Slanderous Attacks on Anti-War Student Protesters Aim to Distract from Gaza Carnage

Interview with Helen Benedict, professor of journalism at Columbia University, conducted by Scott Harris

One day after Hamas accepted a Gaza ceasefire agreement proposed by Qatari and Egyptian mediators, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the deal declaring an end to the war is unacceptable and launched the long-feared military offensive in the city of Rafah.  Before the May 7 offensive got underway, President Biden reiterated his opposition to an Israeli Rafah ground invasion where more than 1 million displaced Palestinian civilians have sought refuge from the 7-month long war.  U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Israel that a full-scale assault on Rafah would “be a strategic mistake, a political calamity, and a humanitarian nightmare.”

Students at colleges and universities across the U.S. continue to protest Israel’s war in Gaza that has now killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children.  As Republican and Democratic politicians vilify student anti-war activists as antisemitic and pro-terrorist, university administrators have called in police to clear Gaza peace encampments, arresting more than 2,400 people on at least 51 campuses.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Helen Benedict, an award-winning author and professor of journalism at Columbia University, which has been the epicenter of the pro-Palestinian U.S. student movement. Here she talks about the police suppression of free speech on campus and the charge that student activists are being manipulated by “outside agitators” to take a stand against U.S. complicity in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

HELEN BENEDICT: This phrase “outside agitators” tends to mean that there are outsiders who come with ill intent to whip up hapless students and turn them violent. Nothing like that has happened at all. But one thing, even the New York Times that did an investigation, as well as my own student journalists did, found that of all the people who were arrested last time — actually only nine were outsiders. Most of the others were all affiliated with Columbia graduate students. And the outsiders were either people standing around just to support outside the gates who got swept up. Or advisors, people who are practiced at helping run demonstrations and protests in a peaceful, orderly manner who these students had invited in to help them deal with things like keeping themselves safe from the real “outsiders,” these antagonists who might come and threaten them — some of whom have been congregating on Broadway outside of the campus for a long time now.

And the press has muddled those up with our students. And some of them are really extremists on both sides and have shouted hateful things. And they’ve been very threatening to the students inside who have been incredibly peaceful, incredibly together, involve a lot of Jewish students who had had a seder in the encampment and have been anything but violent.

So one of the ones that got apparently that got mad and all upset was a grandmother who’d been advising people on keeping safe, peaceful and reasonable with each other during these very fraught times for a long time. So yes, it’s a complete misnomer and a myth about this “outside agitator” business. And most of all, I must say, it puts down the students because it takes away their autonomy and their purpose. They know what they’re doing, and they’re very focused on peace in Gaza and Palestine. That’s what they want and bringing back the hostages safe. And, they’re not gonna be pushed around by outsiders either. It takes away their dignity to say such a thing.

SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Benedict, I wanted to ask you about something that you wrote about in a recent article, that there’s concern that the current protests and the media coverage of these protests is unfortunately distracting important attention from the horrible carnage in Gaza, where more than 34,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children have been killed in seven months of the Israeli air and ground assault.

And of course, all this is going on in one of the most densely populated areas in the world where it appears that starvation is being used as a weapon by Israel and blocking just basic humanitarian aid from coming into the territory. And I’ll just mention that this was mentioned in an article that you wrote titled, “The Distortion of Campus Protests Over Gaza.”

HELEN BENEDICT: The students have not forgotten that this is all about what’s happening to Palestinians and what’s happening in Gaza. Maybe, the storyline right now is all about protests and police on campus, and freedom of speech and academic freedom, which are important issues. But the real issue the reason they’re out there risking their lives and limbs, in many ways — I don’t mean literal lives, but I mean, their futures – is because they want an end to this war.

So I do think that we’ve gotten distracted, and of course, it’s partly because it’s right here under our nose. But, and I don’t want to sound as if I’m a conspiracy theorist here because I’m not. But of course, if the right had had in their mind a way to distract us all from what’s happening in Gaza, screaming about antisemitism, and they’re saying — and I’m Jewish, by the way, so I don’t mean that I don’t take antisemitism extremely seriously, and I’ve experienced it myself — but creating this false narrative so we talk about that instead of Garza, and then we talk about the student protests and so on, instead of Gaza.

If that’s what they wanted, they’ve been succeeding.

Helen Benedict’s latest novel is The Good Deed. Visit Helen Benedict’s website at

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Helen Benedict (26:19). More articles and opinion pieces are found in the Related Links section of this page.

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