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Pro-Palestinian Encampments Take Over American College Campuses

Columbia University encampment

As the death toll from Israeli strikes on Gaza rises, encampments led by pro-Palestinian students on American college campuses are spreading. Despite disciplinary measures and police involvement, the demonstrations show no signs of stopping. Encampments have started on at least a dozen campuses, as student protesters demand for their universities to divest from companies that benefit from the Israeli occupation. 

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On Monday morning, police arrested at least 45 students at Yale University on trespassing charges. A similar scene at Columbia University unfolded last week, when school officials invited cops to arrest more than 100 protesters. Columbia University and Barnard College subsequently suspended dozens of students, citing safety concerns. The NYPD maintained that protesters were peaceful upon arresting them. Barnard College students, including Ilhan Omar’s daughter—Isra Hirsi—lost access to campus housing and meal plans.

“I really am in limbo. We don’t know when we’ll be let back in,” Hirsi says. She has been feeling overwhelmed and sad that she is “stuck on the outside” but notes that she was aware of the risks. “I felt like I had to take a stand,” she says. Hirsi is also feeling inspired by the many universities starting encampments. “It’s not a Columbia moment. It’s a moment for everybody,” she says. “It’s important for all of us as students at prestigious universities to really shed light on what is going on.”

The White House condemned antisemitism on college campuses in a statement about Passover on Sunday but did not not elaborate on particular institutions or incidents. “Even in recent days, we’ve seen harassment and calls for violence against Jews,” said President Joe Biden. “This blatant antisemitism is reprehensible and dangerous–and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country.”

Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a coalition of student organizations leading protests, pushed back against antisemitism allegations. “We are frustrated by media distractions focusing on inflammatory individuals who do not represent us,” they said. “We firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry and stand vigilant against non-students attempting to disrupt the solidarity being forged among students—Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, Jewish, Black, and pro-Palestinian classmates and colleagues who represent the full diversity of our country.”

The encampments are the latest in a wave of disruptive pro-Palestinian protests calling attention to what they see as a genocide. Previous demonstrations have temporarily shut down bridges, train stations and airports in protest of Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza, following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. (Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s health ministry; over the weekend, officials said that airstrikes on Rafah killed 22 people, including 18 children. Gaza’s Civil Defense workers also recently reported a mass grave with nearly 300 bodies at a hospital in Southern Gaza. The Hamas attack killed about 1,200 people and took 240 people hostage—of which more than 100 have been released.)

Columbia University

On Monday, dozens of Columbia University faculty walked out to protest the arrest and suspension of students. “While we as a faculty disagree about the relevant political issues and express no opinion on the merits of the protest, we are writing to urge respect for basic rule-of-law values that ought to govern our University,” they said in a letter. 

Inside Columbia’s campus gates, the encampment has been relatively calm. On Friday, Jewish students led a Shabbat service. Later on, protesters surrounded their Muslim peers with blankets while they prayed to give them privacy. They held teach-ins, including one on antisemitism. Students chanted protest slogans, danced and watched movies. Some brought their pets. 

Ilhan Omar’s daughter, Isra Hirsi, stressed that organizers have “made it pretty clear” that their focus is on “the genocide and actions of the Israeli government.” Generalizing protests as antisemitic is also “disrespectful” to the many Jewish activists who are part of the movement, she says. “There are folks who will intertwine their identity with the government and there’s not much we can do about that,” she says. “All I have seen from that camp is beautiful acts of solidarity.”

Tensions have occasionally flared outside the university’s gates. Videos on social media showed individuals making antisemitic statements but their identity and relation to student protesters remains unclear. 

Jewish institutions on campus are split on their messaging to students. The Orthodox Rabbi at Columbia/Barnard, Rabbi Elie Buechler, recommended that students go home until campus calms down. “It is not our job as Jews to ensure our own safety on campus,” he wrote on a Whatsapp group chat including many Jewish students. The Columbia and Barnard chapter of Hillel, the largest Jewish organization at the university, issued a statement Sunday, stating that they will remain open. “This is a time of genuine discomfort and even fear for many of us on campus,” said Brian Cohen, the Jewish group’s executive director. “Columbia University and the City of New York must do more to protect students.”

Columbia University’s President Nemat Shafik said in a note to the school early Monday that classes would temporarily be held virtually. “To de-escalate 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 said in a note to students.

Yale University

At Yale University, police arrested about 45 students just before 7 a.m. Protest organizers say that on Sunday night more than 600 people came to protect more than 40 tents. They say law enforcement only gave one arrest warning to protestors, despite telling them they would receive three warnings.

Craig Birckhead-Morton, a pro-Palestinian Yale undergraduate student who was arrested, says that Columbia’s encampment motivated them to escalate their activism. “We had the idea (for an encampment) before Friday…but I think Columbia was the event that encouraged people,” he says. They set up tents later that evening.

Birckhead-Morton, a Black Muslim, says protesters sang chants and songs as they were arrested. “We don’t know what the school discipline is but we anticipate it,” he says.

At about 8 a.m. protests resumed, according to New Haven police. Law enforcement says they have “no current plans to make any arrests of non-violent protesters.”

The Yale Daily News campus newspaper reported that students performed a traditional Filipino dance amid counter-protests and hecklers.

Yale University’s President, Peter Salovey, said in a statement on Sunday that many students had protested peacefully but that he was “aware of reports of egregious behavior, such as intimidation and harassment, pushing those in crowds, removal of the plaza flag, and other harmful acts.”

Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University’s encampment has been the longest-running. It began more than three weeks ago, alongside a sit-in by the entrance of the chancellor’s office in one of the main administrative buildings. 

Twenty-seven students took part in the sit-in, which lasted for almost 24 hours—and ended in the expulsion of three students. The university accused students of forcibly entering the building and allegedly injuring a community service officer. Jack Petocz—one of the expelled students—says he had nothing to do with the altercation and that Vanderbilt “crafted an entirely inaccurate representation of a one-minute interaction (he) had with a chancellor staff member upstairs.”

“You can arrest students on false pretenses, you can suspend them from campus, you can try to silence the movements but you will never be successful because we have had a thriving encampment outside of Kirkland Hall for more than 500 hours,” says Petocz, who is known for his organizing on LGBTQ issues. “We’re on day 26 of continuous protest.”

Vanderbilt University did not respond to a request to comment but has previously said in a statement that “the gravity of this situation and these outcomes weighs heavily on those of us charged with carrying out our responsibility as leaders; we fully understand that student choices and decisions can lead to serious and costly consequences.”

Protesters have pushed back on chancellor Diermeier’s assertions in the New York Times that they are “not interested in dialogue”; they say he has avoided speaking with them.

New York University

Pro-Palestinian students at New York University started an encampment on Monday morning. “Standing in solidarity with Palestinians facing 75+ years of occupation and 198 days of the ongoing genocide, we at NYU refuse to remain complicit,” they wrote in a statement posted to Instagram. Protesters are demanding that NYU end its relationship with Tel Aviv University and shut down its Tel Aviv campus, in addition to divestment. 

Protest organizers say that on Monday afternoon, NYU administration told students and faculty that if they do not clear from Gould Plaza by 2:45 p.m., students will face “severe consequences” and “anything is on the table.”

NYU did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Other colleges

Encampments have also spread at the following colleges: UNC Chapel Hill, Washington University in Saint Louis, University of Michigan, The New School, MIT, Emerson College, Tufts University and the University of Maryland. 

Harvard University has closed its yard in anticipation of pro-Palestinian protests, according to the Harvard Crimson

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