To understand broad trends, it can often be helpful to dig into a particular case. With respect to the tumult over the encampments protesting the US-backed Israeli offensive in Gaza, it would be hard to find a more illuminating example than Columbia University. Here, we may observe students’ sincere concern for the least among us, on one hand, and their ambitious social climbing, on the other. Here, we can clearly recognize elite institutions’ deep commitment to sterile forms of activism—and we can readily see how identitarian and safetyist approaches to “social justice” are weaponized in the service of the status quo. At Columbia, we can most readily perceive the jarring dissonance between the spectacle of unrest over Gaza and the realities of the conflict that has been overshadowed by the spectacle. 

“We can clearly recognize elite institutions’ deep commitment to sterile forms of activism.”

But let’s start with some basic facts. 

On April 17, Columbia’s president, Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, appeared before the US House of Representatives to testify about the prevalence and nature of anti-Semitism on campus. Eager to avoid the fate of her peers at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, Shafik kept her head down and assented to assertions that Columbia, and universities writ large, are awash in Jew-hatred, and that Columbia wasn’t doing enough to fight it. Over the course of the three-hour hearing, she paid comparatively little attention to pro-Palestine students who have faced assaults, doxxing, and alleged harassment—including by professors—under her watch. She also didn’t voice any objection when the term “intifada” was equated with hate speech, despite knowing well—as a native Arabic speaker born in Egypt—that the term is used broadly for mass uprisings in many contexts; it’s how the Warsaw Uprising is described in Arabic

Unlike her peers at MIT, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania, Shafik offered few appeals to academic freedom and made little mention of the role of universities as places where people must confront difficult ideas and disagreeable views. Instead, she proudly touted her suspension of Jewish Voice for Peace and other campus groups and her wider crackdown against unsanctioned speech. At one point in the hearing, she even vowed to remove Joseph Massad, a tenured professor who had made controversial statements, from a leadership post, without regard for due process. 

As the president was debasing herself in Washington, Columbia students set up an encampment to host demonstrations against the war. Although the NYPD asserted on April 18 that the protests were nonviolent and non-harassing, and that the students complied with all instructions, Shafik upon returning to New York called the cops, who showed up in riot gear to break up the encampment immediately, leading to the arrest of more than 100 students. 

Despite Shafik’s servile testimony and the immediate crackdown, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York and other GOP leaders called for her resignation. After all, the president had testified that under her leadership, Columbia had become an anti-Semitic hellscape. The encampments and heavy-handed response were all the proof lawmakers needed that the situation wasn’t under control. And indeed, rather than ending the protests, the clampdown at Columbia spurred a wave of solidarity encampments at other elite universities in the United State and abroad—an “Ivy League Intifada.”  

It wasn’t just peer institutions that got in on the action: A new, even larger, encampment quickly returned to Columbia as well. Given how badly her previous response had backfired, Shafik vowed not to involve the NYPD with dismantling this encampment, pledging to negotiate with the protesters for an amicable resolution instead. 

However, amid concerns about the university putting its best face forward with graduation fast approaching, the negotiations collapsed, and Shafik announced unequivocally that the university “will not divest from Israel.” Her administration then began trying to identify and suspend participants in the encampments; many students abandoned the protest at this point. 

Others responded to this escalation by taking their civil disobedience to the next level. A contingent of students broke into and occupied Hamilton Hall in an overt attempt to evoke the 1968 anti-Vietnam protests—a history that Columbia’s leadership often celebrates. The occupiers received the same type of reception as their predecessors. Shafik immediately called upon the NYPD to clear out all vestiges of the encampment and to retain a strong presence on campus through graduation. The police showed up in force, again in full riot gear, guns drawn. Professional journalists were largely prohibited from covering the raid, on penalty of arrest, and student journalists were likewise threatened if they left Pulitzer Hall (although they still did one hell of a job reporting on the clampdown, all the same). Despite the communication blackout, surfaced videos show that although the police weren’t met with violence, they meted out plenty of it; one officer even discharged his weapon (fortunately, failing to hit anyone). 

This authoritarian response likewise failed to break the will of demonstrators. If anything, it only boosted the students’ commitment to resisting Columbia’s administration. For instance, many students, barred from protesting on campus, have carried out demonstrations in front of trustees’ homes, even as Shafik herself has been publicly shamed when spotted by outraged students.

In recognition of the reality that erstwhile demonstrators remain highly committed to exerting pressure on Columbia, the university remains locked down, and all classes have been moved online. The commencement ceremony Shafik was so eager to protect has been canceled, because it’s clear that attending students would almost certainly use the event to engage in further activism—disruptions she is unwilling, and perhaps unable, to countenance.   

Shafik’s appointment as the 20th president of Columbia University in 2023 was historic. She is the first woman to occupy that role, and its first leader “of Arab Muslim origin.” According to identitarian logic, Shafik’s gender and her ethnic, religious, and immigrant background should have rendered her especially sensitive to social-justice concerns and uniquely capable of responding to the crisis in a constructive way.

But Shafik is far more than an immigrant woman of Arab and Muslim background. She is also, for one thing, a literal baroness. And prior to her role at Columbia University, she served as the vice president of the World Bank, the deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, the deputy governor of the Bank of England, and the vice chancellor of the London School of Economics. This background is much more essential for understanding how events have played out at Columbia University than Shafik’s ethnicity, faith, or gender.

In light of her professional history and affiliations, it would be easy to view someone like Shafik as endowed with extraordinary power and freedom. It would be easy to assume she has wide discretion in shaping how events play out on campus and beyond. This is true, in a sense. But it isn’t the full story. 

The sociologist Max Weber argued that while bureaucrats wield impressive power and social prestige, the influence and honor they enjoy is never truly theirs to possess. Instead, it typically derives from their office. If they are pushed out of their position or institution, their wealth and status tend to vanish precipitously, as well. In order to avoid this outcome, Weber concluded, bureaucrats tend to avoid alienating anyone with the capacity to strip them of their rank and prestige (even to the point of compromising their integrity or alienating large swaths of the rest of society to ingratiate themselves with elite gatekeepers).

Another great 20th-century sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, described people like Shafik as the “dominated faction of the dominant class.” They are elites, to be sure, but their position is contingent on continued patronage from wealthy people or the state—and on association with prestigious institutions, such as universities or media outlets, that themselves are dependent on patronage from other elites and the government. As a consequence, although some dominated elites may regard themselves as rebels or speakers of uncomfortable truths—and in some cases, they leverage their clout to push elites or institutions in particular directions—they also tend to know their limits, and generally take care not to cross any lines that would result in their expulsion from the corridors of influence. 

“Insofar as she is eager to cling to her position at Columbia … Shafik isn’t free.”

Insofar as she is eager to cling to her position at Columbia and advance to other comparably prestigious posts later in her career, Shafik isn’t free. She has little choice but to go, hat in hand, and prostrate herself before lawmakers and donors. When Democratic lawmakers called on her and the trustees to clear the encampments or resign, and President Biden condemned the students occupying Hamilton Hall, Shafik knew what she had to do. And she acted as she was expected to on the day these calls went out. 

In responding to the protests as she did, Minouche Shafik wasn’t acting as an individual following whatever convictions she may (or may not) have held. She was acting as an agent of Columbia University, which serves a very particular set of functions in society. Columbia University is many things. Some have described it as a massive hedge fund with a world-class research university attached to it. Superficially, this isn’t far from the truth. Nearly half of Columbia’s $13.6 billion endowment is invested in equities, with another third in hedge funds. Another 14 percent of the endowment is invested in real estate, rendering Columbia the largest private landowner in the Big Apple. Put simply, Columbia University is a vast enterprise. However, its main business is not speculating on stocks and real estate—that’s more of a side hustle.

“Columbia’s core product is the reproduction and legitimation of social inequality.”

Columbia’s core product is the reproduction and legitimation of social inequality. This is the source of the university’s multibillion-dollar endowment, derived primarily from donations by alumni and their families, who are invested in that enterprise’s success. Universities in general, and elite schools in particular, exist largely to launder wealth into perceptions of “merit.” They help the children of wealthy and well-connected families reproduce their social position and feel like they “earned” it. 

As my academic adviser Shamus Khan has powerfully illustrated, students from non-traditional elite-school backgrounds—like me—play an important role in this legitimation scheme. As long as at least some are attending because of their exceptional grit or talent, the children of privilege who make up the majority of the student body can come to believe that they are at a school like Columbia because they are geniuses and scrappy bootstrappers, too—because those are apparently the type of people the university selects for. These same impressions then allow elite institutions to primarily hire the rich kids who graduate from these schools under the auspices of “merit”: By virtue of graduating from Columbia, they must be especially gifted (and not merely privileged). 

As I detail in my forthcoming book, the truth is that elite institutions like Columbia primarily select for highly conscientious and capable conformists. If you are sufficiently talented and prolific, the conformity expectations can be slackened slightly (a win-win that helps other conformists understand themselves and the institution as more “edgy” than they really are); and if you are sufficiently wealthy, deficits in capability or conscientiousness can be overlooked or worked around. But the modal student is not an idiosyncratic genius or a billionaire kid who failed his way to the top.

Instead, as Noam Chomsky pointed out decades ago, colleges and universities—and consequently, the symbolic professions—are overwhelmingly composed of the kind of people who showed up to school every day and on time, had the right kinds of extracurriculars, turned in their assignments punctually and according to the instructions, mastered regurgitating the information that the teachers provided in a form that said teachers found aesthetically pleasing. The kids who craved approval from teachers and other authority figures, who took pride in their grades, believing that their academic records say something meaningful about themselves. Those who did well on standardized tests, often believing (again) that their high scores say something meaningful about themselves. Those who were willing to delay gratification virtually indefinitely.

This is how such students end up with the sterling attendance and disciplinary records, the high GPA, and the glowing letters of recommendation that ease their path to selective colleges. These same dispositions allow them to flourish in college and, later, in the symbolic professions. As economist Bryan Caplan has demonstrated, the main signal telegraphed to employers by college degrees is that these are the kind of people who are willing to endure drudgery, degradation, and busy work (such as is required to obtain a college degree); who see things through to completion (which is why a degree, even an associate’s degree, gives a bigger boost on the job market than several years of schooling without a degree); who will follow the rules; who will complete tasks on time and according to specifications.

These selection patterns, which define higher education writ large, are most pronounced of all at top-tier institutions. Places like Columbia are filled with people who have spent little to no time outside of what Daniel Markovits called The Meritocracy Trap (the title of his 2019 book on the subject). Everything is a competition. Everything is a chance to build one’s brand. Everything is a risk or opportunity to move up or down the ladder. Even social-justice activism

I say all this as someone who received a doctorate from Columbia. And I must confess, I loved my time there, and continue to feel a deep affection and gratitude toward the institution. While enrolled, I was offered unparalleled resources. My mentors and colleagues were truly excellent. The undergraduates I worked with were bright, earnest, ambitious, and highly invested in getting good grades (if markedly less committed to learning—and unaware of and unbothered by their ignorance). For all these reasons, it has been heartbreaking to see the campus riven by conflict, locked down, and purged. Compared to most other campuses, the way things played out at Columbia was extreme. However, as my mentor Saskia Sassen emphasizes, extreme cases can “make sharply visible what might otherwise remain confusingly vague.” 

In most cases, the successful pursuit of political goals requires building broad coalitions by appealing to superordinate identities, shared goals, and common values, while de-emphasizing points of contention. People often have to make compromises, deal with difficult tradeoffs, and adjust their aims, strategies, and goals in light of realities “on the ground.” Effective political action requires discipline, patience, and persistence, to the extent that Weber famously likened it to the “slow boring of hard boards.” 

“Effective political action requires discipline, patience, and persistence.”

Because the denizens of elite institutions are largely insulated from the consequences of politics, however, they often feel free to approach politics as a combination of a sport, a holy war, and a means of self-expression. For instance, one of the few people arrested at Hamilton Hall with no ties to the university was a multimillionaire lawyer descended from wealthy ad executives, who is married to a model, lives in a $2.3 million townhouse, and regularly engages in violent agitation for sport.

Among the Columbia students, we could see this dynamic at work when the writer and activist Norman Finklestein warned demonstrators that, even if slogans like “From the River to the Sea” and “intifada” aren’t anti-Semitic, they are nonetheless highly polarizing. So if the goal is to bring in people who aren’t already on board, Finkelstein warned, then protesters should probably tone down this kind of rhetoric in favor of more broadly appealing language. The students responded by doubling down on their “From the River to the Sea” chant the moment Finkelstein handed off the mic.

Many who took part in the protests didn’t bother to do basic research to find out what they were protesting for, or how the institutions they are importuning actually function. For instance, many seemed to be operating under the mistaken assumption that their tuition money funds university endowments, which entitles them to direct how these dollars are spent, because they have internalized the neoliberal assumptions that students are “customers” of the university, and the customer is the boss. In reality, only a small share of students pay the full sticker price, and collected tuition rarely covers students’ full cost of attendance; endowment expenditures cover the remaining costs. That is, far from student tuition dollars going toward Israeli firms, investments in arms manufacturers and Israeli firms help subsidize students’ attendance at Columbia. They have the actual financial flows precisely backwards. There is still a case to be made for transparency, or for pushing universities to follow their own established precedents and policies with respect to divestment. But when making demands of a university, it is helpful to show that you have done your homework first. 

With respect to the demonstrations themselves, the encampments were unauthorized. Therefore, taking part in the enactments wasn’t merely an act of protest, but of civil disobedience. In principle, civil disobedience is about willfully defying the rules and defiantly accepting the consequences. Many contemporary student protesters, however, seem to believe that engaging in civil disobedience should be risk-free, consequence-free, and perhaps even career-enhancing. They are under this impression in part because admissions officers say things like

For those students who come to Yale, we expect them to be versed in issues of social justice. We encourage them to be vocal when they see an opportunity for change in our institution and in the world. We value student voices on campus, and we encourage discourse and action. To punish our applicants for doing just that would go against the very beliefs that make Yale such a special place to study.

Elite schools market themselves as sites for activism, as Tyler Austin Harper has recently documented. Columbia University’s website notes that the 1968 clampdown against student movements was a mistake whose fallout “dogged Columbia for years,” but insists: “Columbia is a very different place today.” Even after Shafik sent in the police to forcibly end the occupation of Hamilton Hall—on the exact same day the protests were broken up in 1968—she continued to emphasize the university’s “long and proud tradition of protest and activism.” Meanwhile, the symbolic-economy employers who recruit elite college graduates also regularly claim to seek out people who color outside the lines and take bold stands. 

It was undoubtedly a source of shock and heartbreak for many students who had internalized these messages to find out that their institutions aren’t committed to social justice or social change as they were led to believe—and that on this issue, activism wasn’t career-enhancing, but likely quite detrimental to their future plans. And as this became clear, it turned out that many were disinclined to bear the costs of genuine civil disobedience.   

Instead, protesters have widely adopted masks and refused to go on the record with journalists about their participation in the movement. A core demand throughout the negotiations has been amnesty. Students now understand that any disciplinary records for pro-Palestinian protests wouldn’t be institutionally valued within the “woke” symbolic professions to which they aspire, as Black Lives Matter activism might have been, and might instead function as a scarlet letter undermining their competitiveness for elite jobs. They therefore began demanding retroactively unblemished academic records as a condition of ending their campaign. 

With respect to the law, at least, their affiliation with Columbia University has already greatly reduced their “skin in the game.” Contrary to earlier claims by university and city officials about a large proportion of “outside agitators,” more than 70 percent of those arrested at Columbia had a direct institutional tie to the university. This was reflected in how they were treated after arrest. Most of those swept up were released without charges. Among Columbia affiliates who were formally charged, none faced more than a single misdemeanor charge. Meanwhile, those who faced charges at City College, the nearby public university raided by police the same night, were all hit with felonies. While it’s possible that the City College kids just engaged in more extreme and unlawful activity, it seems more likely that belonging to the elite paid criminal-justice dividends for the Columbia arrestees.

In the face of these kinds of contradictions, it might seem easy to mock the cluelessness and privilege of many of those who took part in the Ivy League Intifada. But in most cases, even if what they chose to do wasn’t particularly self-aware or well-calibrated toward ending the current conflict—for that, they would have to exert pressure on the lawmakers and multinational corporations directly enabling Israel’s campaign, rather than tweaking their university’s investment portfolio—at least they weren’t content to stand idly by in the face of a brutal campaign of destruction underwritten by their own elected officials and institutions. And for those Gazans who have sufficient access to the outside world to witness the protests online, major public resistance to the ongoing military campaign in Gaza has been a rare source of encouragement and hope. Likewise, although there is much to condemn about the armchair radicalism of professors who routinely campaign for social justice while actively perpetuating and exploiting inequalities, it should be acknowledged that many put their bodies on the line to protect their students in the face of draconian crackdowns, and suffered injuries, arrests, and formal sanctions in the process. 

Comparatively, most of the people castigating the demonstrators seem largely indifferent to the catastrophe in Gaza and seem to possess an even less coherent vision of social change. President Biden, for instance, stated that although peaceful protest is protected in America, “dissent must never lead to disorder.” But Stonewall, now widely celebrated by Democratic politicians, was a literal riot, and ostensibly “nonviolent” civil-rights campaigns have always had an intimate relationship with violence and coercion. The idea that social change primarily occurs through positive, pleasant, and non-disruptive means is silly and out of step with most of human history. 

