The Columbia protests and the debate over pro-Palestinian college students, explained

The Columbia protests and the debate over pro-Palestinian college students, explained.

Pro-Palestinian protesters holding a sign that says “Liberated Zone” in New York.

Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images

Protests over the war in Gaza erupted on Columbia University’s campus last week and have sparked demonstrations at other universities across the country. The demonstrations have resulted in some intense crackdowns and political scrutiny, all coming in the wake of recent congressional hearings on antisemitism on campus and amid an uptick in both antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the US.

Protests have emerged across the country, including at Yale University, New York University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Miami University in Ohio, and Temple University in Philadelphia, among other campuses.

Once again, top universities have become the locus around which America litigates questions about the US’s support of Israel amid its deadly war in Gaza, free speech, antisemitism, and anti-Muslim discrimination — and a convenient target for political elites looking to make a point. For example: Lawmakers, including House Speaker Mike Johnson today, are visiting Columbia’s campus.

The protests are calling on universities to divest from firms that they contend profit from Israel’s war and occupation in Palestine, more than six months after the start of the war and as the death toll in Gaza has exceeded 34,000. Some groups at universities that conduct military research, like New York University, are also requesting their schools end work contributing to weapons development as well. At Columbia, Yale, and New York University, students have faced mass arrests as administrators seek to quell the unrest.

Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protests have become a prominent feature on college campuses since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel. They reached a fever pitch in December when the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania gave controversial testimony before Congress about campus antisemitism, both real and hypothetical.

Tensions reignited last week after Columbia president Nemat Shafik gave congressional testimony that, per the Associated Press, focused on “fighting antisemitism rather than protecting free speech.” Students erected tents on Columbia’s main lawn to show solidarity with Gaza. Then Shafik took the controversial step of calling in the police to arrest those involved.

That contentious decision wasn’t just jarring to Columbia students particularly because of the university’s history, but also sparked outrage among onlookers both at the site and on social media.

The controversy at Columbia and other campuses has illustrated how universities have struggled to uphold their dual commitments to free speech and protecting their students during a fraught political moment when more young people sympathize with the Palestinian cause than with the Israeli government. Concerns about antisemitism at the protests (often attributed to students, but largely perpetrated by outsiders according to anecdotal reporting) also piqued national attention; amid this all, Columbia University switched to remote learning on Monday, April 22 — which also happened to be the first day of the Jewish holiday of Passover.

“Calling the police on campus is such a breach of the culture of a college or university,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is representing arrested Columbia students, told Vox. “To do so in response to nonviolent student protest is beyond the pale, and it really undermines the standing of the university in the eyes of a broad swath of the population as a place of free, open, and robust dialogue and debate.”

What’s actually happening on college campuses

Last Wednesday, students pitched more than 50 tents on the Columbia lawn in what they called a “Liberated Zone.” But the tents stayed up only about a day and a half before Shafik intervened. “The current encampment violates all of the new policies, severely disrupts campus life, and creates a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students,” she wrote in a letter to the Columbia community on Thursday.

The police arrived shortly thereafter to arrest students for trespassing and removed more than 100 protesters, tying their hands with zip ties. Some have also been suspended and removed from student housing.

In the days since, pro-Palestinian student groups on other university campuses have staged similar protests in solidarity with their counterparts at Columbia. Students have also erected encampments at Yale, the University of Michigan, New York University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt.

A total of 47 students were arrested at Yale on Monday, and more than 150 were arrested at New York University overnight Tuesday.

On Monday, a group of Columbia professors staged a walkout to support the student protests.

A lot of the national attention has focused less on the protesters’ demands or the US-Israeli relationship — and the destruction of Gaza — and more on allegations that the protests are inherently antisemitic for criticizing Israel, or that specific antisemitic incidents have occurred. Shafik announced that all Columbia classes would be virtual on Monday (and now hybrid through the end of the academic year) to provide a “reset” on the conversation and in light of students’ safety concerns — Rabbi Elie Buechler, a rabbi associated with Columbia University’s Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, had urged hundreds of Orthodox Jewish students to go home and urged them to stay there for their safety.

“I cannot but agree that this is motivated by trying to pacify congressional members who are trying to interfere in the running of this university and, at this point, all universities,” Marianne Hirsch, professor emerita of English and comparative literature and the Institute for the Study of Sexuality and Gender at Columbia University, said at a press conference in front of Shafik’s house Tuesday.

Student protests on Columbia’s campus have been nonviolent so far. Representatives from the New York Police Department said during a press conference Monday that there had been some incidents in which Israeli flags were snatched from students and unspecified hateful things said. But they said that there have not been any reports of Columbia students being physically harmed or any credible threats made against individuals or groups associated with the university community ahead of the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover.

The police only enter Columbia’s campus when asked, given that it is a private university. They have established off-campus “safe corridors” where officers are stationed and will intervene in incidents involving harassment, threats, or menacing behavior — which does not constitute protected speech under the First Amendment.

However, a video surfaced over the weekend of what appeared to be masked pro-Palestinian protesters outside of Columbia’s gates shouting, “The 7th of October is going to be every day for you,” at Jewish students. It’s not clear whether those shouting were affiliated with the university.

Just after the video was circulated, President Joe Biden issued a statement: “This blatant Antisemitism is reprehensible and dangerous — and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country.”

That statement served as a “blanket condemnation of the Columbia protests,” said Matt Berkman, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at Oberlin College. It failed to distinguish those featured in the video who may not have been affiliated with the university from the vast majority of student protesters, who based on many different accounts, have been peaceful.

