Inspired by Columbia example, pro-Palestinian encampments spring up at colleges nationwide
Pro-Palestinian supporters set up a protest encampment on the campus of Columbia University in New York as seen on April 22, 2024 Photo: Shutterstock

By Andrew Lapin
April 24, 2024

(JTA) – A pro-Palestinian protest at Yale University allegedly turned violent with dozens of arrests.

The University of Southern California canceled all its planned commencement speakers.

Encampments have sprung up at campuses from Boston to Ann Arbor and Chapel Hill.

It’s not just Columbia: The unrest that has overtaken the Ivy League university in New York City, and upended life for Jewish students and everyone else, is spilling over into the rest of the country. The spread of the demonstrations is being promoted and celebrated by pro-Palestinian activists, including the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace. And it’s prompting alarm from Jewish campus groups that are calling on administrators to take more aggressive action.

Students across the country said the Columbia arrests only further emboldened them to call for their universities to divest from Israel. Buoyed by the growing number of demonstrations, the national umbrella of Students for Justice in Palestine announced the launch of a cross-campus initiative called “Popular University for Gaza.”

“Over the last 72 hours, SJP chapters across the country have erupted in a fierce display of power targeted at their universities for their endless complicity and profiteering off the genocide in Gaza and colonization of Palestine,” the group posted on X, formerly Twitter, on Sunday afternoon.

The post was headlined, “CAMPUSES IN REVOLT FOR GAZA AND DIVEST.”

One of the first and most notable campuses to see a Columbia-style encampment was Yale, whose protest began last week. Like Columbia’s, it ended in the arrests of dozens of students when police entered campus overnight between Sunday and Monday.

A pro-Israel student said she was stabbed in the eye by a pro-Palestinian protester’s flag at the protests, which have been condemned by Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who represents the district and has called for a temporary ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

“Inciting hatred and violence toward Jewish students and community members, as we have seen at other universities, is completely unacceptable and those responsible for violence must be held accountable,” DeLauro wrote.

In a letter to students and its campus community, Yale Hillel leaders Uri Cohen and Rabbi Jason Rubenstein described the recent events as “perhaps the most divisive, most fearful moment I have seen.”

“In last night’s chaos on the Beinecke Plaza, which could erupt again tonight, protests became the site of physical altercations that left a member of our community injured, which we cannot tolerate,” Cohen and Rubenstein wrote. “I have similarly heard troubling and credible first-hand accounts that respected Muslim members of the Yale community, and their sacred symbols, were treated with disrespect last night — for which there is no excuse.”

Similar protests are springing up at a range of other schools. One student activist collective at the University of Michigan, the TAHRIR Coalition, said Monday that it, too, had set up an encampment on the Diag, the center of campus. One banner at the encampment reads, “Long Live the Intifada.”

“Inspired by the 100+ students facing academic and carceral retaliation for protesting Columbia University’s investment in genocide, we along with Students for Justice in Palestine chapters across the country have made the bold and unwavering decision to occupy our campuses until our demands are met in full,” the Michigan coalition said in a statement.

The collective said it would not leave the space “until we achieve full divestment” from Israel, adding, “Power to our freedom fighters, glory to our martyrs.”

The campus chapter of JVP said it would hold a Passover seder there Monday night in solidarity with the protesters.

In addition to Michigan, pro-Palestinian protesters at several other schools have set up new encampments in solidarity with Columbia students, including at New York University and the New School in New York; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University and Emerson College in the Boston area. At some schools, including UNC, those encampments have already been dismantled after administrators intervened.

In response to the encampments, Hillel International, the umbrella organization of Jewish campus groups, said it respected free speech but called on university administrators to take action in the face of the protests, including demands to “aggressively enforce” their rules, bar entry to “outside agitators” and protect Jewish spaces.

“The extreme tactics of those creating these encampments and related protests are unacceptable at every level,” the Hillel statement said. “They are denying students access to safe learning opportunities and campus life. They are flagrantly violating clear campus policies and rules with impunity. They are fostering hate and discrimination, often targeted specifically at Jewish and Israeli students who are part of their campus communities.”

The statement follows divergent statements from Jewish leaders at Columbia: One rabbi urged students to leave campus, while others condemned the protests but rebuffed calls for Jews to flee.

