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Socialists, non-students, activists emerge as leaders of anti-Israel protests on campuses

Socialists, non-students emerge as leaders of anti-Israel protests on campuses

Published: May 2, 2024 11:00pm

As college campuses nationwide are wracked by anti-Israel protests – sometimes violent –  socialists and non-students are emerging as leaders, even if they were not previously affiliated with the Palestinian cause.

Many of the chants on Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus this week were led by Matthew Smith, a freshman majoring in physics who told Just the News that he is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and is trying to start a Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter at Fordham. 

"There is only one solution – intifada revolution," Smith said while waving a flag and directing a crowd of demonstrators outside of the entrance to Fordham. "Intifada," the Arabic word for "uprising," is commonly used to refer to two periods of violent uprisings of Palestinians in Israel. The eras are marked by suicide bombings and the deaths of more than 5,000 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) says that the Arabic word “intifada” translates to “uprising” or “shaking off.” 

Smith, who told Just the News that he does not "have any roots in Palestine," nor has he ever visited the region, said that intifada "literally just means revolution," and that "revolution can mean violence, but there's also been peaceful intifada."

Although Smith led chants until his voice was hoarse during the protest Wednesday, he did not organize the "Gaza Solidarity Encampment," which formed around 8 a.m. Wednesday in Lowenstein Hall at Fordham. The original organizer of the event appears to have been Fordham Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that the school never actually gave recognition to, despite a long legal battle to do so.

While Smith is a student at Fordham, not all of the protesters were. The Fordham encampment began Wednesday morning, hours after police broke up the encampment at Columbia University in New York City, and it ended later that day after 15 people were arrested. University President Tania Tetlow said administrators believe that at least some of those who were arrested are students.

Hundreds of people, including non-students, gathered outside the school in a protest in support of the encampment. Attendees included a man selling pro-Palestine gear, an elderly woman on a bicycle, neighborhood residents and more. For example, Manolo De Los Santos, the executive director of the self-described New York City-based "movement incubator" The People's Forum, was at the protest. Although he said he has never been to the region of Palestine, De Los Santos said he has been at protests "across the city," including Columbia University and City College, to support the students in their protests against Israel. 

According to ABC News, the New York Police Department (NYPD) said a preliminary analysis of the 282 people arrested Tuesday night at Columbia and the City College of New York 47% were not affiliated with either school. At Columbia, 32 people arrested were not affiliated with the university, while about 80 people were, according to the NYPD. At CCNY, 102 people arrested were not affiliated and 68 were, NYPD said.

At an April 30 press conference, New York Mayor Eric Adams said that the protests have "basically been co-opted by professional outside agitators."

Author of "Our Own Path to Socialism: Selected Speeches of Hugo Chávez," De Los Santos said that the Fordham protest "is part of a large growing movement of students across the country who all feel very passionately that what their universities are doing by investing millions and millions of dollars, and Israeli genocide against Palestinians is wrong."

David Clawson, who identified as an adjunct professor who teaches Latin American history at multiple schools, including previously at Fordham, said he was at the protest "because across the city students have been brutalized for standing up and saying that they want an end to genocide," and he's there "both to support the students, but ultimately to support the cause that they're fighting."

Clawson, who said he is a member of "multiple unions," said there has been a "groundswell" of support for the pro-Palestinian movement, both over the past six months, when Israel was attacked on Oct. 7, 2023, but also in the "last few days" as protests have intensified across the nation.

"I think a lot of people are seeing that they also see that this is an interconnected struggle, and then actually fighting for socialist principles are a good thing to do," Clawson said. "It is part of this larger struggle, and that it should be something that we shouldn't be scared of."

Jay Greene, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation Center for Education Policy, told Just the News that he thinks many of the student protestors do not understand in what they are participating. "These protests have remarkably little to do with people in the Middle East. And it has a lot more to do with the desires and needs of people here. And so when I look at the protests, I see a lot of very entitled elite college kids who are cosplaying being revolutionaries," he said. 

Even though the school year is ending, Americans should be concerned that the protests could escalate, which is partially fueled by the fact that many of those involved have not been punished, he warned. 

"I think they should be concerned because not because these protesters are as a whole revolutionaries, but because things spiral out of control in ways that people don't intend, and that that always could happen here. And it is something to be nervous about," he said. 

Neither the Democratic Socialists of America nor the Revolutionary Communists of America responded to Just the News' request for comment.

Editor's Note: Madeleine Hubbard is a student at Fordham University School of Law.

Follow Madeleine Hubbard on X or Instagram.

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