How Columbia University is becoming a flashpoint for pro-Palestine protests in the US

How Columbia University is becoming a flashpoint for pro-Palestine protests in the US

The varsity was thrust into the limelight over the suspension and arrest of over 100 students protesting against university involvement with companies linked to Israel.
Updated 24 Apr, 2024

New York’s Columbia University — an Ivy League school that prides itself on being the “finest liberal arts college in the US” — has become a hotbed of pro-Palestine protests after being thrust into the limelight due to the suspension and subsequent arrest of over a 100 protesting Columbia University and Barnard College students.

On April 17, students against Israel’s aggressive military offensive in Gaza established a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on school grounds. The demonstrating students, part of the Columbia University Apartheid Divest — a coalition of over 100 student groups from various institutions — attempted to raise calls for the varsity to financially divest from companies and institutions that “profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine.”

What happened

On Thursday, around 108 demonstrating students, including Jewish students, and Minnesota Congresswoman and Democratic Party member Ilhan Omar’s daughter Isra Hirsi, who is a student at Barnard, were suspended and eventually arrested on grounds of “trespassing”.

Columbia University President Dr Nemat Talaat “Minouche” Shafik requested the New York Police Department to “remove” student protesters in a letter. “More than 100 individuals are currently occupying the South Lawn of Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus. This group has been informed numerous times and in writing that they are not permitted to occupy this space, are in violation of the University’s rules and policies and must disperse. All University students participating in the encampment have been informed they are suspended. At this time, the participants in the encampment are not authorised to be on University property and are trespassing,” the letter read.

The protests, disciplinary action, and arrests came a day after Shafik’s testimony at a Congress hearing about growing antisemitism on campus. According to a CNN report, “confrontations on campus” sparked condemnation from the White House and New York officials.

“The students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner,” the outlet quoted NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell as saying.

However, fourth year Columbia student Maryam Alwan, who helped organise the protest, in a televised MSNBC interview, said, “We were arrested on the grounds of trespass, meaning that we would’ve had to have been suspended in order to be trespassing onto our own campus but the suspension letter said that you are suspended for violation of law because you were arrested for trespassing so it doesn’t even make sense and feels like it’s part of repressive campaign against Palestine advocacy that has been ongoing for months now.”

Accompanying Alwan for the interview, Hirsi noted, “This was expected, we knew the risks and we knew what we were engaging in. However, I wasn’t really expecting to be locked out of my dorm and of campus as quickly as I was.”

The protests have now spread to other campuses, including Yale and MIT. Police arrested dozens of people at the demonstrations at Yale in Connecticut and New York University in Manhattan, according to Reuters.

From Yale, 60 people, including at least 47 student protesters, were arrested for trespassing after they blocked traffic around campus, according to a statement by Yale University President Peter Salovey issued on Monday. Several protesters were also arrested from NYU.

Hundreds of faculty members at Columbia also held a mass walkout on Monday to protest Shafik’s decision to have police arrest students on campus.

Exposing double standards

The university protests have become a flashpoint in the Palestinian liberation movement in the US and the response to the protests has exposed a troubling double standard in both the media coverage and the way the protests have been handled.

Much of the media coverage has highlighted the impact on Jewish students and communities as opposed to focusing on the protesters’ demands or the reasons for demonstrations.

A CNN report on the crisis at the varsity ahead of Jewish holiday Passover on Monday detailed a rabbi’s call to Jewish students on campus, urging them to stay home amid “tense confrontations,” but failed to give a single instance of antisemitism, harassment, or violence perpetrated against any Jewish student by another student at Columbia.

It makes a case for university officials’ testimonies about antisemitism on campus being a direct consequence of the pro-Palestinian protests on and near campus but makes no mention of the suspended Jewish students who were part of the encampment protests.

These students described the “discriminatory, repressive and unsafe conditions” they faced for protesting at the liberated zone at Columbia University in an open letter shared by Jewish Voice for Peace. The letter highlights how the suspension obstructed their religious observances during Shabbat and left them homeless on the religious holiday.

Threats from ‘outside’ the campus

In a sea of reports about various condemnations of the protests, one New York Times article highlighted how Jewish students feeling “targeted” at Columbia cited threats from outside the campus, not inside it.

“After reports of harassment by demonstrators, some Jewish students said they felt unsafe. Others rejected that view, while condemning antisemitism,” the report read. It pointed to an incident that occurred over the weekend after student-led demonstrations on campus allegedly attracted more agitated protests by demonstrators seemingly unaffiliated with the university “outside Columbia’s gated campus.”

