‘They’ve sparked resistance around the world’ — a Columbia ’68er salutes the ’24 uprising – Mondoweiss

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Mondoweiss called Bob Feldman to discuss the parallels between this year’s demonstrations at Columbia University and those in 1968 — when he was arrested and suspended from the school. Feldman had exposed Columbia’s institutional involvement in the Defense industry at the height of the Vietnam War, and he continues that work on Substack today. Feldman is a singer-songwriter.

Philip Weiss: Why were you protesting?

Bob Feldman: We were protesting against the complicity of Columbia University in the war by sponsoring weapons research for the Pentagon, which was used in Vietnam, which was considered a genocidal war. As Gaza is considered a genocidal war.  

You must remember that our demonstrations took place three weeks after Martin Luther King was assassinated. While our demands were about ending complicity in the Vietnam war, and stopping Columbia from building a gymnasium in Harlem, the King assassination on April 4 was the subjective mood for the students. That led to rebellions all over the United States. And many students were politicized.

When were students arrested?

The first police invasion was April 30, 1968, when 710 Columbia and Barnard students were arrested. I was suspended from Columbia after the second police invasion of the campus on May 22, 1968. There were 130 of us arrested in Hamilton Hall, and 70 suspended.

The following September we tried to get the suspensions lifted. The administration allowed some suspended students to come back if they acknowledged the authority of the university. But they didn’t allow the steering committee of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) to be reincluded. And I was on the steering committee since March 1967 based on my discovering the Institute for Defense Analyses connections with Columbia University, which was not public even though Columbia was an institutional member of the IDA– the Pentagon’s research thinktank.

Tell me about the Institute for Defense Analyses.

The core of Columbia’s complicity was its institutional membership and the participation by some faculty in the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Columbia President Grayson Kirk was a director of the think-tank. And the chair of the board of the IDA was a Columbia trustee, William Burden. Burden was also on the Lockheed Martin board and was former ambassador to  Belgium when Lumumba was killed.  

It was clear that Columbia University was sponsoring weapons research that was used in the Vietnam War. Even the Columbia Spectator picked up my research. But the mass media always minimized the importance of the Institute for Defense Analyses, saying Columbia was just giving some expert advice. But they were helping the Pentagon to build an electronic battlefield. The drones used by the Israel Defense Forces and used in Iraq by the U.S. military — all that stuff was started by the IDA, and Columbia had a secret lab working on such weaponry.

After the ’68 revolt, 12 universities resigned from the IDA, and so did university presidents, under pressure from their faculty. But the relationship between Columbia faculty and the IDA continues to this day.

Eric Olson, a former admiral who is a professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, is on the board of the IDA. And the chair of the IDA board is on the corporate board of Elbit Systems’ American subsidiary. Elbit, of course, provides Israel with drones and other weaponry for Israel’s occupation — as is documented on the AFSC website. You can see there how Elbit systems of America is directly linked to the war that began October 7. Another member of the IDA board is a former CEO of Elbit systems, Raanan I. Horowitz.

And today, you also have an institutional connection between Columbia and Tel Aviv University, which is helping Israel to carry out the genocide.

What are the parallels between the student uprisings in 1968 and 2024?

The chief parallel is the moral motivation. Under the Nuremberg principles, if your government is involved in supporting or carrying out war crimes, whether in Vietnam or in the Middle East, you, as a citizen of that country, have an obligation to resist.

International courts have said that what’s going on with the Israeli attack on Gaza may be a genocide, and people have an obligation now, just as we felt an obligation in 1968, to resist institutional policies that violate the Nuremberg principles. If you were in Germany in 1930 and a German university was developing weapons, what would be your responsibility? Our international responsibility would be to stop that university from doing that war research.

Today, people have seen in front of their eyes 35,000 people killed, another 7000 under the rubble– they see a war that clearly violated the Nuremberg Accords…it’s a horrifying thing, and you’ve got to do something.

The most effective way to stop the war machine is through institutional resistance in the institution in which you spend your day-to-day life. You have to ask yourself if this institution is involved in institutionally racist policies, or denying the rights of self-determination to Palestinians, or war crimes.

That’s the parallel. People are engaging in nonviolent institutional resistance, and Columbia is violating their First Amendment rights by trying to impose, without due process, suspensions for exercising their free speech rights. Now, you can’t even demonstrate outside at Columbia– because they have graduation ceremonies coming later this month, and the former president of Tel Aviv University is receiving an honorary degree. In an article in 2007, that man was quoted, saying that, at Tel Aviv University, “we do research for the ministry of defense to make sure that Israel has a military edge.” We know what that military does.

Columbia is institutionally affiliated with Tel Aviv University?

They began a degree partnership program with Tel Aviv University in 2019. Faculty members said we shouldn’t be doing this, but the arrogant former president of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, who has been opposed to BDS for years, ignored what the faculty said. That’s outraging.

It’s been 56 years since the last rebellion at Columbia. You must have expected another many times. Why is this night different from all other nights?

Well, people like yourself have worked tirelessly to get the news out that the corporate media weren’t getting out, and the alternative media weren’t getting out either. That’s been building for all these years. The awareness has expanded much faster this time because of the social media.

And remember, you couldn’t see the daily killings in Iraq when the U.S. attacked Iraq. Yes, there were 300,000 demonstrators in New York, but the horror of seeing the Gaza genocide on television and the U.S. government supporting that is very powerful.

