In aftermath of Tulane encampment clearing, who speaks for the Jewish community?

An October rally at Tulane University in New Orleans got violent after a pro-Palestinian demonstrator hit a Jewish student in the face. Photo by Bali Levine.

The national clash over anti-Israel encampments on college campuses reached Tulane University, with the university calling in law enforcement on May 1 to deal with “unlawful encampments,” sparking a battle of words over whether the university acted appropriately or went too far.

The battle also has spilled into the Jewish community, with a public dispute over who can legitimately speak for the community.

According to the university, Students for a Democratic Society requested permission to hold an April 29 gathering on campus, as is protocol for all such events on campus. The group asked for permission for groups outside of Tulane to participate in the event, which was denied, as it goes against Tulane’s policies.

In a May 4 statement, President Michael Fitts and other Tulane officials said that when the university denied the request for outside group participation, “The SDS then decided to cancel their approved event and instead hold an unregistered event on Freret Street, which is a public space and outside of our control, specifically so that they could invite outside community members to join their protest.”

Tulane SDS and Loyola SDS had announced a 5 p.m. rally on April 29, “All Out for Palestine: Rally for Academic Freedom, Stop Suppressing Student Voices,” in front of the ROTC building.

University Student Affairs leaders “provided SDS with clear warnings against using inciteful language, chanting antisemitic slogans, flouting noise ordinances, and erecting unlawful encampments. The organizers and participants, the overwhelming majority of whom were not affiliated with Tulane, however, proceeded to trespass campus property with an unregistered, unauthorized and unlawful demonstration.”

The violations included “antisemitic chanting, disruptive noise, and shoving police in order to set up an illegal barricaded presence on campus,” forcing the closure of three academic buildings and disrupting university events. Classes in those three buildings were held remotely.

The demonstrators marched onto the campus, down Calhoun Street to the front of Gibson Hall, pitching tents near St. Charles Avenue. The Tulane police initially moved in to prevent the encampment on April 29 but withdrew with the idea of containing and ending the protest. The first warnings about trespassing were issued around 9 p.m.

A separate rally for Israel was held on the Berger Family Lawn, with no incidents.

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The administration said discussions were held with the encampment for two days, verbally and in writing, urging the encampment to disburse. During that time, the university received numerous reports of “deeply disturbing behavior by some protesters and counter protesters” including antisemitic slogans and signage by protestors, and Islamophobic language from counter-protestors. “Moreover, outside groups were supplying the encampment with barricades including tires, chains and pallets that created the potential for real danger,” Fitts said.

Among the signs was “Victory to the Resistance,” ‘Proud Anti-Zionist Jew” and “Jews 4 a Free Palestine,” “Tulane Faculty Stands with Palestine” and “Israel Get Out of Palestine.”

In addition, “dedicated employees who worked to keep everyone safe were harassed, cursed at, and subject to various forms of intimidation.”

On April 30, there were about 10 tents in front of Gibson Hall, with “the overwhelming majority of the protestors” not affiliated with the university. They said they would not leave until Tulane and Loyola divest from any investments the universities have in Israeli companies. An electronic billboard was placed by the encampment to notify the protestors that they were trespassing and must leave.

The decision to clear the encampment was made “to avoid the kind of dangerous escalation occurring at other universities across the nation,” and “even in the final moments, the participants were encouraged to leave to avoid arrest. Our only goal was to clear the encampment from our campus, and our desire was to do that without any arrests. Most left the encampment at that time, but some chose instead to remain behind to be arrested.”

Early on May 1, Tulane University Police, the New Orleans Police Department and Louisiana State Police cleared the encampment. According to Tulane, 14 were arrested, including two Tulane students. Six more had been arrested on April 29, including one student, and they reportedly refused to identify themselves, though a “phone zap” to demand their release named them as Sienna Vincent, Hannah Byrne, Israel Chaim “Sruly” Heller, Quest Riggs, Serena Sojic-Borne and Wynn Fischer.

