Queens electeds offer contrasting viewpoints on pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia

Since the encampment at Columbia University emerged last week, local elected officials across the city have released statements.
Photo by Dean Moses

As Pro-Palestinian encampments emerged at over a dozen college campuses across the country following in the footsteps of Columbia University, local elected officials pushed out statements in response.

The “Gaza Solidarity Encampment,” built on the campus’s south lawn, drew strong voices of support, as well as objection, from Queens representatives. Many also commented on the arrests of hundreds of students, and some faculty members, after the NYPD swarmed both Columbia and NYU at the behest of the University presidents.

Elected officials who represent Queens districts have expressed viewpoints far from uniform. Those officials who have repeatedly called for a ceasefire in Gaza are standing in solidarity with the students who are calling on their universities to divest funds from Israel. They support the students, who say they will not shut down the peaceful protests until their colleges concede to their demands, including amnesty for protesters. 

Meanwhile, Queens officials who have repeatedly said that Israel has the right to defend itself since the Oct. 7 terrorist attack, say they are concerned about anti-Semitism that has emerged at the college protests. They have joined calls for Columbia University President Minouche Shafik to resign for not clamping down on it. 

Council Member Tiffany Cabán, a progressive Democrat who represents Astoria, visited the encampment at Columbia this week and jointly penned an op-ed in City and State NY with three fellow Brooklyn council members. Cabán, who said this type of protest should be supported and not suppressed, noted that unlike other elected officials who released statements about the encampment, she actually visited the encampment herself. 

“What we saw couldn’t be more different from the dire warnings of rampant anti-Semitic threats and pervasive danger coming from City Hall, Albany and the White House,” read the op-ed. “We believe in freedom, safety and equal rights for all Palestinians and Israelis, and we celebrate the students fighting for those aims, undaunted in the face of hostile university administrators and armed police battalions.”

The four council members collectively acknowledged the reports of anti-Semitism at the protests, but attributed the incidents to “some fringe agitators” outside the encampment itself. They also said the police should not have been called in.

“It does not combat anti-Semitism, nor keep students safe, to effect mass arrests of peaceful protesters, suddenly evict students from campus housing, unaccountably suspend leaders of the student movement for Palestinian rights or impose regimes of censorship,” the op-ed continued.

On the other side of the issue, Republican Council Member Vickie Paladino, who represents northeastern Queens, shared a statement on Monday calling for criminal action to be taken against the students and their supporters, citing anti-Semitism and hate in the encampment.  

She also denounced her progressive city council peers for “participating in these violent and plainly anti-Semitic riots,” although it is unclear whether any city council members actually joined the protests.

“I condemn in the strongest possible language the ongoing situation at Columbia, as we witness the school shamefully descend into a pogrom. I’m calling on the Mayor to restore order to the surrounding area immediately using all means available, and file appropriate charges,” said Paladino in a statement.  

She went further and called for a “federal civil rights investigation [to] be launched immediately against the groups responsible, their funding networks, leadership, and ties with known terror organizations, as well as Columbia University itself.” 

In Forest Hills, City Council Member Lynn Schulman said that she and her office “received calls from students and their families about threats and intimidation” in response to a Forest Hills resident questioning her claim that Jewish students are being harassed and bullied at Columbia. 

“The First Amendment and right to protest have historically been the seeds of education at college campuses,” wrote Schulman on X on Sunday, alongside a statement from the NYC Jewish Caucus. “But when both or either one are used to harass, bully or intimidate other students, in this instance Jewish students at Columbia that is reprehensible.”

On the federal level, all Republican congress members in New York have called for Shafik’s resignation, claiming that she did not take strong enough action to stop the protests. But progressive leaders also expressed disagreement with Shafik for allowing the NYPD to infiltrate the encampment and arrest students. She also issued suspensions for those arrested. 

“Calling in police enforcement on nonviolent demonstrations of young students on campus is an escalatory, reckless, and dangerous act. It represents a heinous failure of leadership that puts people’s lives at risk. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” wrote U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on X on Tuesday. 

Neighboring western Queens and north Brooklyn U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez has been calling for a ceasefire since October. While she didn’t comment directly on the university protests, she joined other officials in a joint statement in opposition to sending additional funds to Israel. 

And on the state level, Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, who represents Astoria and Long Island City, continued to be one of the most vocal supporters of the Palestinian cause in the region. 

“Astoria and LIC stand for peace, and for a permanent and immediate ceasefire. We are lucky to be represented by @AOC and @ReElectNydia, who represented our community’s values by voting against sending billions more dollars to Israel for more weapons to murder Palestinians,” Mamdani wrote Tuesday on X (formerly known as Twitter). 

Earlier in the week, he called the NYPD’s infiltration of the encampment at the call of Columbia’s president Shafik “shameful and unacceptable.”

“The ACLU calls the NYPD Strategic Response Group a ‘notoriously violent rapid response unit’,” Mamdani wrote on X. “But that’s who Columbia University President Shafik called to come to campus—deployed to arrest students for the crime of peacefully protesting against genocide.”

But U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, who represents the central Queens section of the borough, took a different approach from the congressional representatives that Assemblymember Mamdani praised. She has not called for a ceasefire, despite protestors urging her to do so, and expressed concern for the Jewish students on campus. 

“The right to peaceful protest is sacred to all Americans. This includes the rights of our college students. However, it’s unacceptable for students to face harassment & intimidation on campus. It’s disgraceful that Jewish students are questioning whether they are safe on campus,” wrote Rep. Meng on X on Monday. “As we monitor the events at Columbia, I urge institutional & elected leaders to come together to address anti-Semitism & hate. No student should be afraid to walk around their own campus regardless of who they are.”