100+ arrested in day of unrest and mass protest at Columbia U over Gaza and Israel
NYPD arrested more than 100 anti-Israel protesters at Columbia University April 18, 2024.
(Photo: AdobeStock)

By Luke Tress
April 18, 2024

(New York Jewish Week) – With a phalanx of police outside its gates and student protesters crowding the street, Columbia University erupted in unrest Thursday over the Israel-Hamas war. 

The mass demonstration at New York City’s Ivy League school and its aftermath represented an escalation after months of tensions over the war. On Wednesday morning, students awoke to an encampment of large green and white tents in two concentric circles covered a large portion of the campus’ central quad, opposite the library. 

A banner hung across several of them: “GAZA SOLIDARITY ENCAMPMENT,” it said. Another declared the encampment a “LIBERATED ZONE.”

One day later, the tents were gone, several students — including the daughter of Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of Israel’s biggest critics in Congress — had been suspended and more than 100 others were detained and loaded into police vans lining the university’s main entrance on Broadway. 

Columbia President Minouche Shafik, who had just returned from testifying in Congress about the campus climate, had written a letter to the NYPD calling the encampment “a clear and present danger” to the university’s operations. 

She added, “With great regret, we request the NYPD’s help to remove these individuals.”

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said at a Thursday press conference that there had been more than 108 arrests. Police officials at the briefing said the suspects had been issued summonses for trespassing, and two were also charged with obstruction of governmental administration.

“Columbia University’s students have a proud history of protest and raising their voices. Students have a right to free speech but do not have a right to violate university policies and disrupt learning,” Adams said. “We will not be a city of lawlessness.”

The activists who set up the encampment belonged to Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a pro-Palestinian coalition of student groups that has been at the forefront of frequent demonstrations and disruptive actions on campus. This action, which was far more extensive than past protests, called on Columbia to divest from Israel and was timed to Shafik’s congressional testimony. 

“Those of us in Gaza Solidarity Encampment will not be intimidated,” one of the protesters, Isra Hirsi, wrote on social media. ‘We will stand resolute until our demands are met.”

Hirsi is the daughter of Omar, the Minnesota Democrat. She posted on Thursday that she had been suspended from Barnard, the women’s college affiliated with Columbia. Police officials confirmed her arrest and said she had been issued a summons for trespassing.

Columbia has been a hotspot of protest over the war since Oct. 7: An Israeli student was allegedly assaulted; two leading anti-Zionist groups — one of them Jewish — was suspended from campus due to a series of unauthorized, disruptive protests; an Israeli student, who is now suing the university, was suspended for spraying a foul-smelling substance on pro-Palestinian protesters; and this month, four pro-Palestinian students were suspended for hosting an unauthorized event where speakers praised Hamas. 

Earlier this year, a university task force on antisemitism said Jewish students on campus faced “isolation and pain.” The Biden administration is also investigating Columbia, and Jewish students have filed civil lawsuits alleging discrimination on campus.

Then, on Wednesday, Shafik testified on antisemitism at the school before a House committee on Capitol Hill, saying the administration had more to do to tackle the problem.

The student protesters took the opportunity of that House hearing to draw national attention back to campus. 

The encampment was set up at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, according to organizers and, per Shafik’s letter, included about 100 students. The letter said they were in violation of university policies and that the unauthorized demonstration amounted to trespassing. The demonstrators, she wrote, had interfered with the operations of the university, refused to identify themselves, refused to disperse and damaged campus property.

They were asked to disperse, and did not. Overnight, crowds of students joined hands and circled the encampment, chanting “Palestine is Arab,” while demonstrators on the street shouted “Zionism will fall.”

“WE ARE TAKING BACK CAMPUS,” Columbia University Apartheid Divest posted at one point on social media. 

Matters escalated on Thursday, which presented the sight of campus entrances festooned with blue and white balloons ahead of the university’s commencement proceedings, while Palestinian flags waved on the campus lawn behind them, through the metal gates. The campus was closed to non-students, as it has been at several periods throughout Oct. 7. 

Stickers plastered on subway entrances and mailboxes around the campus entrance said, “Zionism is terrorism” and “Resist colonial power by any means necessary.” A handful of protesters on the sidewalk chanted “From New York to Gaza, globalize the intifada,” next to a cardboard sign that read, “Inspired by Palestinian resistance.”

Police began to clear the encampment in the afternoon. Officers in riot gear were stationed outside the university’s gates and bookstore, and police vans and SUVs — one with a tethered drone hovering over the vehicle — lined a street across from campus.

Outside campus after the arrests, several dozen protesters gathered on the sidewalk outside the campus gates, chanting “Globalize the intifada” and “We don’t want no Zionists here.” Dozens of police officers in riot gear stood outside the gates and three police buses with flashing lights were parked on the street.

The campus newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, said at least three students from Barnard College, an affiliate of Columbia, were suspended. The university did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the number of suspensions.

Shafik said the arrests and suspensions came as a last resort and protest organizers had been warned repeatedly to clear out because they were violating campus policies. 

“I took this extraordinary step because these are extraordinary circumstances,” Shafik said in a statement. “The individuals who established the encampment violated a long list of rules and policies.”

A pro-Israel group, End Jew Hatred, had organized a protest at Columbia on Wednesday. On Thursday there was no organized pro-Israel response visible outside campus, though a lone counter-demonstrator wearing a kippah tried to engage with the protesters. 

They screamed at him, calling him an “idiot” while pounding a drum next to his face.

“No one wants to talk to a fascist,” one of the protesters said.  

This Post Has One Comment

  1. RB

    These people, many off whom hate the United States AND Israel, should loose their student visas if arrested for violating these school policies, breaking the law, and discriminating against others. They should be sent back to their home countries.
    And Mayor Adams said, “We will not be a city of lawlessness.” Is that new? Hmmm, very different…..

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