The original six arrests were for trespassing, resisting arrest and battery on an officer.

Seven students were also suspended, and “we are also actively looking into reports of university employees participating in this unlawful demonstration,” the university said.

Tulane SDS identified five of the students as Rory Macdonald, Vonne Crandell, Kristin Hamilton, Silas Gillett and Grayson Gibbs, saying the other two wished to remain anonymous.

The university also suspended the school’s SDS chapter.

Five Loyola students are also facing disciplinary action. The Loyola SDS is demanding that all actions against them be dropped, and that the university release a statement that “acknowledged the genocide of Palestinians and condemns the indiscriminate violence and mass human rights abuses committed by the Zionist Entity.”

Among the demands at Tulane was cutting all ties to Israeli universities, including cancelling Birthright trips “to occupied Palestine.”

On April 30, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans issued a statement condemning “the unlawful protest and encampments on Tulane’s campus that included the use of antisemitic rhetoric,” and that the Federation has reached out to student leaders in “support for their wellbeing.”

Jewish Voice for Peace New Orleans reprinted the Federation statement with a large red “FALSE” stamp over it, saying that the Federation marked the end of Passover “according to its own traditions: posting racist incitements on social media; drumming up fear and misinformation about peaceful student protest; leveling FALSE accusations of antisemitism against the encampment.”

They said the only threat to Jewish safety was by law enforcement, and the encampment “had easily become THE SAFEST place for Jews anywhere in the city.”

Nathaniel Miller, president of Tulane Israel Public Affairs Committee, told the Algemeiner “These protesters at Tulane are not peaceful. All night, they spewed antisemitic slogans on megaphones, chided police officers, and tried to instigate fights with Jewish counter-protesters and observers across the street.”

On May 2, a group of over 200 faculty members presented a letter opposing “Tulane’s escalatory actions in the face of peaceful protest,” the arrests and suspensions of Tulane students, and “efforts to intimidate students and employees by threatening retaliatory action for participation in peaceful protests.”

Several faculty members issued a video through SDS, saying they were present at the rally and saw “Tulane students engaging in peaceful and nonviolent demonstrations” which is now being “criminalized.” They also condemned the placement of at least four staff members on leave, and stand in solidarity with students “as their professors.”

Tensions were already high in New Orleans, as there had been several incidents in previous days.

On April 24, Hillel hosted a dinner with an IDF soldier. Daniel Wiesen, a Jewish student, organized a Palestinian solidarity rally in opposition to the Hillel event, and SDS endorsed the rally. That evening, JVP also held a “Seder in the Street” and complementary rally for an “Exodus from Zionism” on Poydras Street, blocking traffic in front of Rep. Troy Carter’s office.

JVP and allied groups have also been using the public comment time at New Orleans City Council meetings to push the council for a ceasefire resolution. In 2018, those groups presented the council with a “human rights” bill that did not mention Israel, and after it passed, celebrated it as a win for the boycott-Israel movement. The city council, surprised by that interpretation of the resolution, rescinded it two weeks later in a highly contentious meeting.

On April 26, an anti-Israel protest was held in the street on St. Charles in front of Loyola and Tulane, blocking traffic. On April 28, a group of anti-Israel protestors occupied Jackson Square past its 7 p.m. closing time, and 10 were arrested.

One of the activist groups, Nola Freedom Forum, in calling for action, urged followers to “send to that friend who doesn’t really do social media but definitely has a burner account to heckle Zios.” The term “Zios,” short for “Zionists,” has been most commonly used by neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.

On May 7, SDS was calling for members to “pack the courts” in support of those who were arrested.