“Pro-Israel activists are clearly invested in painting everyone at Columbia, whether inside or outside the gates, with the same broad brush,” Berkman added.

On Tuesday, a student draped in an Israeli flag spoke to reporters from within the fenced-in area of the encampment. Jewish students who have been suspended from Columbia and Barnard stated that they had celebrated a Passover Seder within the encampment at a press conference.

There are antisemitic incidents in the United States, which represent real danger to Jewish communities and individuals — and they have increased since the Hamas attacks on October 7.

In December, the Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents had increased by nearly 340 percent since then. Complicating its data, however, is the fact that the ADL does not always differentiate between violent antisemitic incidents like assault and anti-Zionist protests and calls in support of BDS. Removing all Israel-related incidents from their count, America has a smaller but still big problem: Non-Israel-related antisemitic incidents still rose by 65 percent compared to 2022, per their data.

Columbia students aren’t alone in facing broad accusations of antisemitism. Students at Yale, the Ohio State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and others have all been called out by the ADL for engaging in Palestine solidarity protests as well as for specific incidents of antisemitism. Nor are they alone in facing arrest; NYU students and faculty and students at Yale have also been arrested.

Police involvement in the protests — particularly on New York City campuses — has been met with backlash, particularly from university faculty and activists.

Veronica Salama, who as a staff attorney at NYCLU is part of the team defending these students, told Vox that Shafik called the police as part of her emergency powers — but in doing so violated university policy. Vox has reached out to Columbia for comment and will update with its response.

According to an email obtained by Vox, university administration set a deadline of midnight Tuesday night to reach an agreement to dismantle the encampment; if none is reached, the email says, the administration “will have to consider alternative options for clearing the West Lawn and restoring calm to campus.” Negotiations about removing the encampment, however, continued into Wednesday.

What’s behind the protests?

In many ways, the demands of the protesters have been overshadowed by the controversy.

At Columbia, the protesters belong to a coalition, Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), which formed in 2016 to demand Columbia and Barnard College disclose investments in and divest — or remove from its investment portfolio — from Israeli and American companies and institutions that support Israel, citing its wars in Gaza and oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.

The coalition’s demands are of a piece with the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement started by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005. BDS cites as its inspiration the anti-apartheid activists of the 1980s who targeted South Africa’s apartheid government with boycotts.

While that movement wasn’t decisive in bringing down that government, it was successful in alienating the apartheid government from major global players like Barclays bank, the Olympics, and the International Cricket Conference, forcing countries and international institutions to confront their complicity in South Africa’s racist policies.

In addition to divestment from “companies profiting from Israeli apartheid,” CUAD has a list of five other demands, including a call for an immediate ceasefire from government officials including President Joe Biden, and, importantly, an end to the dual degree program that Columbia has with Tel Aviv University.

These demands echo those of student groups at other colleges and universities. NYU student activists are also demanding the university shut down its Tel Aviv campus and “divest from all corporations aiding in the genocide,” including weapons companies, and ban weapons tech research that benefits Israel.

Critics allege that BDS and anti-Zionism are at their core antisemitic, arguing that BDS delegitimizes Israel and “effectively reject[s] or ignore[s] the Jewish people’s right of self-determination, or that, if implemented, would result in the eradication of the world’s only Jewish state, are antisemitic,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The nature and tenor of the campus anti-war protests has been at the forefront of both media coverage and congressional hearings on antisemitism and campus free speech. But administrative response to them — particularly calling the police and issuing suspensions — has added a new dimension to the debate.

It’s all part of a broader fight over free speech and antisemitism on college campuses

Universities have struggled to balance their goals of protecting free speech and combatting antisemitism since the outbreak of war in Gaza, which has proved a political minefield.

In December, a trio of university presidents who testified before Congress were accused (if not fairly) of being too permissive of free speech in the face of antisemitism or being too legalistic in their explanations of their situation.

Now, some universities seem to be changing their tack.

Shafik called in the police on protesters despite Columbia’s longstanding reputation as a bastion of free speech. The University of Southern California recently canceled the commencement speech of its pro-Palestinian valedictorian over campus safety concerns. And now NYU has also instituted a police crackdown on protesters.

Private universities, like many of those experiencing protests today, have long maintained policies that protect free speech similarly to the First Amendment: permitting anything up to genuine threats of violence and threatening behavior that would warrant punishment or even referrals to the criminal system. But the last six months have seemingly made many of them question not just when and where a threat begins, but also maybe even those commitments to students’ free speech more broadly. And complicating this all is a years-long history of pro-Palestinian activists saying they face targeted harassment.

Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said that if Columbia wants to remain committed to free speech, it has an obligation to apply its speech policies in an equitable manner that is unbiased against any particular viewpoint and to ensure that students currently facing disciplinary action are offered due process.

“Columbia providing due process, while fairly and consistently applying its viewpoint-neutral speech policies, will be absolutely mandatory here if Columbia wants to start back on the right path,” Morey said.

Prohibiting students from camping out or blocking entrances or exits is “all above board” if applied uniformly, Morey added. But schools should see calling the police to enforce any such policies as a last resort, said Frederick Lawrence, the former president of Brandeis University and a lecturer at Georgetown Law.

“I understand the very strong desire to protect the safety of all the students involved,” he said. “At the end of the day, the presumption should be in favor of free speech and free expression, and there are exceptions to that, but [starting] with that presumption often brings a lot of clarity to these vital decisions.”


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