Apr 23, 2024 - Politics & Policy

America's campuses reach boiling point

Pro-Palestinian protestors are seen through iron gates

Pro-Palestinian protesters gather outside Columbia's locked gates on Monday. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

All eyes are on America's college campuses as simmering tensions over the Israel-Hamas war boil over into outright confrontation.

Why it matters: The growing intensity of pro-Palestinian protests has been met with an aggressive crackdown from school administrators and police — leading to a wave of arrests, suspensions and class cancellations.

  • The spreading protests come as the death toll in Gaza rises past 34,000, according to local health officials, and the humanitarian crisis grows even more dire. Student protesters are calling for administrators to divest from companies with ties to Israel and support a ceasefire.
  • Jewish students on several campuses say criticism of Israel has veered into antisemitism and made them feel unsafe, AP reports.
  • The scale of the unrest is beyond anything universities have experienced since the latest Israeli-Palestinian turmoil began in the wake of Oct. 7. It's tearing apart faculties and student bodies, drawing in politicians and donors, and feeding new rounds of escalation.

State of play: The campus chaos is hitting new levels as Jewish students and faculty members all around the country celebrate Passover.

  • Israel's military, meanwhile, is moving closer to invading Rafah — the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering.

Zoom in: Columbia's campus has become the epicenter of the unrest in the U.S.

  • Classes at the main campus will be virtual or hybrid for the rest of the semester after more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters who had camped out on the green were arrested and suspended. A crowd of Columbia faculty members walked out on Monday in solidarity with arrested students.
  • Members of Congress flocked to Columbia's campus to see the situation for themselves.
  • A number of lawmakers, including Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and John Fetterman (D-Pa.), are asking President Minouche Shafik to step down, Politico reports.

New England Patriots owner and Columbia alumnus Robert Kraft, who established the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life at the university, announced he was pulling funding.

  • Meta executive and former news anchor Campbell Brown said, “I’m on my way to Israel where my two sons will be safer and feel more welcomed than they would be today on the Upper West Side,” which is where Columbia’s campus is located.
  • Rabbi Elie Buechler of Columbia's Orthodox Union pressed Jewish students to return home "as soon as possible and remain until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved," The Wall Street Journal reports.

Zoom out: Encampments of pro-Palestinian protesters similar to the one at Columbia have popped up on other campuses, including Michigan, Berkeley, NYU and MIT, per AP.

  • At Yale, police arrested around 50 pro-Palestinian protesters on Monday and charged them with trespassing. After the arrests, the protest swelled even further, with a large crowd of students blocking an intersection, per the Yale Daily News.
  • Harvard has closed Harvard Yard to the public. The university also suspended the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee through the end of the year and ordered students in the group to "cease all organizational activities" or risk expulsion, the Harvard Crimson reports.
  • At NYU, multiple people were taken into custody last night, the NYPD said. An NYU statement said that during a demonstration believed to include many people unaffiliated with NYU, "there were intimidating chants and several antisemitic incidents reported."

The bottom line: University administrators from coast to coast have spent the last six months struggling to draw the line between free expression and campus safety and inclusivity.

  • The failure to act decisively has cost administrators the support of parents, politicians, illustrious alumni and students on all sides, with some slamming them for doing too little — and others, for doing too much.

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to note that Columbia is offering hybrid classes for the rest of the semester. It's not conducting most classes virtually.

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