and/or solidarity with those who suffer. But the joy that we’re looking for is there.” The protests aren’t perfect. Accusations of antisemitism within the student movement and the broader pro-Palestinian movement need to be addressed. At Columbia, many students on both sides of the conflict reject the prospect of a two-state solution. These hardened stances inflame the violent wing of the campus movement, and, more urgently, rationalize the continued destruction of Palestinian life and culture. In order to move toward a solution that does not call for death, we must adopt an ethos of joy that celebrates the much-intertwined cultures of Levant peoples. This entails calling for a ceasefire, working towards legitimate and fair solutions between Israel and Palestine, and, just as importantly, singing and dancing alongside each other. During those moments, hope thrives.

The success of the student movement hinges on us not centering ourselves. This has proved difficult. While many in the West—and especially the media—have attempted to shift the perspective from the mounting death toll in Gaza to more abstract conversations about free speech and the moral character of individual protestors, the overwhelming majority of student protestors have remained steadfast and on message. And their witness is being heard by those currently suffering in Gaza. On April 28, displaced Gazans spray painted tarps with messages of support for the protests: “Thank you, students in solidarity with Gaza your message has reached.” Even among the ruins of shattered buildings and tents in tatters, photos continue to pour in of Palestinians, smiling and welcoming their new neighbors.

Ariana Orozco is an intern at Commonweal.

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