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The largest mobilization since the beginning of the Gaza war shakes up US universities

With its epicenter at Columbia University, pro-Palestinian camps on several campuses are raising tension and reviving the debate on antisemitism

Protesters on the New York University campus demonstrate for a ceasefire in Gaza, April 22.
Protesters on the New York University campus demonstrate for a ceasefire in Gaza, April 22.Fatih Aktas (Getty Images)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

It is Occupy Wall Street — the 2011 movement that protested against capitalism in its very cradle — with keffiyehs. University campuses in the United States are experiencing the largest mobilization since the war broke out in Gaza in October. Protest camps have been set up from east to west, with Columbia University in New York as the epicenter. The mobilization represents a dramatic new stage of the demonstrations that have been taking place on campus for months. The pro-Palestinian camps have helped revive the debate on antisemitism in U.S. campuses, which at the end of last year led to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard University and Pennsylvania University. Jewish students and teachers say they feel threatened and warn of the risk of an open confrontation.

Protest camps on several campuses in the country have been evicted by the police, with the latest standoff taking place Monday night at the public New York University (NYU), where dozens were arrested. University presidents have had to adopt exceptional measures, such as deploying police and numerous security guards at the entrances, which have been closed off with fences; shutting the facilities to strangers — only students can enter, after scanning their ID — and adopting remote classes until the end of the semester to reduce the number of students on campus. This is what was decided by Columbia, where on Tuesday hundreds of students remained camped in dozens of tents clustered in a circle on one of the center’s esplanades.

Police arrest a protester on the New York University (NYU) campus on April 22.
Police arrest a protester on the New York University (NYU) campus on April 22.Fatih Aktas (Getty Images)

Most of the protesters wear face masks and Palestinian keffiyehs, they do yoga, play music, play cards and, for the most part, finish their class work: the last school day is April 29. They have taken over from a first camp that was broken up by the police last week, with a hundred arrests. The camp is as well-organized as that of the 2011 anti-austerity protests in Spain and Greece: there are food services, a medical care tent, generators, a program of activities, including board games and yoga, and a large sign that establishes the rules, the first of which is to commit to continuing camping and not giving up even a millimeter of space “in solidarity with the Palestinian people.” On Monday night, the Jewish students in the protest camp celebrated the traditional seder, the dinner that marks the beginning of the Jewish Passover.

With the support of numerous teachers, the protesters are no longer calling only for a ceasefire in Gaza (a demand they have been making since the war began), but are now also calling for students arrested last week to be readmitted after an unknown number were expelled from campus, and for the university to divest from companies linked to Israel. Jewish students, for their part, claim that criticism of Israel for its offensive against Gaza has led to blatant antisemitism and makes them feel unsafe. There is a clear divide between the two sides, while important university donors, mostly Jewish, have announced that they plan to suspend funding from departments and centers until corrective measures are taken. This was a move made by Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots NFL team and a former Columbia student who maintains a center for Jewish students at the university.

The sudden intensity of the pro-Palestinian protests has not taken university presidents by surprise: they are a testament to the dozens of marches and demonstrations that cross New York almost daily, with the support of a large number of progressive Jews. But, unlike the last three months of 2023, this time the reaction from the university authorities has been firm: police have been allowed to take action. The students arrested in Columbia last week were taken away by officers with their hands in zip ties.

The growing mobilization against the Gaza war and calls for a ceasefire has put extra pressure on U.S. President Joe Biden, who has been modulating his initial strong support for Israel by calling on the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu to alleviate humanitarian suffering in Gaza. This shift was particularly evident after Biden received tens of thousands of protest votes from progressive Democratic voters of Arab origin in the primaries.

A pro-Palestine camp on the campus of Columbia University, April 22.
A pro-Palestine camp on the campus of Columbia University, April 22.Stefan Jeremiah (AP)

The precarious balance between freedom of expression and security and inclusivity on campuses has been near-destroyed. From coast to coast in the United States, university presidents have spent the last six months struggling to draw a clear line, but their failure to act decisively — or their timid stance — has cost them the support of parents, politicians, illustrious students and, ultimately, students on both sides: either for tolerating the protests, as Columbia initially did, or for calling the police to disperse the first encampment last week. Members of Congress went to the campus on Monday to see whether order was being maintained. The debate on antisemitism on campuses has become the new front of the cultural and political wars in the United States.

The initiative in Columbia was quick to catch on, sparking other protest camps in Michigan, Berkeley, Minnesota, NYU, and MIT, whose university president was also seriously questioned in a Congressional hearing that accused the prestigious Ivy League universities for not condemning antisemitism strongly enough. At Yale, police detained 50 protesters on Monday, accusing them of breaking and entering. After the police action, the protest spread even further and the students ended up blocking an intersection. At NYU, there were also several arrests, while the president’s office issued a statement claiming that the rally in front of the Faculty of Business, in the heart of the city, included people not affiliated with the university. “We also learned that there were intimidating chants and several antisemitic incidents reported,” said the statement.

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