A sense of unreality has pervaded the protests, the counterprotests, and the discourse about them. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s daughter, Irsa Hirsi, was arrested during the first Columbia University crackdown against student encampments, alongside the children of millionaires and billionaires and other well-connected individuals. In addition, Hirsi was suspended from Columbia and, by virtue of not being allowed on campus, was temporarily evicted from her university housing and denied access to university dining halls. Reporting on these events, The Daily Beast declared: “When Isra Hirsi joined several of her Barnard College and Columbia University peers in the pro-Palestinian campus protest known as the Gaza encampment, she had no idea she would end up suspended, homeless, and left without food within a matter of days.” In a context where actual homeless people wander the street outside of Columbia’s gates begging for food, it takes a special type of cluelessness to describe the daughter of a sitting member of Congress as facing homelessness and food insecurity for what is, at best, an inconvenience. 

In subsequent protests, demonstrators put up signs declaring the encampment a “people’s university for Palestine.” This was an audacious claim for students attending a gated school that is protected by private security, entry to which requires an active Columbia-issued identification card. The university admits a miniscule share of applicants and costs, on paper, nearly $90,000 per year to attend. The students taking part in the protests are attending Columbia University (instead of, say, their local land-grant university) largely because they personally desire to be more elite than other college graduates. Many of them arrived as elites; most who didn’t will leave as such. Again, the core purpose of institutions like Columbia is to identify, cultivate, and legitimize elites. To describe it as a “people’s university” in any sense is to obscure the functions it actually serves and why the demonstrators are there to begin with. 

Even more strikingly, during the occupation of Hamilton Hall, a spokeswoman from the protesters compared the occupiers’ plight to that of the people of Gaza, complaining that the students were facing “starvation” and “dehydration” and demanding that the university allow “humanitarian aid.” Left out of her comments was the reality that, unlike the people of Gaza, she could leave at any time. And upon departing, she could buy all the food she wanted: She is the daughter of wealthy and prominent professionals who own an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. 

It’s easy to see how these demonstrators could be confused, however, because their opposition often validated and reinforced the sense that they were genuinely dangerous people engaged in truly radical action.

For example, many called for a suppression of the protests on the grounds that they made many Jewish students feel “unsafe.” Unsafe from whom? As Sohrab Ahmari reported on the protests, “keffiyehs abounded, sometimes jarringly matched with midriff tops; young women seemed to dramatically outnumber the men.” The participants, he emphasized, were “too wedded to the logics of the corporate, safetyist society against which they rebel to pose any serious challenge to it.” These are, again, students who relentlessly made sure they checked all the right boxes and pleased all the right authorities to get into an Ivy League school. These are kids who weren’t even willing to show their faces while they engaged in nonviolent protest to avoid risking their Goldman Sachs jobs or legislative internships. These aren’t students who are likely to engage in murders or assaults. Indeed, even people who were suspended for using genuinely violent rhetoric were not intimidating, to put it mildly, and were not likely to live their words in this case any more than they do for any of the other radical rhetoric they espouse (while building their elite careers and credentials). 

Statistically, there were a total of four on-campus aggravated assaults, four weapons violations, and 15 nonviolent bias incidents over the last three years on record (2020-2022), looking at all five Columbia University sites in New York City combined. There were no murder or manslaughter incidents committed by students, nor were there any violent hate crimes perpetrated on any campus site. Almost all violent incidents that Columbia students experience involve random New Yorkers outside the university’s gates. The idea that Columbia students pose a severe physical danger to their peers is empirically absurd. In fact, there was little violence at any of the protests at Columbia or nationwide over the past month—and the violence that did occur was almost uniformly against the protesters, at the hands of the authorities and, at UCLA, pro-Israel mobs

Contrary to the claims advanced at congressional hearings, elite universities aren’t hotbeds of anti-Semitism that indoctrinate young people into hating Israel and Jews. Highly educated liberals are among the least likely constituents in America to hold anti-Semitic views or to engage in anti-Semitic behaviors, and higher education is empirically associated with greater support for Israel, not less.

Pesky facts like these, however, didn’t stop former CNN anchor and Meta executive Campbell Brown from claiming that her children would be safer in Tel Aviv than on the Upper West Side. For those unfamiliar, Brown is the daughter of disgraced Louisiana senator and secretary of state James H. Brown. She is married to Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and foreign-policy adviser to Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential campaign. The idea that Brown’s and Senor’s affluent children face serious danger from students at an Ivy League school in Manhattan—to the point that they would be better off relocating to a Middle Eastern nation currently at war—is transparently absurd. 

