Hundreds of students arrested from Texas to California as college Israel protests continue
Mounted police work to contain demonstrators protesting the war in Gaza at the University of Texas at Austin on April 24, 2024 in Austin, Texas. Students walked out of class as protests continue to sweep college campuses around the country.
(Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

By Andrew Lapin
April 25, 2024

(JTA) — The governor of Texas cheered on the arrests of dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters at the University of Texas this week, as clashes with authorities broke out on campuses from Austin to Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, the Twin Cities and beyond.

At some schools, students took over campus buildings, while others were seeing protest encampments spring up for the first time. Hundreds of people have been arrested as police and campus authorities have cracked down on the student protests in a growing number of places.

Meanwhile, the University of Southern California announced Thursday that it was canceling its graduation ceremony altogether, shortly after it barred its valedictorian from speaking after pro-Israel groups raised alarm about her social media profile.

The latest incidents come a week after mass arrests, suspensions and evictions of pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University, inspiring copycat protests at other colleges that have flummoxed administrators in many cases. The sight of armed police officers sometimes violently disrupting so-called “Gaza solidarity encampments” has drawn comparisons to similar crackdowns on Vietnam War-era campus protests, particularly at Kent State University, where members of the National Guard killed four protesters and wounded nine more in 1970.

Three of the murdered Kent State students were Jewish, including Allison Krause. On Wednesday, her sister Laurel condemned Columbia’s president, and other university heads, for their handling of the Gaza protests, urging them to allow student protests without the prospect of police intervention.

“In 1970 failures of Kent State University leadership enabled the massacre which left ‘Four Dead in Ohio,’” Krause, who today runs a Kent State narrative project and has advocated on behalf of Palestinians, said in a statement. “Our institutions must learn from these past mistakes to not use militarized responses against unarmed, peaceful student protesters by calling in the National Guard, bringing in State Troopers or deploying Police in riot gear.” 

The protests have become a canvas for politicians of all stripes, who have made appearances on campuses to advance their own agendas. Republican politicians have urged drastic interventions to quell what they describe as antisemitic unrest. Some progressive Democrats, including Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, appeared in protest encampments. 

And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose handling of the war with Hamas has drawn fierce condemnation not only from international bodies but also from many Israelis, also denounced the campus protests.

“What’s happening in America’s college campuses is horrific. Antisemitic mobs have taken over leading universities,” he said in a statement on Wednesday, insisting, “It has to be stopped,” and praising authorities who have taken action against protesters.

One of those who has is Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who on Wednesday praised state and local police for breaking up a protest at the University of Texas at Austin. Authorities arrested at least 57 people on campus. 

“Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled,” the Republican stated on the social network X Wednesday. He later added, “These protesters belong in jail.” 

A pro-Israel man counter-demonstrates against a pro-Palestinian protest at George Washington University on April 25, 2024 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Secure Community Network, a program that provides security training and resources for synagogues and other Jewish community structures, said Thursday it was tracking 33 different “anti-Israel” campus protests across the United States and Canada. The group characterized them as “protests calling for terrorism and violence against Jews,” and urged schools “to implement no-tent, no-encampment policies and enforce a zero-tolerance policy on assaults against students or police.”

Despite some reports that Abbott had called the National Guard in to break up the Austin protests, a spokesperson for the National Guard told local news outlets Thursday that it had not been dispatched to campus. Yet calls to deploy the guard against student pro-Palestinian protesters have been growing on the right in recent days, with House Speaker Mike Johnson urging the White House to do the same after visiting Columbia’s campus Wednesday. (On Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said it was “up to the governors to decide.”) Other Republican senators have taken up the call as well, including Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley.

Most of the charges against the arrested protesters in Austin were quickly dropped. More than 500 students had staged a walkout demanding that the state’s flagship public university divest from Israeli weapons manufacturers. 

Last month, Abbott took a harsh line against his state’s protesters by requiring schools to revise their free-speech policies to punish “the sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts on university campuses.” He specifically cited the Palestine Solidarity Committee, which organized the UT protest, as an antisemitic group, and singled out the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which many Jewish groups say is a call for Israel’s destruction, as an antisemitic phrase.

UT’s Hillel director expressed alarm for Jewish students’ safety on social media prior to the protests and advised Jewish students not to counterprotest. On Instagram Tuesday, Texas Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Stephanie Max accused the protesters of “making use of a Jewish holiday and observance to promote a hateful agenda” and said she had received assurance from the university that “there will be no tolerance for disruption or behaviors misaligned to University policy and the Governor’s executive order.”

After the protests Wednesday, Max said it had been “an incredibly challenging and sad day on campus” but did not comment on the protests or the arrests directly. She continued to encourage the school’s Jewish community to participate in Passover events through the rest of the holiday. A statement sent late Wednesday by the campus Chabad also emphasized its Passover events over the protests, referring only to “what happened on campus today.” A pro-Israel UT student group sang and danced thanking the officers who broke up the encampment.

