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General News

Greek-American Students Talk to TNH about Protests at U.S. Universities

May 14, 2024
By Christodoulos Athanasatos and Constantine S. Sirigos

NEW YORK – The National Herald reached out to Greek-American college students who shared their views on pro-Palestinian protests at American, either having experienced them themselves or having been informed through various media. It should be noted, however, that TNH discerned some reluctance among Greek-American students to express their views on these events, hence several of those we approached to voice their opinions politely declined, as was the case with professors, one of whom was discouraged from commenting by a departmental chairperson.

For Theodore Karnavas, who has just graduated from Columbia University, which has been at the epicenter of the protests and university responses, it is not correct to speak of a movement, as only a small percentage of students participated in the protests at his university.

Karnavas said that, “during the recent period, there have been protests outside the University by small groups mostly not affiliated with the University, and some within the University by students, culminating in a roughly two-week encampment on the University’s outdoor space. It should be emphasized that all these protests were small-scale and essentially peaceful. There were indeed some extreme incidents, but they were isolated. We must distinguish between protests outside the University and those within the University space, which concern the students. We must not forget that the University is a private institution and has security guards. For the past month, one can only enter the university campus with a student ID. Therefore, from all the above, it is very difficult to speak of a movement when out of the 35,000 undergraduate and graduate students at the University, the protests involved at most 200-300 individuals. This is also the situation at other universities, as far as I know.”

Theodore Karnavas recently graduated from Columbia University.

Asked if the protests had an anti-Semitic character, Karnavas said: “Anti-Semitism is a term referring to a very specific ideology that supports the idea that Jews are inferior people and should therefore be eliminated. Nazi and pro-Nazi regimes did not tolerate Jews in their ranks because they simply considered them inferior. A large number of Jewish students and professors are participating in this ‘movement’, so by definition, it cannot be characterized as anti-Semitic. Among the demonstrators, there were individuals who expressed extreme views such as the elimination of Israel, but this concerns a small minority. On the contrary, students and their supporters are fundamentally opposed to Israel’s practices and the University’s support for these practices through [investments].”

TNH also asked, “do you believe that the handling of these events by the University administration was the most appropriate way to respond? “The administration was admittedly in a very difficult position,” Karnavas said. “On the one hand, there is opposition from a large part of the university community to the Israeli attack on Gaza, and on the other hand, there is the influence exerted on the administration by pro-Israeli organizations and benefactors of the University. At the same time, there was a strong reaction from members of Congress and particularly from the Republican leadership, which is a key supporter of Israeli policy. The hearings that summoned university administrators to Congress were indicative of the atmosphere.”

He added that, “for the first time in many years, the administration called the New York City Police Department to intervene, something that stirred a storm of reactions, and perhaps this was a decision that could have been avoided, as shown by the example of other universities. The problem with the students’ encampment is of course that it is private property, and this is known to all. Therefore, the encampment had to end at some point. On the other hand, the truth is that the traditional climate of freedom of expression in the major liberal universities of the USA has been affected lately. There is a pervasive atmosphere within the administration and the political system that certain opinions (e., support for the Palestinian cause) are not acceptable. This poses a challenge to the university community, regardless of one’s views on these issues. Ultimately, such a policy only gives space for the development of extreme and condemnable opinions by scant minorities, such as calls for the elimination of Israel and support for the extremist Hamas.”

Johnny Kesidis, a fourth-year student at Fordham University, spoke about of an unprecedented experience. “The protests we had in the past few days at the universities of New York were an unprecedented experience for me. It was something unique that I had never experienced in my four years of study here. For the first time, I experienced the University’s security staff or even the NYPD occasionally checking my identification and bag before I entered the campus. This, combined with the closure of most of the outdoor space, made the spring days at the School much worse. There were no longer students outside enjoying the good weather and playing games among themselves. The atmosphere and measures taken reminded more of a prison than a University. The School had lost its energy, and so had the students. Let’s hope this issue will be resolved as soon as possible.”

Johnny Kesidis, a fourth-year student at Fordham University.

Vasilis Michalis, also a student at Fordham, noted that he experienced the New York City occurrences as an observer. “At my own University, at Fordham, we only had one day of protests, and the University responded quite harshly, with expulsions of students and graduates who participated. That day I was on campus and saw the protests up close. The Fordham community was greatly affected, especially at Lincoln Center. On the one hand, empty corridors, and on the other, closed streets full of people in one of the most central points of Manhattan. Fortunately, at my University, the demands of my fellow students were not overshadowed by hate rallies or the targeting of other students. In the short time I was there, I saw a healthy expression of disagreement, which I believe is necessary in a democracy,’ he says.

Vasilis Michalis is a student at Fordham University.

A.D. – a Greek-American graduate student at the University of Buffalo, told The National Herald that he has not witnessed any protests, but he wants to say that while the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians was obscene, “the war is bad and must stop.” He also emphasized, however, that although free speech must prevail on campuses, “when it prevents students from attending their classes, and when it becomes violent, it is unacceptable.”

N.C. – a Greek-American graduate student in international relations in a program affiliated with a major university in New York, has not participated in any of the protests, but he feels very strongly about what is happening. “Much like students in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement,” he said, “these students are risking their academic life, future careers, and bodies to stand up for what they believe in, and will be vindicated by history. Their demands are simple: that the universities they pay tuition to every year divest from a state currently prosecuting an ethnic cleansing campaign.”

He is especially disturbed by the responses of the media and public officials, noting, “similarly to student movements in past eras, these student protesters are being demonized by the media, many of their elected officials, and worst of all, their own university administration.” He is angry as well about not just the words, but the actions taken by many schools: “These administrations would rather authorize their own university police forces, local and state police, and even the National Guard to brutalize their students than to legitimately consider the students’ reasonable demands.”

He concluded by expressing “solidarity with the students, the people of Gaza, and the oppressed everywhere.”

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