Columbia Business School professor Shai Davidai has likewise gone viral by declaring repeatedly that he feels “unsafe” on campus, all the while describing student demonstrators as terrorists and “kapos” (Jews who collaborated with the Nazis). On April 21, Davidai sent an email to university leadership and many journalists, declaring his intention to confront the protesters in the encampment alongside other pro-Israel supporters and to rely on the university’s private security for protection. The university replied by informing him that he and his confederates would be provided space for a counterprotest on another lawn, and would be provided security to protect them, per his request. Davidai responded that he wasn’t interested in a counterprotest: He wanted to crash the existing protest. And he vowed to sue the university if it didn’t protect him as he tried to initiate this conflict. 

The next morning, he showed up with a small throng of supporters, an Israeli flag draped around his shoulders, only to find his access to the campus revoked. He immediately compared being unable to stoke a confrontation with the protection of campus security to the situation faced by Jewish intellectuals in Nazi Germany.

Davidai himself is the son of a multimillionaire tied to weapons manufacturing and the grandson of a deputy CEO of the Israeli airline El Al. When he stomps and yells like a spoiled child, while pretending to be the only thing standing between terrorists and Nazis carrying out pogroms on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, this is no less ridiculous than Ivy League kids cosplaying as leftist revolutionaries.

“In truth, there is very little at stake on any side of the struggles at Columbia.”

In truth, there is very little at stake on any side of the struggles at Columbia University, and ultimately, everyone will be just fine. Sooner or later, most of the students will proceed to their well-remunerated jobs—protesters, counter-protesters, and neutral parties alike. Whether Shafik manages to hold on at Columbia or ultimately gets pushed out, she will spend the rest of her days filthy rich. Likewise, even in the unlikely event that Davadai is terminated for his many indiscretions, he already has a promising second career lined up as a right-aligned influencer. Columbia, too, will fare well. The school is older than America, and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. All those people vowing not to send their kids to the Ivies are lying to others and possibly themselves (or perhaps their offspring were unlikely to gain admission in the first place). 

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed that “behind every image, something has disappeared.” The Ivy League Intifada is no exception. The only people in this story who face genuine suffering have been almost completely absent from “the discourse” over the last several weeks: namely, the people of Gaza.

While Americans obsess over tents on the Columbia quad, hundreds of thousands of displaced people are sleeping in tents in Rafah. They are not “unsheltered” because the university revoked their access to the campus, but because their homes and communities were leveled by a campaign of destruction with few analogs in modern history. And even their tents are being bombed.

“Every single university in Gaza has been destroyed by Israel.”

It isn’t even possible in theory for Gazans to carry out campus demonstrations, because every single university in Gaza has been destroyed by Israel. Instead of dealing with the inconvenience of being unable to access the dining hall or hang out on the quad—and rather than stressing out over whether they’ll land their dream job or if others are saying mean things about them (that make them feel emotionally “unsafe”—the people of Gaza are witnessing their loved ones killed in front of their eyes, are undergoing amputations without anesthesia, and literally starving to death. There is nowhere left for them to flee, but a ground invasion seems imminent despite Hamas ostensibly agreeing to a ceasefire.

It is obvious why Biden, House Republicans, and others determined to support Benjamin Netanyahu’s war would rather talk about student protesters instead of the fate of Gaza. Mainstream media outlets, meanwhile, recognize that campus culture-war stories get far more clicks and are far easier to produce than responsible reporting on bleak international events. 

For their part, the student activists seem to genuinely want to raise awareness about the plight of Gazans—albeit ideally in a way that enhances their own clout. In a recent editorial for The Guardian, leaders of the Columbia protest movement urged everyone to listen to their perspectives, and elevate their voices, so they might raise the salience of the crisis in Gaza. The actual conflict they are ostensibly trying to end received only a single oblique mention in the last sentence of the piece. The rest of the article was focused on the struggles Columbia students have faced and calls for them to get still more attention relative to other stakeholders. In truth, Columbia students don’t need your attention. They don’t need your support. They don’t need your solidarity.

Attention is finite. Energy is finite. Time is finite. Resources are finite. Save your concern and your efforts for the crisis in Gaza. Don’t let the farce at Columbia obscure the tragedy that the protests were supposed to call attention to in the first place.

Musa al-Gharbi is a Compact columnist and an assistant professor in the School of Communication and Journalism at Stony Brook University.


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