Other Jews at the university criticized the state’s response as excessive and a violation of free-speech protections. UT history professor Jeremi Suri, who describes himself as half-Jewish and half-Hindu, told the Tribune that the response was an “attack on students,” who he said were “not shouting anything antisemitic.”

UT’s president, Jay Hartzall, defended the crackdown in an email to students. “Today, our University held firm, enforcing our rules while protecting the Constitutional right to free speech,” he wrote, adding, “The protesters tried to deliver on their stated intent to occupy campus.”

Another Southern campus with a large Jewish population was also in turmoil Thursday, as local and state police at Emory University in Atlanta reportedly used tear gas, rubber bullets and tasers to break up a campus pro-Palestinian protest, where they accused protesters of trespassing. A reported 15 people were arrested at Emory, whose student body is around 20% Jewish; the university said the demonstrators are “not members of our community.” 

Atlanta’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist group, announced Thursday that it “stands in full solidarity” with the Emory protesters and accused police of having “violently escalated an entirely peaceful encampment.” One of the arrested was the chair of the school’s Philosophy department.

Los Angeles police arrest pro-Palestinian student protesters at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California, April 24, 2024. Nearly 100 USC students were arrested. (Photo: Grace Hie Yoon/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Other campus protests also devolved into arrests, with more than 100 members of an Emerson College encampment in Boston arrested on Wednesday and at least 93 arrests at USC, according to reports. 

At the University of Minnesota, nine members of a protest were arrested Tuesday as police cleared out the encampment as the university insisted, “We support the rights of all members of our University community to speak and demonstrate peacefully.” Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and fierce critic of Israel whose own daughter was arrested during the Columbia protests last week, spoke in support of the protesters prior to the arrests.

“People who tell us we are wrong for being out here, they’re going to be footnotes in the history books,” Omar told the crowd on campus, according to reports. “Follow your gut and know that what we are doing, the voices that we are raising to save lives in Gaza is just and righteous and morally correct.”

Mirabai Dornfest, a student protester, identifies as Jewish and told Minnesota Public Radio she was especially moved to join the protests during Passover, “the Jewish holiday of liberation.”

“I think it’s very in line with my morals and with the morals of a holiday to protest for liberation of the Palestinian people,” Dornfest said.

Aggression has unfolded in both directions. Protesters at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt took over two campus buildings this week demanding that the school “disclose all holdings and collaborations” with what a local pro-Palestinian group called “the zionist entity,” and “cut all ties with Israeli universities.” In response, the university announced Wednesday that it was locking down its campus through at least the weekend

Videos from Humboldt, located near the Oregon border, showed students clashing with police officers in riot gear; authorities also told news outlets that “hateful” graffiti, causing damage in the “millions,” had been tagged around campus. The school has a small Jewish population of around 150 students and a Chabad house, but no Hillel.

Antisemitism was also visible at some protests, including the targeting of Jewish campus buildings. Video from a protest at Tulane University in New Orleans, obtained by JTA, shows protesters chanting, “Hillel, you can’t hide. You’re committing genocide.” (Tulane Hillel did not respond to an immediate request for comment.) The Jewish News of Northern California also reported that one speaker at a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of California, Berkeley, claimed that “Jewish women” such as Betty Friedan “sometimes imported Zionist political operations” into American feminism.

The U.S. Department of Education also announced several new federal Title VI “shared ancestry” discrimination investigations at Columbia and a handful of other schools this week, including Hunter College in New York and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. It is the second active investigation at Columbia; New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik used the specter of Title VI violations in calling this week for Columbia to be stripped of federal funding

The origins of the new complaints were not immediately known, but schools are also being investigated for alleged discrimination against Muslim and pro-Palestinian students. Another recently opened investigation, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, follows a complaint revealed this week to have been filed by Palestine Legal.

The complaint details discriminatory behavior the legal aid group says 18 Muslim students suffered at the hands of pro-Israel students and groups including Canary Mission, which publishes the names and personal information of people (including private citizens) the site’s anonymous owners deem threats to Israel. The complaint also claims that a UMass student had showed up to pro-Palestinian protests chanting “Kill all Arabs.”

The complaint means UMass Amherst joins a small list of other schools, including Columbia and Harvard, that have been investigated for both antisemitic and Islamophobic allegations since Oct. 7.

Despite the turmoil, most Jewish campus professionals have maintained that Jewish students remain safe on campus. 

“Jewish students have no reason to leave College Hill,” Rabbi Josh Bolton, executive director of the Hillel serving both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, wrote in a letter to the campus community Wednesday night as an encampment at Brown took hold. 

“In fact, they have every reason to stay put, to gather for Shabbat, and to express themselves proudly as Jews — members of a global family, rooted in Eretz Yisrael.” 

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