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Anti-Israel protests spike on US campuses with Columbia taking lead

While anti-Israel protests have been particularly pronounced at Ivy League schools, they have spread beyond that, threatening Jewish students from coast to coast.

Pro-Hamas protesters set up tent encampments on the campus of Columbia University in New York City, April 2024. Source: YouTube screenshot.
Pro-Hamas protesters set up tent encampments on the campus of Columbia University in New York City, April 2024. Source: YouTube screenshot.

Anti-Israel and antisemitic protests are spreading across U.S. college campuses, perversely energized by last week’s arrest of more than 100 students at Columbia University.

More than 150 protesters were arrested at nearby New York University on Monday.

The universities have done little to quell the unrest and the protesters have faced little in the way of disciplinary action, while Jewish students remain threatened.

Of those arrested at Columbia and NYU, none will face criminal charges and all have been released, the New York Post reported on Wednesday.

“They’ll keep getting arrested and go back out, and keep doing the same thing because this is all a performative game for them,” a law enforcement source told the paper. “It’s a game because the system doesn’t hold them accountable for their nightly temper tantrums.”

Columbia’s administration appeared to take a determined stand last week. On April 18, university president Minouche Shafik asked the New York City Police Department to enter school grounds and dismantle a so-called “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” that students had erected in the middle of campus and refused to take down.

As police marched in, an officer repeated on a loudspeaker, “Since you have refused to disperse, you will now be placed under arrest for trespassing.” The protesters chanted: “Columbia, Columbia, you will see—Palestine will be free!”

The day before she requested the NYPD to enter school grounds, Shafik appeared before the House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, along with two trustees and a co-chair of the university’s antisemitism task force, to answer questions about the uptick in antisemitism, and threats to Jewish students and faculty.

Minouche Shafik
Minouche Shafik, president of Columbia University, testifies about campus antisemitism before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on April 17, 2024. Credit: House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“All university students participating in the encampment have been informed they are suspended,” Shafik announced, according to student newspaper The Columbia Spectator.

Columbia began issuing interim suspension notices starting on Friday. “Students were charged with disruptive behavior, violation of law, violation of University policy, failure to comply, vandalism or damage to property, and unauthorized access or egress,” the Spectator reported.

At Barnard College—a division of Columbia—53 students were “partially suspended,” the Post reported.

It remains to be seen if the suspensions will hold given that 12 students suspended for participation in a March 24 “Resistance 101” event featuring a member of a U.S.-designated Palestinian terrorist organization had their punishments lifted shortly after, according to their lawyer, the Post revealed.

A new tent encampment popped up on a nearby campus lawn the day after the NYPD removed the first. It was described as “bigger than ever.”

Already stepping down from her previously strong stand, Shafik decided to engage in negotiations with the protesters, who agreed that only students would participate in the tent protest (non-students were involved even though it was on campus).

Shafik also extended the deadline at midnight on Wednesday to remove the tents to a 48-hour window. The tents themselves violate school policy since all tenting must be approved through the Columbia Facilities Events Administration.

Shafik’s change in tactics might be linked to pressure from university staff. More than 100 faculty members at Barnard and Columbia staged a walkout in support of the protesters on Monday.

“We demand that all Barnard College and Columbia University suspensions and charges be dismissed immediately and expunged from students’ records,” said David Lurie, president of the Columbia chapter of the American Association of University Professors and professor of Asian humanities.

Jewish groups denounced the professors, saying that in defending the tent encampment, they were defending “a den of antisemites,” the Post reported.  

Republicans have zeroed in on the failure of Columbia to protect its Jewish students. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who visited Columbia on Wednesday, called for Shafik’s resignation, telling radio host Hugh Hewitt that Shafik had shown herself “to be a very weak, inept leader” who “cannot even guarantee the safety of Jewish students.”

“They’re expected to run for their lives and stay home from class?” he asked, referring to the school’s announcement on Monday that it would provide hybrid learning, offering students the option to attend classes online rather than in person until the end of the semester (April 29), a signal that it didn’t expect the unrest to end soon.

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) said Shafik had surrendered “control of Columbia to an antisemitic fringe,” and that canceling in-person classes is “an admission of failure.”

“If you cannot ensure the safety of your students, then you have no business serving as president of any university, let alone the alma mater of Alexander Hamilton,” Torres said in a statement. “What Columbia University needs is not an appeaser of antisemitism but a leader who will fight with moral clarity against it.”

The decision also drew condemnation from former president and presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who said on Tuesday, “Columbia should gain a little strength, a little courage and keep their school open. It’s crazy. Because that means the other side wins.”

Students described being disheartened by the move. “I went through COVID and all that when we were online for about a year, and it really disrupted our education,” junior Michael D’Agostino told the Post.

U.S. President Joe Biden also came under criticism after saying on Monday in his first public remarks about the unrest: “I condemn the antisemitic protests. That’s why I have set up a program to deal with that. I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

Tent encampments have since appeared at other campuses, including at Harvard, Yale—where 47 were arrested on Monday—and Brown universities.

While anti-Israel protests have been particularly pronounced at Ivy League schools, they have spread beyond that. Tent encampments have cropped up at the University of Michigan; Tufts University; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus, where eight students and a faculty member were arrested overnight on Tuesday.

California State Polytechnic’s Humboldt campus said it would be closed through Wednesday after pro-Palestinian protesters occupied a university building on Monday. The school said it would revert to online classes whenever possible.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who took the lead in a letter signed by 25 of his fellow Senate Republicans to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, demanded they take action to “protect Jewish students.” He termed the encampments “nascent pogroms” and called on Biden to send in the National Guard to break them up.