At MIT, the pro-Israel student group MIT Israel Alliance said that a campus encampment was “anti-Jewish” because it had been set up near the Hillel building just before Passover, which begins Monday evening, and said it was “alarming” that many of the protesters were not students.

“We do not trust that random protesters who have nothing better to do than sleep on Kresge lawn banging drums all night will have good judgment in terms of safety and violence escalation,” the group said, echoing observers of the Columbia protests who said some of the most strident participants were also not students. The MIT group urged the school to clear the encampment while also providing remote learning options for Jewish students.

Other schools have been the sites of walkouts, rallies and pro-Palestinian protests, including Ohio State University and Miami University in Ohio; Rutgers University in New Jersey; and Northwestern University in Illinois.

At Harvard University, officials closed Harvard Yard for the week in anticipation of similar planned protests. Officials at Washington University in St. Louis suspended three students who disrupted a campus event for admitted students with a pro-Palestinian protest the previous week, then disbanded a rally held to protest the suspensions over the weekend.

And the University of Pennsylvania over the weekend banned a pro-Palestinian student group, Penn Students Against the Occupation, after the school said members had targeted and harassed Jewish students and faculty who participated in a trip to Israel.

Meanwhile, across the country, the University of Southern California has canceled all commencement speeches — including its invited speaker, film director Jon M. Chu — as part of the continued blowback stemming from the school’s decision to bar its pro-Palestinian valedictorian from speaking at next month’s ceremony. In addition, the university canceled appearances from planned honorary degree recipients including pioneering tennis legend Billie Jean King, National Endowment for the Arts Chair Maria Rosario Jackson and National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt.

The cancellation of USC’s commencement speaker lineup is one of several parallels students are drawing between this moment and 1968, when anti-Vietnam war protests at Columbia prompted the school to cancel that year’s graduation ceremonies.

“In 1968 commencement did not happen. That was a long time ago, but that is what in a lot of ways is trying to be recreated here,” said Yakira Galler, a Jewish student at Barnard, Columbia’s women’s college, who has been disturbed by the protests. “I don’t know where they’re going to put all the seats for commencement.”

Regarding the administration, she added, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think they’re hoping that it will calm down, but I think they’re terribly wrong.”

Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that today’s pro-Palestinian protest movement is actually less radical in its actions than student movements of the Vietnam era — though he acknowledged that the antisemitism present in today’s protests is a concern.

He said that during Columbia’s mass student protests against the Vietnam War in 1968, students occupied a half-dozen campus buildings for a week; took an administrator hostage; and stole and destroyed university files. Antiwar protesters at other schools frequently set fire to buildings housing the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which trains students enlisted in the military.

“The administration response is pretty similar: mass arrests, closing down the campus and calling the cops and all of that,” said Johnston, an adjunct instructor at Hostos Community College of the City of New York. “But the protests themselves, both at Columbia and across the country, have really been much more measured, much more restrained, than the kinds of protests we saw even in the mid ’60s.”

Johnston said administrators have turned themselves into a target by taking aggressive action against the students right before the end of the semester.

That’s because another lesson from the Vietnam protests, Johnston said, is “the more the administration escalates, the more the administration itself becomes a target of the protests. Because the administration is now doing the oppressing of the students.”

Some pro-Palestinian student activists see hypocrisy in their universities’ efforts to crack down on their behavior. Prior to the incidents at Columbia, Rifka Handelman, a Jewish Voice for Peace student activist at the University of Maryland, told JTA that the university library has framed photos of student-led protest movements from throughout the 20th century, including against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa.

“It really rubs me the wrong way that UMD embraces these protests as part of its history — you know, these big photos on the wall of the library for everyone to see,” Handelman said. “I find it pretty hypocritical that universities embrace the history of those movements, but do not embrace movements with similar goals and similar tactics.”

Whether and how commencement happens at the schools now contending with encampments, at least one Jewish leader is looking to the story of Passover to guide his students through a trying time and reassure them that they will emerge on the other side.

In a note to his community, Yale’s Cohen wrote, “I hope that the straits through which we pass this year will not only help us experience what the first Exodus felt like, but also what it might feel like in our day.”

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