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Columbia University on edge over Gaza: What’s going on?

In News, World
April 22, 2024

New York’s Columbia University is on edge amid mounting tensions between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protesters over the war in Gaza and growing criticism of the Ivy League school’s leadership from members of Congress and both sides that are facing off on campus.

On Sunday, a prominent rabbi linked to Columbia University and its affiliated Barnard College, Elie Buechler, urged Jewish students at the institution to stay home due to “extreme anti-Semitism” on campus on Sunday.

Columbia’s President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik announced in an official statement that all classes will be held virtually on Monday and that faculty and staff who can work remotely should do so. Monday marks Passover, a major Jewish holiday.

“Over the past days, there have been too many examples of intimidating and harassing behavior on our campus. Anti-Semitic language, like any other language that is used to hurt and frighten people, is unacceptable and appropriate action will be taken,” Shafik said in a statement.

What are the Columbia students protesting about?

The pro-Palestinian student protest effort, dubbed the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” is collectively organised by student-led coalition Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

The protesters are calling for Columbia to divest from corporations that profit from Israel’s war on Gaza. The CUAD website lists additional demands, calling for more financial transparency pertaining to Columbia’s investments, and the severing of academic ties and collaborations with Israeli universities and programmes. The groups are also calling for a complete ceasefire in Gaza.

At least 34,000 people have died in Gaza as a result of Israel’s unrelenting bombardment of the beleaguered enclave and its ground assault. Restrictions on the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza have also led to starvation.

What are their critics accusing them of — and what happened on Sunday?

Some protesters have been accused of anti-Semitism and harassment of Jewish students at the university.

On Sunday, those allegations gathered further steam after footage on social media appeared to show pro-Palestine activists outside the Columbia campus telling pro-Israel students to “go back to Poland”. One activist said that October 7 “will happen not one more time, not five more times, not 10 more times, not 100 more times, not 1,000 more times, but 10,000 times”, referring to the Hamas attacks on southern Israel that killed 1,139 people. Another activist can be heard saying that October 7 will “be every day for you”.

A chapter of an international Orthodox Jewish movement, Chabad at Columbia University, released a statement saying that protesters also told Jewish students, “You have no culture”, “All you do is colonise” and to “Go back to Europe”.

Yet another video shows a student protester at a gathering inside Columbia saying: “Let it be known that it was the Al-Aqsa Flood that put the global Intifada back on the table again.”

Hamas called its October 7 attacks on Gaza “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood”.

In a statement on Sunday, CUAD distanced itself from what it said were “media distractions focusing on inflammatory individuals who do not represent us”.

“At universities across the nation, our movement is united in valuing every human life,” the statement said.

New York police arrested more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters on the campus last Thursday. Several students were also suspended from Columbia and Barnard — which sits across Broadway from Columbia’s main campus in Morningside Heights — including Isra Hirsi, who is the daughter of Ilhan Omar, a Democrat in the United States House of Representatives.

“Our members have been misidentified by a politically-motivated mob,” the CUAD statement said. “We have been doxxed in the press, arrested by the NYPD [New York Police Department], and locked out of our homes by the university. We have knowingly put ourselves in danger because we can no longer be complicit in Columbia funnelling our tuition dollars and grant funding into companies that profit from death.”

What did Columbia head Shafik say to Congress?

Days before the latest escalation in tensions on campus, leaders of Columbia University, including Shafik, appeared before a committee in the US Congress to face questions about the alleged anti-Semitism on campus.

Before that, Shafik had pledged on April 17 to take firm action to combat anti-Semitism. She said Columbia had already suspended 15 students and had six on disciplinary probation.

“These are more disciplinary actions that have been taken probably in the last decade at Columbia. And I promise you, from the messages I’m hearing from students, they are getting the message that violations of our policies will have consequences,” Shafik said.

Yet pro-Israel students and faculty have criticised the Columbia administration for not doing enough to make them feel safe — and have called for Shafik’s resignation. Pro-Palestinian protesters too, have accused Columbia of stifling their freedom of expression.

In November, Columbia suspended Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. In March, the New York Civil Liberties Union said it would sue Columbia over the suspensions.

In January, the university banned a group of individuals from campus after they were accused of being involved in spraying pro-Palestinian protesters with a foul-smelling chemical.

What have Biden and others said?

In a statement on Sunday to commemorate Passover, US President Joe Biden condemned what he described as “blatant” anti-Semitism at Columbia University, calling it “reprehensible and dangerous” and saying “it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country”.

This was after the White House released a separate statement calling out “physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community”.

Condemnation of the Sunday protest also came from New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York State Governor Kathy Hochul.

UN Special Rapporteur for Palestine Francesca Albanese wrote an X post on Monday highlighting the arrests made by Columbia University and the alleged targeting of students who show solidarity with Palestine in European universities.

She wrote: “What lessons are Western universities and governments imparting to their young citizens and students when they attack the very values and rights that are said to be foundational to Western societies?”

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