The situation has reached the point where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt obliged to issue a statement. “What’s happening in America’s college campuses is horrific,” he said on Wednesday. “Antisemitic mobs have taken over leading universities. They call for the annihilation of Israel. They attack Jewish students. They attack Jewish faculty.

 ‘It has to be stopped’

“This is reminiscent of what happened in German universities in the 1930s. It’s unconscionable. It has to be stopped. It has to be condemned and condemned unequivocally. But that’s not what happened. The response of several university presidents was shameful.”

On April 19, protesters outside Columbia shouted at two Jewish students, “The 7th of October is going to be every day for you.”

Columbia student Jonathan Lederer, writing in The Free Press, described being chased off campus and told to “go back to Poland.” Protesters swiped two of his Israeli flags and attempted to burn one of them. He managed to get them back after being pushed and shoved and having two heavy objects thrown at him, one hitting him in the face, the other in the chest.

“Throughout this entire ordeal, Columbia’s public safety officers were nowhere to be found,” he wrote.

He said some of the protesters’ chants included: “From the river to the sea, Palestine is Arab,” “There is no god but Allah, and the martyr is Allah’s beloved,” and “Al-Qassam make us proud, kill another soldier now” (a reference to Hamas’s military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam).

One Columbia student, a member of Students Supporting Israel (SSI), told ABC News, “It’s not only … mentally exhausting. I’ve found the last few days it’s been … physically affecting me. I got told the Israeli flag is a Nazi flag.”

A Post writer, who reported hearing chants of “intifada” and “F**k Israel” at the encampment was told by another student, “They’ve been enabled to really discriminate against us, and harass us and put our safety on the line for quite some time now.”

The rabbi of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) for Columbia University and Barnard College told students to stay home on Sunday, fearing for their safety.

NYU student Natalie Manocherian told the Post she might leave the school. “I was called a dirty Jew yesterday. I don’t feel comfortable as a Jew right now. I go to my class, and I go straight home.”

“The university needs to take a strong stand, and they’re not,” Mendi Hecht, a pre-med student at Columbia and former Israeli soldier, told the Post. “They’re consistently failing the Jewish students on campus. Every day and every hour they let this go on, they’re failing.”

Sahar Tartak, editor-in-chief of the Yale Free Press, who has documented antisemitism at her school, described being poked in the eye with a Palestinian flagpole while covering an April 20 protest. “After I was stabbed in my eye by a protester at a Yale rally, organizers blockaded me from running after my assaulter. Instead of helping me find him swiftly, one organizer told me: ‘I want you to think about what you really want to get out of this.’ ”

Also at Yale, protesters blasted anti-Israel and antisemitic rap lyrics too obscene to be reproduced.

At NYU, when police moved in they were pelted with bottles. One was hit on the helmet with a chair.

Various prescriptions have been offered to address antisemitism on university campuses. Feeble responses by administration officials have already led to the ouster of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

One remedy offered is to stop foreign funding. Jonathan Pidluzny, director of the Higher Education Reform Initiative at the America First Policy Institute, noted in City Journal on Tuesday, “Centers dedicated to the study of the Middle East, many receiving lavish foreign financial support, do more to promote anti-Zionist and pro-Hamas narratives than virtually any other force on campus.”

Investigations by former Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos found more than $6.5 billion in previously undisclosed foreign gifts, including  $2.7 billion from Qatari sources and more than $1 billion from the Saudis.

However, under Biden, outstanding investigations were closed and revelations about foreign funding dwindled, said Pidluzny.

Others, such as professor-emeritus of Harvard Alan Dershowitz, explain the explosion of campus antisemitism as an outgrowth of woke ideology.

Appearing on Fox Business on April 19, Dershowitz said that Shafik hasn’t dealt with the real issue, which is “DEI: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. … These dominate universities today and they’re the sources of antisemitism.”

“When I was teaching at Harvard 10 years ago, Harvard Jewish students were 23% of the student body. Today, they’re 9%, less than they were when they had anti-Jewish quotas. So the DEI bureaucracy is antisemitic, not only in effect, but in intent,” Dershowitz said, warning that unless DEI is uprooted, not only will antisemitism grow, but the quality of American universities will deteriorate.

Tablet editor-at-large Liel Leibovitz, writing in City Journal on Tuesday, called for the deportation of foreign students who express support for terrorism, an idea broached in connection with MIT during protests in November 2023. School administrators admitted they stopped short of suspending the foreign students, precisely so they wouldn’t have “visa issues.”

Leibovitz also suggested cutting off federal funding. According to a November 2023 report by Open The Books, America’s 10 top universities received $45 billion in taxpayer dollars for research since 2018.

Ultimately, Leibovitz concluded that it was too late to redeem the schools and that the only answer was to establish new schools.

“Let’s waste no more time trying to reform the unreformable. Let’s hold the violent zealots accountable, and then get to work building new institutions worthy of our children,” he said.

His pessimism echoed that of others. At a symposium held by the Argaman Institute in Tel Aviv in March, Moshe Cohen-Eliya—former president of the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan—argued that conservatives should focus their efforts on new institutions, pointing to the University of Austin in Texas as a model.

“Almost all of the academy, 99%, is controlled by the left, and not just the left, the radical left,” he said. “I think there’s almost no way to change it, neither in the United States nor in Israel. … We’re talking here about thousands of people … and they don’t hesitate to use their power to achieve their political goals.”

He said he had entertained the hope that Oct. 7 would change the situation as the presidents of Harvard and Penn were let go, and donors abandoned those schools in protest against their anti-Jewish climate, but that ultimately “nothing has changed.”

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