Columbia University Apartheid Divest addressed these “unassociated incidents” in an Instagram story, assuring that their “priority is the safety of all,” which “includes not antagonising counter protesters or escalating situations unnecessarily.”

Students versus Shafik

The Columbia University president’s testimony before Congress about antisemitism has also been rebuked by protesting students, who in a sharp editorial published in The Columbia Daily Spectator, called on her to do more to protect protesters who had been doxxed.

The Barnard and Columbia chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a “Resolution of Censure of President Shafik, her administration, and the co-chairs of the Board of Trustees,” that they plan to submit to the University Senate.

The resolution was drafted after Shafik’s decision to authorise the NYPD to sweep the Gaza Solidarity Encampment.

“President Shafik’s violation of the fundamental requirements of academic freedom and shared governance, and her unprecedented assault on students’ rights, warrants unequivocal and emphatic condemnation,” the resolution read.

The editorial stated that Shafik had “demonstrated a complete lack of consistency in enforcing her principles, failing to differentiate between speech she personally opposes and speech warranting suppression.”

Shafik had said in a letter on Thursday announcing her decision to summon the police that the encampment had “disrupted campus life and had created an atmosphere of intimidation.”

Conflating pro-Palestine sentiments with antisemitism

But Shafik isn’t the only one blaming peaceful student protests for rising antisemitism in and around campuses. US President Joe Biden is one of several other politicians conflating pro-Palestine sentiments with antisemitism and blaming students and the pro-Palestine movement for propagating hatred towards Jewish people.

Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the White House, said in a statement, “While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly antisemitic, unconscionable and dangerous.” Bates’ statement failed to separate protests outside campus from demonstrations inside the campus while conflating calls for peace to antisemitic vitriol.

Similarly, in a statement to commemorate Passover, President Biden said it was necessary to speak out against “the alarming surge of antisemitism in our schools, communities, and online”.

“Silence is complicity. Even in recent days, we’ve seen harassment and calls for violence against Jews. Footage shared on social media appeared to show activists telling students to ‘go back to Poland’ and that October 7 is ‘going to be every day for you’ — referring to Hamas’s attacks on Israel in which 1,139 people were killed.”

Israel’s Foreign Minister, Israel Katz wrote on X of the Columbia protests, “I urge NYC Mayor, US officials and leaders to take immediate, unequivocal action to combat this scourge. Jewish students deserve safety, respect, and action, not just words.”

But Jewish students supporting the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus said they felt solidarity, not a sense of danger, even as they denounced the acts of antisemitism.

In a statement on Sunday, a group of student activists representing the protesters distanced themselves from “inflammatory individuals” and said they reject any form of hate or bigotry. “We are frustrated by media distractions focusing on inflammatory individuals who do not represent us. At universities across the nation, our movement is united in valuing every human life,” the statement read.

“Our members have been misidentified by a politically-motivated mob. We have been doxxed in the press, arrested by the NYPD [New York Police Department], and locked out of our homes by the university. We have knowingly put ourselves in danger because we can no longer be complicit in Columbia funnelling our tuition dollars and grant funding into companies that profit from death,” the statement added.

In the MSNBC interview, when asked if the encampment made other students feel uncomfortable or was threatening to anyone, Congresswoman Omar’s daughter Hisri detailed, “We would be singing songs, we had meals together, people prayed together. They held Chabat yesterday. It’s really just been a very community-centred space. And because it was being held outside, it didn’t disrupt any classes and the zone that we were protesting in, is the demonstration zone that you are allowed to be able to protest in. The school had already placed this spot to be meant for these kind of actions.”


Syed Ali Apr 24, 2024 07:15pm
When politicians become part of crime, students come forward in live society
Tahmad Apr 24, 2024 07:30pm
Not all Israelis are happy what happening in Gaza, it’s Western Countries EU involves in this so called war in Gaza, the goal is get out all Palestinians from Gaza and to build new homes for future generations on Palestinian lands by all means. Very sad, please stop this madness now in Gaza.
Faiza Ali Apr 24, 2024 08:34pm
I am a student at Columbia. The protests have been ongoing since October but the purpose of the encampment is for the admin to meet protestors’ demands that have been shared by the SJP. We have a lot of media and nypd cops around with helicopters and drones hovering everyday which has made it extremely difficult to focus. It is also final week of classes and we have exams soon. The admin is the real culprit.