Blinken criticizes protesting students’ ‘silence’ on Hamas

washington — As student protests against Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza continue at more than three dozen American universities, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the demonstrations were “a hallmark” of American democracy. At the same time, he criticized the students for their “silence” on Hamas.

“It is also notable that there is silence about Hamas. It’s as if it wasn’t even part of the story,” Blinken said to reporters Friday during a visit to Beijing. “But as I’ve also said repeatedly, the way Israel goes about ensuring that October 7th never happens again matters profoundly.”

Speaking in a country where dissent is often harshly suppressed, Blinken said he understood the war invokes “strong, passionate feelings” and voiced support for the students’ right to protest.

“It’s a hallmark of our democracy that our citizens make known their views, their concerns, their anger, at any given time, and I think that reflects the strength of the country, the strength of democracy,” he said.

Protests have grown in campuses across the country since Columbia University in New York started cracking down on pro-Palestinian protesters occupying a lawn on its campus on April 18. Police interventions have led to hundreds of arrests but have failed to contain the spread of antiwar demonstrations.

“We have students of all backgrounds and of all histories and identities coming out here to stand on the side of justice and to oppose genocide,” said Malak Afaneh, who spoke with VOA from the encampment at the University of California-Berkeley. The third-year law student who has Palestinian parents said there has been an “outpouring of community support.”

In many universities, Jewish students participated in expressing their anger about U.S. support for Israel in its war against Hamas in Gaza and their schools’ financial and academic ties to Israel and to weapons manufacturers.

“We have a university that’s actively investing money into companies that are helping fuel [the war], kill these innocent people,” a Jewish student from Georgetown University told VOA, declining to share her name because of security concerns. “And it’s just not something that I morally can – I have never been able to stand by – but especially not now anymore.”

Yet some Jewish students have complained of rising antisemitism and have felt unsafe on their own campuses, including Columbia, because of the protests.

Overall, the protests are peaceful, even as some are met with counterprotests from pro-Israel and pro-Zionist students. Demonstrations are broadly protected as free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Antisemitic language

Still, the protests are potentially explosive for university administrators, particularly as some students have been called out for using antisemitic language.

Interpreted differently by its supporters, a chant like, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is seen by many Jews and Israelis as a call to dismantle the Jewish state and replace it with a Palestinian state that extends from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. 

The demonstrations are also becoming a political headache for President Joe Biden. Student protesters and progressive Democrats who support their cause are important constituencies for Biden ahead of the November presidential election. His reelection bid depends in part to his ability to pacify progressives’ anger about his administration’s support of Israel, a close U.S. ally. 

An added complication for Biden is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to portray the antiwar sentiment in the U.S. as antisemitic. On Wednesday, Netanyahu called the protests “horrific” and said they must be stopped. 

“Antisemitic mobs have taken over leading universities,” he said. “They call for the annihilation of Israel. They attack Jewish students. They attack Jewish faculty.”

Netanyahu, who is facing protests demanding his resignation at home, said the American demonstrations are “reminiscent of what happened in German universities in the 1930s,” drawing parallels to scenes that preceded the Holocaust under Nazi Germany.

Ties are already tense as the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress demand that Israel improve its conduct of the war. In March, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, described the Israeli prime minister as an impediment to peace in the Middle East and called for a new election to replace him. Schumer is the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the U.S.

Republicans decry protests

Netanyahu’s criticisms of the protests are echoed by Republican lawmakers who accuse the students of condoning terrorism and supporting Hamas. Republican-led committees in Congress have summoned university administrators to testify, accusing them of allowing campuses to become hotbeds of antisemitism.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson and several other Republican lawmakers visited Columbia University, calling for the resignation of university President Minouche Shafik and decrying the student protests as violent and uncontrollable.

“This is dangerous. This is not the First Amendment, this is not free expression,” Johnson said, amid raucous booing and shouts from protesters.

The speaker demanded that Biden call out the country’s military reserve force to quell the protests. “There is an appropriate time for the National Guard,” he said. “We have to bring order to these campuses.”

The White House declined to weigh in, saying decisions to call in National Guard units to break up protests are up to state governors.

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