Thousands of activists gather outside Columbia U to protest treatment of campus pro-Palestinian groups
People with banners at protest on Broadway outside of Columbia University campus after suspension
of Students for Justice in Palestine group Nov. 15, 2023.

By Luke Tress
February 2, 2024

(New York Jewish Week) – Thousands of demonstrators gathered outside Columbia University on Friday, in protest of the suspension of campus pro-Palestinian groups as well as an incident last month in which students were allegedly sprayed with a foul substance. 

At least one person was arrested at the rally.

The rally on Friday was led by Within Our Lifetime, the prominent pro-Palestinian activist group in New York City that endorsed Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and has frequently called for Israel’s elimination. It took place with the university locked to the public, in a sign of how the campus climate has continued to sour. 

Within Our Lifetime advertised the rally on social media by saying it was in response to an attack using “skunk spray” that was carried out by “Zionists,” without providing evidence. Skunk spray is a foul-smelling liquid mixture sometimes used by police in Israel to disperse protesters, including Palestinians and haredi Orthodox Jews.

The university has described the substance as “foul smelling spray” and said in a Tuesday statement that the incident was under investigation by the NYPD but did not provide further details. The incident took place at an unauthorized protest, and the university said last month that the alleged perpetrators had been banned from campus.

There was a small group of pro-Israel counterprotesters opposite the demonstration on Friday, which took place outside the gates to Columbia in Morningside Heights. Dozens of police officers, including from the NYPD’s riot control unit, locked down the area around the dueling protests, tightly restricting foot traffic to the different groups from behind metal barricades. Officers also blocked access to subway stations in the vicinity.

Protesters chanted to “globalize the intifada,” a mainstay of Within Our Lifetime protests that refers to violent Palestinian uprisings against Israel. They also chanted, “Columbia you will see, Palestine will be free” while beating drums, as well as, “Columbia you can’t hide, you support genocide.”

A Columbia spokesperson told the New York Jewish Week that the school was prioritizing campus safety and that staff “are coordinating resources to ensure the safety of our community.”

The rally was advertised by campus student groups, including Columbia University Apartheid Divest. The group, a coalition of student clubs, was established in 2016 and resurrected in the fall after Columbia suspended its campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace for repeatedly violating university policies by holding unsanctioned protests. 

Columbia upheld the suspension of the two groups at the start of this semester because the clubs had not yet shown “a commitment to compliance with University policies.”

SJP and JVP are listed as the two leading clubs in Apartheid Divest, drawing charges from the Columbia Jewish Alumni Association, a recently formed group, that the suspended clubs were using Apartheid Divest as a front to continue their activities. Jewish Voice for Peace shared the announcement of Friday’s rally on its social media feeds.

“The university is looking the other way and ignoring that the same kids are doing the same thing and they’re deciding not to enforce and it’s just disappointing,” Ari Shrage, a board member of the alumni association, told the New York Jewish Week last month. 

Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, Within Our Lifetime has blocked traffic, demonstrated at transportation hubs and holiday events, and targeted civic institutions for alleged links to Israel, including the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer hospital

Within Our Lifetime grew out of a local branch of SJP, and its leader, Nerdeen Kiswani, is a former activist with the student group. Within Our Lifetime and the national umbrella for SJP both route their funding through a small nonprofit in suburban New York City, called Wespac. and both backed the Oct. 7 attack. National SJP advertised Friday’s rally at Columbia.

Columbia was a focal point for controversy in the weeks after Oct. 7, amid dueling protests for and against Israel and the reported assault of an Israeli student. It is one of several elite schools to have drawn scrutiny amid the Israel-Hamas war. 

The presidents of three other elite universities told lawmakers in December that calling for the genocide of Jews did not necessarily violate university policy, provoking a firestorm of controversy that led two of them to step down.

Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, was invited to appear before Congress at the same hearing, but declined, citing a scheduling conflict.

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