Free Speech Vital

Over 100 Detained in U.S. Demonstration at Columbia University Pro-Palestinian Movement Has Become a Hot Potato for Institutions of Higher Learning

A number of well-known institutions of higher learning in the United States have erupted in pro-Palestinian demonstrations, including Columbia University in New York, where the demonstration led to the arrest of more than 100 people on 18 April. In view of the tense atmosphere on campus, the university announced that face-to-face classes would be cancelled on the 22nd, and online classes would be held instead. Even President Joe Biden criticised the demonstration as anti-Semitic.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, anti-Semitism is on the rise, and many universities in the United States are facing pressure and questions from students and politicians, and two presidents of universities in the Ivy League have resigned as a result, but the crisis is now difficult to resolve, and it is becoming more and more intense.

Since the outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian war in October last year, a number of well-known institutions of higher learning in the United States have been anti-war or pro-Palestinian demonstrations, some of the demonstrations due to anti-Semitism, the attitude of the university to deal with the situation has become the focus of the Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania presidents resigned due to the same kind of controversy. Last Wednesday (17th), a number of student groups set up a camp outside Columbia’s main library, demanding that the university divest from businesses that profit from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cut academic ties with Israeli organisations and call for a ceasefire. The university has repeatedly rejected the student group’s demands for divestment, saying that the encampment was contrary to university policy and had ‘seriously disrupted campus life and caused harassment and intimidation to many students’.

A large number of students gathered at the camp that night, waving Palestinian flags, blaring Palestinian music, and chanting ‘intifada revolution’ (meaning Palestinian revolution) under the surveillance of a drone set up by the school. The school warned the protesters to clear the camp or face the consequences. The following day, the New York City Police Department, including some officers in riot gear, entered the campus to clear the area after receiving a report from the school, and arrested the protesters for trespassing as they held hands and sang songs in the camp, with no students resisting. The school said more than 100 students were suspended.

The picture shows an anti-war demonstration at New York University on 22 April. (Reuters)

The arrests came just a day after Columbia University President Nemat Shafik appeared at a congressional hearing, where he was accused by lawmakers of failing to address anti-Semitism on campus, making the school ‘one of the nation’s hotbeds of anti-Semitism. Several congressional Republicans and at least one Democrat called for Shafiq’s resignation. Shafik said the call for the genocide of Jews violated Columbia’s code of conduct, promised to remove two faculty members who had expressed support for the Hamas raid, and would strike a balance between the safety of students and the right to free speech.

The incident has raised questions about the University’s political pressure to involve the police and has led to a backlash and wider demonstrations both on and off campus. The National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) issued an appeal to colleges and universities, including Harvard, MIT, Yale, UC Berkeley, and other prestigious colleges and universities, over the weekend, and protesters set up camps on campus to follow suit.

As a matter of fact, New York is also the bridgehead of the Jewish community in the United States. In New York City alone, there are about 1.6 million Jewish believers, making it the largest Jewish community in the world, surpassing the combined total of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The economy is also ‘run’ by Jews, with powerful political and business connections. From retail, to restaurants, to real estate, to the media, the Jewish community is dominated by Jews, and it goes without saying that Jewish moneymakers donate to and influence top universities.

The pro-Palestinian demonstrations also spread to New York University (NYU), as well as other campuses in the neighbouring provinces of MIT, MIT and Yale University; NYU took to Instagram on the 22nd to warn protesters to leave the plaza by 4pm or face the consequences. That night, police cleared the square of students who refused to leave and arrested dozens of protesters at the university’s request. On the same day, about 50 students were arrested at Yale University, while Harvard University imposed access restrictions and suspended its doors to the public.

Demonstrators sit in a camp on the campus of Columbia University on 19 April 2024 in New York City, US, to protest in solidarity with pro-Palestinian organisers. (Reuters)

The second day of the demonstration was said to be an inappropriate intervention?
There has also been a lot of criticism on Columbia’s campus. The Knight Foundation First Amendment Institute, a non-profit organisation set up by the university in 2016 to protect freedom of speech and of the press, told BBC News after the event that, according to university rules, protests can only be carried out ‘if they are directed against a person, property or any department of the university’. The Knight Foundation First Amendment Institute told the BBC after the incident that, according to school rules, an outside agency should only intervene if there is ‘a clear and present danger to persons, property or the physical operation of any department of the school’, and that the students’ unauthorised encampment did not pose such a danger, suggesting that the school should ‘rectify its mistake immediately’.

According to the Washington Post, this is the first time since 1996 that the school has asked police to intervene in an on-campus demonstration. The hunger strike, which lasted more than 10 days, included the occupation of the university’s central administration building and one of its libraries by students who were dissatisfied with the lack of additional resources for the study of ethnically diverse Americans and demanded the creation of a department of racial studies. On the tenth day of the all-night occupation, police were called in and 23 students were arrested.

In a larger anti-Vietnam War demonstration in the 1960s, students occupied several buildings on campus, and the police intervened on the seventh day of the demonstration.

In contrast, Columbia’s attempt to use the police to remove protesters on the second day of the encampment has inevitably raised questions, but it also underscores the fact that America’s major institutions of higher learning are being forced into a national culture war at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fuelling anti-Semitism.

One of the arrested students told the media, ‘We’re going to stay here until they talk to us and listen to us. We are neither anti-Semitic nor Islamophobic, we are here for peace.’ Joseph Howley, an associate professor of classical literature at Columbia, said the university was going about it the wrong way by going to the police, and that it would only invite ‘more radical elements that were not part of the students’ demands’.

Mishandling could tarnish the university’s reputation
In a recent statement, Shafik said Columbia has formed a working group to try to resolve the crisis. In an open letter to the university, she said all parties should take a step back: ‘There have been too many instances of intimidation and harassment on our campus in the past few days. Antisemitism and other language that harms and intimidates others is unacceptable and requires appropriate action.

In fact, Shafiq’s peers – University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill and Harvard University President Claudine Gay – resigned after congressional hearings late last year. The presidents’ ambiguous answers to Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s question about whether ‘calls for genocide are harassment on campus’ made them targets of a publicity stunt that Republicans have used to attack the leftist ideology in education. And Elise Stefanik (D-MA) launched a record-breaking fundraising campaign after the conference to further pressure the education sector.

According to the US media, many colleges are turning to outside public relations and law firms to help resolve the crisis, with Jason Smith, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the tax code, quoted as saying: ‘A lot of colleges haven’t been paying a lot of attention to what’s going on politically in Washington, but now they’re paying attention. But now they’re paying attention because they see the risks.’

Institutions are now suspending and even expelling protesting students, raising questions about where the line should be drawn. Will the problem be solved if the president takes the blame and resigns? Can Jewish students go to school without fear? Will the anger of anti-war and pro-Palestinian students be calmed? If the matter is not handled properly, the reputation of the university, which has been built up over the years, may be adversely affected. This is also a reflection of the fact that both the government and the universities are under the threat of Jewish money, and peace will not be restored to the campuses until the war in Gaza stops.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *