More than a hundred pro-Palestinian Columbia students arrested over 'trespassing'

More than a hundred pro-Palestinian Columbia students arrested over 'trespassing'
On Thursday, more than 100 pro-Palestinian student protesters were arrested at Columbia University on grounds of 'trespassing'.
3 min read
Washington, DC
19 April, 2024
Students at Columbia hold a pro-Palestinian demonstration. [Getty]

On Thursday, more than 100 pro-Palestinian student protesters were arrested at Columbia University on grounds of trespassing.

The clearing of the 108 students who had formed an encampment, which included the daughter of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, came as Columbia University President Nemat Minouche Shafik had the previous day given testimony on Capitol Hill about allegations of antisemitism at the university.

"I have determined that the encampment and related disruptions pose a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University. With great regret, we request the NYPD's help to remove these individuals," Shafik wrote in an email to the New York City Police Department, which was made public on the university's website.

The encampment had been set up Wednesday morning, ahead of Shafik's testimony before Congress later that day. In the hearing, she was grilled by multiple lawmakers, led by Republican Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, whose abrasive line of questioning of university presidents over allegations of antisemitism has sparked rumours of being a vice presidential contender for Donald Trump.

The hearing came just over four months after three university presidents faced similar questioning, also led by Stefanik, over allegations of antisemitism on campus. The hearing ultimately led to the resignations of Harvard University President Claudine Gay and the University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill. 

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Stefanik presumably wanted to see a similar outcome for Columbia's president. However, Shafik seemed sufficiently prepared for the questions. She later faced criticism for not supporting Columbia professors who argued that some of their positions and statements had been mischaracterised for the purposes of the hearing.

Republican Representative Tim Walberg said that Professor Joseph Massad had said Hamas's murder of Jews was "awesome, astonishing, astounding and incredible." Massad said, "I certainly said nothing of the sort," the New York Times reported.

He said it was unfortunate that Shafik would condemn fabricated statements he never made. Similar to the hearing in December, Shafik was asked about students calling for the genocide of the Jews, which she condemned, though no evidence has shown students or faculty have made such a statement.

The American Association of University Professors has expressed concern over the congressional hearings, comparing them to McCarthyism, a time when many professors were required to sign communist loyalty oaths to keep their jobs.

"We are witnessing a new era of McCarthyism where a House committee is using college presidents and professors for political theatre," said Irene Mulvey, national president of the AAUP, according to the Times. She added, "President Shafik's public naming of professors under investigation to placate a hostile committee sets a dangerous precedent for academic freedom and has echoes of the cowardice often displayed during the McCarthy era."

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Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian student protesters at Columbia are demanding a permanent ceasefire and are refusing to back down, as the death toll of Palestinians in Gaza due to Israeli attacks has reached around 34,000, mostly women and children. 

"This is a disaster. They're caving. They're arresting students at Columbia. I think people should be going to Columbia and demonstrating with the students. It seems so obvious in front of us all that they're limiting one kind of speech," Robert Vitalis, a former political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who recently retired early due to the academic political climate, told The New Arab.

He said, "I'm glad because I don't know how I'd deal with the classroom again. I'm so much happier to think I wouldn't have to teach under these new norms with people watching over their shoulders."