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Unrest at public universities sparks responses from local, statewide, national groups

Dozens+of+Pima+County+Sheriffs+file+onto+the+encampment+site+late+on+April+30.+A+standoff+between+police+and+protesters+ensued+for+hours+before+major+disruption.
Noor Haghighi
Dozens of Pima County Sheriffs file onto the encampment site late on April 30. A standoff between police and protesters ensued for hours before major disruption.

The University of Arizona’s Joint Council on Jewish Life & Antisemitism was “appalled” by the UA’s Faculty Senate Chair’s refusal to “adopt a formal resolution condemning antisemitism on campus,” according to a statement from the council. This statement came just days after members of the UA Faculty wrote a letter to UA President Dr. Robert C. Robbins condemning his response to campus protests.

On Monday, May 6, Faculty Senate Chair Leila Hudson said she could not, in good conscience, adopt this resolution after the treatment of student demonstrators by the university in the past few weeks. 

On May 1, law enforcement officials from across the county, including the UA Police Department, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department and the Tucson Police Department, fired rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd of pro-Palestinian demonstrators and stormed their constructed encampment. This response to the protests sparked backlash from the university community and prompted Robbins to respond, justifying the actions of law enforcement at the encampment protest. 

“Dr. Hudson cites recent efforts by UAPD to clear unauthorized protests and encampments from campus as her reasons, but this resolution had already received widespread support before the events of last week,” the council’s statement read. 

The council expressed concern about the safety of Jewish students in the months following the Oct. 7 attacks. 

Jewish students at UA are afraid to walk to class. They have been called horrific epithets and spit on as they walk through campus. While we support students’ right to peaceful protest, we decry any intimidation of their classmates and colleagues,” the statement read. “Our most important priority is keeping Jewish students safe — first, foremost, and always.”

Other members of university faculty expressed a similar desire to ensure the safety of students but also noted their dismay and censure of the university’s response to recent protests.

We the undersigned are writing in horror, dismay, and anger in reaction to your decision to call the police on our own students who were peacefully protesting. Under the cloak of enforcing a legal curfew, you violated not only the primary directive of caring for students in your charge but also turned a peaceful protest into a violent confrontation. 

You called the police. You acted against our students’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly. You should have prioritized student safety. 

 You could have acted differently. You could have talked to the students, as professors are supposed to do. You could have followed the example of the President of Wesleyan, Michael Roth, who let the peaceful student encampment stand and opened up a dialogue with the students (https://roth.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2024/04/30/on-protests-encampments-freedom-of-expression/). 

 The harm is done. At a minimum, we ask that you and the administration do not pursue any further action against the student protesters, either through the police (drop any existing criminal charges and do not pursue new ones) or through the University (no suspension, no expulsion),” read the letter to Robbins signed by over 400 faculty members

Discourse of this kind, about how to protect college students while also ensuring their rights to free speech, is taking place not just in Tucson but across the state and the country

At a state level, members of the Arizona State Senate and House Democratic Caucus wrote a joint letter calling on the Arizona Board of Regents to defend students’ rights to free speech and to call for an immediate ceasefire and “end to the suffering in Gaza” on April 30.

This letter was drafted in response to the force exerted by law enforcement and university officials to quash the pro-Palestinian student demonstrations taking place at Arizona’s public universities. In Arizona and across the country, this student-led movement is sparking a variety of responses from lawmakers. 

The members of Arizona’s democratic caucus acknowledged some of the difficulties and pressures that university leadership might be facing during this time, but reinforced the need for the board to defend the First Amendment rights of Arizona’s students.

“But as you fashion responses to the activism of your students (and faculty and staff), it is essential that you do not undermine the principles of academic freedom and free speech that are core to the educational mission of our respected institutions of higher education,” the letter read.  

National leaders have recently taken a different view, choosing to condemn the protests occurring on these campuses saying that they are a cause of concern because of their violent and anti-semitic nature. 

“There’s the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos,” President Joe Biden said in a speech May 2. “Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduation — none of this is a peaceful protest.”

United States Speaker of the House Mike Johnson similarly denounced violence and anti-semistism at colleges while visiting Columbia University April 24. Johnson said that those protesting were lawless agitators and radicals who possessed extreme ideologies that placed a target on the back of Jewish students. 

“If this is not contained quickly, and if these threats and intimidation are not stopped, there is an appropriate time for the National Guard. We have to bring order to these campuses. We cannot allow this to happen around the country,” Johnson said. 

According to Johnson, the House of Representatives is also working to implement measures to mitigate anti-semitism. Some of these measures have included a resolution denouncing the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as antisemitic and a bill passed by the house that would expand the legal definition of antisemitism. According to the bill anti semitism would include the “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”


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