In early April, a group of 100 Jewish students at Tulane issued an open letter about how SDS “has crossed the line again and again” from free speech to harassment, and urged the university to rescind SDS’ status as a recognized student organization. “Tulane SDS has repeatedly hailed Hamas terrorists as “martyrs,” called for Zionist Jewish students to be forcibly removed from campus, and publicly doxxed and released the information of Jewish students on Instagram,” they wrote. “They recently embarked on a social media campaign against Professor Walter Isaacson, falsely accusing him of assault after Tulane SDS students sabotaged one of his events and instigated an altercation.”

Last Oct. 26, anti-Israel protesters assaulted multiple people at Tulane, the most serious being after Jewish students at a rally responded to those aboard a truck who attempted to set an Israeli flag on fire. A Jewish student suffered a broken nose after being struck in the face with a megaphone.

Who speaks for the community

As the debate over Tulane’s actions continued, on May 3, a letter to Tulane “from the New Orleans Jewish community” was presented to Fitts, with roughly 250 signatures. The letter was organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Israel activist group.

The letter stated that the protests were peaceful, and the “militarized SWAT team… endangered student’s (sic) safety and both mental and physical health,” and that the students were peaceful at the time of the raid.

Groups like JVP state that the protests are not antisemitic, because they take part in the protests, and some of the protest organizers are Jewish. The letter says the university is “scapegoating ‘Jewish safety’” as a justification for clearing the encampment. “We are deeply offended at your completely false and dangerous claims of antisemitism present at the protest,” the letter said, adding that “the entire camp joined in Jewish prayer to mark the end of Passover” in a Mimouna festival the evening of April 30.

The JVP letter said they were speaking out “against genocide” and “we take our vow of ‘never again’ seriously.” They also demanded that Tulane “divest completely from Israel and the genocide that the Israeli government is currently carrying out in Gaza.”

On May 10, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and the South Central Region of the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement that JVP “does not speak for the mainstream American Jewish population.”

While the organizations stand for free speech, they “stand firmly against speech that stokes hatred and threatens the physical and psychological wellbeing of community members,” such as the increasingly hostile rhetoric and threats to Jewish students across the country. “While groups like Jewish Voice for Peace claim to fight against antisemitism, they often partner with and provide platforms for unabashed anti-Israel and anti-Jewish voices,” the agencies stated.

While JVP lends its voice to those calling for the dismantling of Israel, the response letter noted that despite a variance in attitudes toward Israel and its policies, a Pew study “found that 82 percent of American Jews say ‘caring about Israel is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them.’ For most Jews, Israel is an integral part of their social, cultural or religious identities – and yet many also support a two-state solution, the establishment of a Palestinian state beside Israel. JVP, on the other hand, supports tactics that deny Israel’s right to exist and harm Israel’s legitimacy as a democratic Jewish state, which prevents the sort of dialogue necessary for reconciliation and coexistence.”

The statement said the demonstrations “embrace JVP’s harshest rhetoric,” including chants of Intifada, and “from the river to the sea,” a phrase that was just condemned by the U.S. House as antisemitic and genocidal toward Israel.

In a Facebook post, JVP-Nola insisted “There is nothing antisemitic about the phrase, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.’ To combat antisemitism in the 21st century requires combating attempts by Israel and its supporters to literally change the meaning of the word ‘antisemitism’.”

The national JVP organization recently promoted a “Deadly Exchange” campaign to end U.S. police going to Israel to learn best practices on dealing with mass casualty events and preventing terrorism. The campaign charged instead that the exchanges teach U.S. police tactics on how to best oppress minorities, and falsely linked recent police brutality cases against Blacks in the U.S. to Israeli training. In 2020, they had to walk back the campaign during the George Floyd demonstrations, saying without the proper context, it shifts the blame on policing from the U.S. to Israel and “furthers an antisemitic ideology.”

The response letter from Federation and ADL said that JVP’s “exploitation of Jewish identity” allows anti-Israel groups to claim “allyship with the Jewish community while advancing antisemitism.”

The letter concludes with support for private institutions, such as Tulane, enforcing their own policies against “unlawful” events.