Columbia University students galvanise worldwide pro-Palestinian demonstrations

Columbia University students galvanise worldwide pro-Palestinian demonstrations
On the campus of Columbia University in New York, hundreds of students are taking part in demonstrations that are galvanising others around the world. 
5 min read
Washington, DC
24 April, 2024
An encampment in support of Palestinians at Columbia University gains momentum after arrests. [Getty]

On the campus of Columbia University in New York, hundreds of students are taking part in demonstrations that are galvanising others around the world. 

Following the arrests of 133 students on Thursday from Columbia and its sister college Barnard at their encampment in support of Palestinians, campus demonstrations in the US and around the world have surged. On Monday, around 100 student protesters from New York University and around 50 from Yale were arrested.

The arrests have led to the unintended consequence of a university administration crackdown that was meant to rein in the protesters. Instead, they are multiplying and morphing into sustained movement.

"Up until the arrests on Thursday, this level of student engagement hadn't been seen since 1968," Mohammad Hemeida, a third-year politics and history student at Columbia, told The New Arab, as background noise from the encampment could be heard over the phone. "Professors are holding seminars, and dancers are holding performances at the encampment."

He emphasised, "Every part of the university is touched. With the classes now being virtual, everybody is engaged and mobilised. Nobody is going about classes as normal."

Like many universities around the world, Columbia has seen regular pro-Palestinian demonstrations since 7 October, when Hamas led a surprise attack on Israeli military bases and civilian settlements within and around the Gaza envelope, killing around 1,150. Israel has responded with continuous bombardments of Gaza, so far killing more than 34,000, mainly women and children. 

Prior to the war, the densely populated enclave was already facing a dire humanitarian situation, with a years-long illegal siege by Israel and Egypt preventing vital supplies from entering. Meanwhile, the occupied West Bank has seen an uptick in attacks by the Israeli military and settlers over the past couple of years. 

The growing humanitarian crisis has led to a groundswell in student activism in support of Palestinians, with the war making the advocacy front and centre in campus life —with sit-ins, walk-outs, marches, and installations in common areas, making these demonstrations all but impossible to ignore.

In an effort to quell this growing anti-war student movement, Congress has held hearings grilling US university presidents over pro-Palestinian campus activity. Led by Republican Representative Else Stefanik of New York, the university presidents have been asked about demonstrators calling for the genocide of Jews. 

Though there has been no documentation of these words, it is believed critics are inferring this sentiment from students' chants, which include "from the river to the sea" and "intifada" — both of which have been commonly used in pro-Palestinian activism for decades.

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Following the December hearings of three university presidents, the heads of Harvard and University of Pennsylvania resigned after claiming that students had the right to make inflammatory statements about Jews under protected free speech. 

Columbia's president, Nemat Minouche Shafik, likely hoping to avoid a similar fate when Stefanik questioned her last week, said that such statements were not acceptable, again without evidence that anyone had called for genocide. Moreover, according to video footage of demonstrations at Columbia, antisemitic statements that were widely circulated took place outside the university gates, a possible sign of outside agitation.

In fact, many of the protesters, including some who were arrested, are Jewish. With Passover falling during the demonstrations, these students observed the holiday at the encampment. 

Following her testimony, Shafik requested the New York City Police Department to clear the encampment, which led to the arrests of 133 students. The NYPD confirmed to TNA that all 133 people were taken into custody over disorderly conduct and were given criminal court summons with their court dates to be determined.

"If Columbia had reacted differently, it would have been a different story," said Angus Johnston, a historian of US student activism and higher education, who teaches at Hostos Community College at the City University of New York.

He noted that other universities that had not cracked down on student protesters continued to see peaceful demonstrations in support of Palestinians. 

Johnston sees a generational split in US political opinion, particularly among the left, with young people much more skeptical of Israeli policy than their parents and grandparents.

"The moral intuition is very different. That's one of the things we're seeing with political opinion," he said. "People are having a very hard time making themselves mutually intelligible. There's not even agreement about what the premises of the protests are."

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He added, "The administrations of these universities are acting on their own, but they're also under a tremendous amount of pressure from parents, alumni, donors and politicians to take a hard line."

Hemeida, who is chair of the student governing board, also acknowledged the pressure that Shafik is facing, though he emphasised that the students will continue voicing their demands, the three main ones being divestment, transparency over the university's investments, and amnesty for the arrested students. "The ball is in their court," he said.

Though the student protesters are against her policies, he said it is difficult to see the trustees being any better about meeting their demands.

"I think when she was first instated, a lot of Arab students were excited. I think when it comes to demanding divestment, it doesn't matter her identity. Someone can still serve corporate interests and show they don't really care about students or their demands. It's definitely regrettable with her background that she's harming students," said Hemeida, who shares Shafik's Egyptian nationality.

As the protests continue with no end in sight, more students and faculty are joining the demonstrations, having essentially taken over daily life on campus at Columbia and other universities.

"The thing that's really extraordinary is the rapidity of the escalation. It has gone from local protests to being more ubiquitous than I would have imagined." said Johnston. "It's growing by the hour."