The People’s Commencement at Columbia

In the spring of 1968, after a series of antiwar demonstrations and a police raid on Columbia’s campus, protesters ended the semester with a “counter-commencement.” “WHILE COLUMBIA DANCES ITS OBSCENE CEREMONY,” a flyer read, “WE WILL OPEN A LIBERATION SCHOOL FOR ALL PEOPLE.” At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the historian Richard Hofstadter gave the official commencement address; hundreds of students walked out in protest and marched a few blocks north to an alternative graduation ceremony, where the writer Dwight Macdonald and others delivered remarks on the library steps. “While I find your strike and your sit-ins productive, I don’t think these tactics can be used indefinitely without doing more damage than good to the university,” Macdonald said.

This spring, during another series of antiwar demonstrations and student arrests at Columbia, a group of sympathetic faculty and staff organized another counter-commencement. “We looked through the historical archives for inspiration,” Manu Karuka, a professor of American studies at Barnard, said. “We even used a font reminiscent of the ’68 program.” The 2024 program featured a drawing of a red poppy, a symbol of Palestinian resistance, above the words “The People’s Graduation: A Gathering for Peace and Justice.” A supplementary handout included a list of Barnard’s “distrustees,” along with top Columbia administrators and their e-mail addresses, and an acknowledgment in fine print: “This shitshow would not have been possible without these cruel and incompetent people.”

The locations were flipped this year. The counter-commencement was held at St. John the Divine, whose clergy had offered it to the university community as a sanctuary. (Columbia’s main graduation was supposed to take place in the middle of campus, until, at the last minute, it was cancelled.) Ilan Cohen, who was graduating with a dual degree from Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary, started the day at a small J.T.S. ceremony, where attendees sang both the American and the Israeli national anthems and Wolf Blitzer gave the commencement speech (“You stand at a crossroads in American history, and Jewish history”). Afterward, Cohen, who had participated in the student encampment, walked briskly toward the cathedral, wearing a robin’s-egg-blue robe and a beet-red yarmulke. He carried three pins—“Columbia Jews for Ceasefire,” “JTS Jews for Ceasefire,” and “Not in My Name”—and deliberated over which to wear. “No pins, I’m sorry,” a volunteer usher said. “Church rules.” The rules did not extend to posters, banners, or slogans on mortarboards (“Free Palestine”; “Student Intifada”; “Glory to the Class of 2024 of Gaza”). Someone handed Cohen a parody newspaper called the New York War Crimes—the “Nabka Day Edition” (“All the Consent That’s Fit to Manufacture”). As Cohen looked for a seat, he ran into Frank Guridy, a history professor with whom he had taken a course called Columbia 1968. They posed for a photo, and Guridy asked about Cohen’s plans. “Haven’t had a second to think about it,” he said.

The actress and comedian Amanda Seales, a Columbia alum, was the m.c. “Today, in the spirit of 1968, we gather in what gentrifiers call Morningside Heights but the real ones know is Harlem,” she began. A full cathedral—a few dozen faculty and special guests onstage, a few hundred students in the pews—cheered. Seales introduced Randa Jarrar, a Palestinian American writer and activist. “In 1799, Napoleon invaded Palestine,” Jarrar said, then led the audience in a chant: “We defeated Napoleon!” “We are defeating Israel!” “We defeated Columbia!” “We are dismantling this empire!” A Palestinian American poet named Fady Joudah read a poem called “Dedication,” fighting back tears; Noura Erakat, a human-rights lawyer, told the students, “You have taught us well—in your sacrifice, in your courage, in your ingenuity.” A few backpack-wearing cathedral tourists took photos in chastened silence, then quickly left.

“First it was an Instagram account, then a book, then a TV show, then a dictator.”

Cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan

To close out the ceremony, Seales introduced a band called the Liberated Zone, “a ragtag collective of musically inclined radicals, scholars, and truthtellers who met while jamming at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment.” Six musicians, half of them barefoot, performed a two-chord folk song based on a verse from the Book of Ruth. Then the grads marched out, applauded by faculty waiting on the steps. Clumps of students stood chatting about summer plans and upcoming disciplinary hearings, or breaking into brief chants (“Disclose! Divest! We will not stop, we will not rest”). A Barnard professor invited Cohen to join her protest singing group, Voices of Witness. Cohen had been part of a “pluralistic Jewish a-cappella group,” he said, “and this was the year we really had to figure out what pluralism meant.”

“How’d that go?” the professor asked.

“Well,” Cohen said, “we just had to appoint two students to be mediators next year, if that gives you an idea.” ♦

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