I need to point out that a major difference between ‘68 and now is there weren’t Vietnamese antiwar students in the leadership of the protests. Black students took leadership roles then. But in 2023, 2024, the key thing is that Palestinian and Arab American students, even though they are in danger from the right-wing Zionist fanatics — they went up and they took leadership roles.

That couldn’t happen in ’68.

You continue to document the defense and establishment connections of Columbia leadership.

Yes. Because instead of getting a statement from the Columbia administration of any conscience — calling for an immediate ceasefire — instead, you got an attack on the students.

There are many connections. There is the factor that Hillary Clinton is now director of the Institute for Global Politics at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) on campus. The guy she appointed to the State Department — Antony Blinken, now secretary of state — sat in a meeting with the Israeli war cabinet and said, I’m a Zionist.

The co-chair of Columbia University’s board of trustees is the journalist Claire Shipman, and she is married to Jay Carney, an executive now of Airbnb. The AFSC website documents its involvement in making money in the occupied West Bank. And Carney is the former director of communications for Joe Biden, when he was VP.

None of this is mentioned in the media.

Just like students don’t know the history of Columbia. In 2008 and 2016, Columbia commemorated the revolt of 1968, and the idea was — that could not happen again. We will never have police on campus again was the spirit of those events.

How does Columbia commemorate 1968?

Columbia has used 1968 to market itself, to say: we have learned our lesson, we are a changed institution. They have used the fact that Edward Said was allowed to teach at Columbia. That means a great deal to people. A lot of students came to Columbia because it was a liberal institution. It had made space for one of the greatest Palestinian intellectuals. So they come here, and all of a sudden, they’re not allowed to exercise their free speech rights in even a way that the students of ‘68 could. We could demonstrate outside on campus; these students were not allowed to.

You feel like crying but you feel anger at the hypocrisy of the thing. In 2008 under Bollinger — who was always against BDS, perhaps because of the donor influence — they had a commemoration. And in 2018, they had a commemoration, and the library had photos of the revolt. The message was, Columbia learned its lessons, Columbia will never do this again.

Another misrepresentation is that the issue was not just about a gymnasium. They always say, the main issue was the gymnasium in Morningside Park. They don’t like to talk about the Vietnam/Institute for Defense Analyses issue, because when you talk about the IDA issue, you’re talking about weapons research that ended up killing millions of people — that created the automated war machinery that resulted in drone warfare that has been used to kill civilians and do targeted assassinations of not only Palestinian political activists but in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. And that connection continues to this day.

They don’t want to admit that great liberal Columbia — that’s part of their history.

Did you go to the commemoration?

I was in the audience. I was invited back — not by Columbia officially.

Another thing is, people don’t know that Columbia is violating the law when they block the entrances to the 116th Street walkway between Broadway and Amsterdam. Columbia made an agreement in 1955 with the Wagner administration that those gates were always to be open to neighborhood pedestrians. Columbia violated that agreement in 1968 when they closed the gates, and they are violating it now.

And the city of New York is allowing that, and the New York Times refuses to look at that agreement.

What are the possible political consequences of what the students are doing?

In terms of positive — by not giving in, the students may spark continued institutional resistance around the world to U.S. support for Israel and U.S. policy and maybe increase the pressure for not just a permanent ceasefire but for the right of return and other demands that Palestinians have made.

They have put their bodies on the line and inspired other people.

In terms of negatives, with the internet technology, the students may experience personal consequences. Some of the people with visas can be sent back to their countries. They may lose a lot of money.

A folk song by Bob Feldman from 2022 that recalls what happened on Columbia University’s campus on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.

What did you accomplish in ’68?

If the Columbia students and Barnard students had not disrupted Columbia University and done what they did, the government would have continued the draft, which was part of the motivation of the students. Now we have economic conscription. I also believe that co-ed dorms were a byproduct of the revolt. If we give them co-ed dorms, they are less likely to be political. So all of a sudden, after ’68, there were co-ed dorms. It’s ironic because many women are today in the leadership of the revolt.

You’re now in your 70s. How do you feel about what you did when you were 20?

I felt I had to do that, and it’s something I’m proud of. Most of the people who did that are proud of what they did. Yes, some people later sold out. But as you go through life, you realize it’s what Joan Baez said: it’s not how long you live, it’s what you do with your life.

I would tell these students — People will always remember what you did today. This is how they will remember Columbia. This is not something you forget. The young people who were involved were the people who were the most idealistic, the most socially committed, the most moral– and they went to this school, and this is what they got. They saw Columbia as a bastion of liberation, and they weren’t told the reception they’d get once they challenged the powers that be, who said we’re not going to divest, no matter what.

They see that Mort Zuckerman — whose support for Israel you’ve documented — gave 200 million to Columbia, and Columbia has a Zuckerman institute. Those are the donors. It’s a sad thing, that this is how things worked. But I am hopeful about what this will do for the divestment campaigns.

We will see. Maybe the faculty will stand up for the students, and the students won’t let themselves get beaten down, and many will be politicized, and share the outrage that people felt in 68 and that I feel now.

It was clear that the Columbia administration consciously chose, rather than protecting the students’ free speech rights, to call in the police. No one is going to stop us, we’re in control, even if we violate due process, because we want to hold our graduation here, when we will invite the former president of Tel Aviv University to get a degree. I think all this is alien to the way most of us were brought up, in our moral values. And you will hear from students that the people who govern Columbia University are not fit to control the place.

And I believe they have accomplished much more in 2024 than we did in 1968. Maybe not in policy but in terms of politicizing and rousing students around the world.

Wait, did I hear you say that they have done more than you were able to do?

Oh yeah. Obviously.

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