Columbia University on edge as talks collapse over Gaza protests

Israel Palestinians Education Colleges
AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, File

Student demonstrators at Columbia University on Monday faced an ultimatum to disperse or be suspended, as tensions rose on the campus at the epicenter of pro-Palestinian protests across US colleges.

Police arrested around 275 people on four separate campuses in the United States over the weekend, with the White House calling on the growing protests in recent weeks to remain peaceful.

Columbia University said Monday that many Jewish students have left its campus and it demanded that the protestors’ encampment must be cleared, adding that Columbia would not divest financial holdings linked to Israel — a key demand of demonstrators.

Students pushed back, vowing to defend their camp on the New York institution’s main lawn, despite the threat of suspensions and disciplinary action from the college.

As of midday only students with university ID cards were free to walk onto campus, AFP observed.

Columbia University classics professor Joseph Howley told AFP the school’s statement Monday amounted to yielding to outside political pressure.

He said Columbia is “affirming the false premise that the mere presence of political speech on behalf of Palestine is a threat to Jews like myself.”

He called such a position “absurd and dangerous.”

Protests against the Gaza war, with its high civilian death toll among Palestinian civilians, have posed a challenge to university administrators trying to balance free speech rights with complaints that the rallies have veered into anti-Semitism and hate speech.

For almost two weeks now a wave of protests against Israel’s war in Gaza has swept across US university campuses, coast to coast, after beginning at Columbia. Around 100 protesters were arrested there April 18.

Footage of police in riot gear and summoned by university officials to break up rallies have been viewed around the world, recalling the protest movement that erupted during the Vietnam war.

At University of California, Los Angeles skirmishes broke out Sunday between pro-Palestinian protesters and supporters of Israel.

These nationwide rallies have reignited debate on freedom of expression, anti-Zionism and what kind of language or behavior amount to being anti-Semitic.

‘Intolerable’ atmosphere

“Many of our Jewish students, and other students as well, have found the atmosphere intolerable in recent weeks. Many have left campus, and that is a tragedy,” said Columbia University president Minouche Shafik in a statement announcing talks had broken down.

“Anti-Semitic language and actions are unacceptable and calls for violence are simply abhorrent.

“One group’s rights to express their views cannot come at the expense of another group’s right to speak, teach, and learn.”

Protest organizers deny accusations of anti-Semitism, arguing that their actions are aimed at the Israeli government and its prosecution of the conflict in Gaza.

They also insist the more threatening incidents have been engineered by non-student agitators.

One student protest group called for demonstrators to gather on Columbia’s campus on Monday “to protect the encampment” ahead of a reported 2:00 pm (1800 GMT) deadline to clear the tents or face disciplinary action.

The university had been in talks since last week with protest leaders over clearing the encampment but “regretfully we were not able to come to an agreement,” said Shafik.

The university said it offered to speed up a review of student proposals for divestment and to improve transparency.

The Gaza war started when Hamas militants staged an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7 that left around 1,170 people dead, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Palestinian militants also took roughly 250 people hostage. Israel estimates 129 remain in Gaza, including 34 the military says are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed almost 34,500 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


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