What to Make of Khymani James

Protesters with a Palestinian flag and signs inside and outside the gates at Columbia

Khymani James, a graduate of Boston Latin Academy and former student representative to the Boston School Committee, who not too long ago was feted as a rising student leader in Boston and who has said he wants to be elected to Congress someday, has been one of the leaders of the protest encampment outside the library on Columbia’s campus. Here is what he had to say several months ago during a University disciplinary hearing about what to do with the Zionists:

The hearing, conducted by an administrator of the university’s Center for Student Success and Intervention, was focused on an earlier comment he shared on social media, in which he discussed fighting a Zionist. “I don’t fight to injure or for there to be a winner or a loser, I fight to kill,” he wrote.

A Columbia administrator asked, “Do you see why that is problematic in any way?”

Mr. James replied, “No.”

He also compared Zionists to white supremacists and Nazis. “These are all the same people,” he said. “The existence of them and the projects they have built, i.e. Israel, it’s all antithetical to peace. It’s all antithetical to peace. And so, yes, I feel very comfortable, very comfortable, calling for those people to die.”

And, Mr. James said, “Be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists.”

Katherine Rosman, Columbia Bars Student Protester Who Said ‘Zionists Don’t Deserve to Live’,
NYT 4/26/24

Mr. James has published a statement of regret filled with self-pity and self-justification: an “online mob” had “targeted” him because he is “visibly queer and black,” and therefore it was natural and understandable, if regrettable, that he would call for the murder of most Jews days or weeks later during a formal hearing meant to discuss his social media post threatening to “fight to kill,” and that it was natural and understandable that he would post his own comments on the internet and leave them there for the world to see for months.

Some writers have tried valiantly to suggest that Mr. James is not representative of what’s happening on campus. “There are some Jews participating in the encampments!” “When they say ‘intifada,’ they don’t mean like the last one!” “The guy yelling ‘the Jews control the world’ isn’t actually a student!” “The Jews provoke the antisemitic outbursts!” “The right wing is antisemitic too!” But even Lydia Polgren, whose recent column makes all these points, can’t help but be at least a little bit troubled:

On Monday, after the arrest of more than 100 N.Y.U. protesters, the demonstrations outside Police Headquarters went on all night. I live nearby, and went down to see the protest for myself. It was a different vibe from the night the Columbia students had been arrested. There were more chants, delivered with much tighter unison and at greater volume.

“Move, cops, get out the way, we know you’re Israeli trained.”

“There is only one solution, intifada revolution,” went another.

I winced upon hearing the last chant. Not so much the word intifada, which has many meanings and intonations depending on the context. But why choose the word “solution,” one so redolent of the Nazis’ “final solution,” which murdered six million Jews across Europe?

Lydia Polgreen, The Student-Led Protests Aren’t Perfect. That Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Right. NYT, 4/26/24

Why indeed?

Then there are the chanters who haven’t had media training and don’t know what they’re not supposed to say. At Columbia, other protesters have held signs calling for Jews to be targeted by the Al-Qassam Brigades or have called on Jews at Columbia to “go back to Europe.” Others have assaulted a Jewish student on campus, calling him a “genocidal maniac” with “blood on [his] hands.”

I take Mr. James’s threats and all these threats with the utmost seriousness, because history tells us that the it is foolish to ignore them even if they seem to come from unserious clowns. Columbia itself has belatedly also taken Mr. James’s threats seriously and has banned him from campus. But Columbia didn’t act when Mr. James made the threats to its administrators during a formal hearing. Nor did it act days ago when Mr. James (according to Newsweek) organized a human chain meant to exclude Jews from areas of the campus:

“Attention, everyone! We have Zionists who have entered the camp!” a protest leader calls out. His head is wrapped in a white-and-black keffiyeh. “We are going to create a human chain where I’m standing so that they do not pass this point and infringe on our privacy.”

Michael Powell, The Unreality of Columbia’s ‘Liberated Zone,’ The Atlantic 4/22/24

How is it that that wasn’t enough to get Mr. James removed from campus in order to protect the rights of his fellow students to be on their own campus?

For its part, the Columbia administration is frozen in a defensive crouch. When President Shafik has to face Congress, she promises firm action against the unauthorized encampment, and she actually takes some firm action. Days later, when President Shafik has to face the protesters and her own faculty, she allows the encampment to take root again and allows suspended students to participate even though they shouldn’t be on campus. Days later, when an antisemitic video goes viral, she takes action against the antisemite. Later, when pressured again by the protesters, she seems to take further arrests off the table. Rather than just reacting to the emergency of the moment, I wish President Shafik would simply enforce the University’s rules fairly and evenhandedly. Show some backbone. Don’t decide what to do by asking who scares you more. Get in front of the problem you and the University administration have allowed to fester. Commit to changes in faculty hiring and University priorities that will lead to deradicalization in the long term. And don’t do it for the Jews! Do it for the sake of your university, which should be a place for learning and discovery, not for slogans and ideologues.

Image credit: SWinxy (CC BY-SA)

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