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Pro-Palestinian protests sweep US college campuses

Schools grapple with balancing free speech and safety as protests have roiled many campuses.
Pro-Palestinian protests sweep US college campuses
Posted at 8:04 AM, Apr 23, 2024

Columbia canceled in-person classes, dozens of protesters were arrested at New York University and Yale, and the gates to Harvard Yard were closed to the public Monday as some of the most prestigious U.S. universities sought to defuse campus tensions over Israel's war with Hamas.

More than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had camped out on Columbia’s green were arrested last week, and similar encampments have sprouted up at universities around the country as schools struggle with where to draw the line between allowing free expression while maintaining safe and inclusive campuses.

At New York University, an encampment set up by students swelled to hundreds of protesters throughout the day Monday. The school said it warned the crowd to leave, then called in the police after the scene became disorderly and the university said it learned of reports of “intimidating chants and several antisemitic incidents.” Shortly after 8:30 p.m., officers began making arrests.

“It’s a really outrageous crackdown by the university to allow the police to arrest students on our own campus," said New York University law student Byul Yoon.

“Antisemitism is never OK. That’s absolutely not what we stand for and that’s why there are so many Jewish comrades that are here with us today,” Yoon said

SEE MORE: Columbia University goes virtual amid pro-Palestinian protests

The protests have pitted students against one another, with pro-Palestinian students demanding that their schools condemn Israel's assault on Gaza and divest from companies that sell weapons to Israel. Some Jewish students, meanwhile, say much of the criticism of Israel has veered into antisemitism and made them feel unsafe, and they point out that Hamas is still holding hostages taken during the group's Oct. 7 invasion.

Tensions remained high Monday at Columbia, where the campus gates were locked to anyone without a school ID and where protests broke out both on campus and outside.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning, a Democrat from North Carolina who was visiting Columbia with three other Jewish members of Congress, told reporters after meeting with students from the Jewish Law Students Association that there was “an enormous encampment of people” who had taken up about a third of the green.

“We saw signs indicating that Israel should be destroyed,” she said after leaving the Morningside Heights campus. Columbia announced Monday that courses at the Morningside campus will offer virtual options for students when possible, citing safety as their top priority.

A woman inside the campus gates led about two dozen protesters on the street outside in a chant of, "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” — a charged phrase that can mean vastly different things to different groups. A small group of pro-Israel counter demonstrators protested nearby.

University President Minouche Shafik said in a message to the school community Monday that she was “deeply saddened” by what was happening on campus.

“To deescalate the rancor and give us all a chance to consider next steps, I am announcing that all classes will be held virtually on Monday,” Shafik wrote, noting that students who don’t live on campus should stay away.

Protests have roiled many college campuses since Hamas’ deadly attack on southern Israel, when militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. During the ensuing war, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the local health ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between combatants and non-combatants but says at least two-thirds of the dead are children and women.

On Sunday, Elie Buechler, a rabbi for the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative at Columbia, sent a WhatsApp message to nearly 300 Jewish students recommending they go home until it’s safer for them on campus.

The latest developments came ahead of the Monday evening start of the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Nicholas Baum, a 19-year-old Jewish freshman who lives in a Jewish theological seminary building two blocks from Columbia's campus, said protesters over the weekend were "calling for Hamas to blow away Tel Aviv and Israel.” He said some of the protesters shouting antisemitic slurs were not students.

“Jews are scared at Columbia. It’s as simple as that," he said. “There’s been so much vilification of Zionism, and it has spilled over into the vilification of Judaism.”


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