What the backlash to student protests over Gaza is really about

Pro-Palestinian protesters holding a sign that says “Liberated Zone” in New York.
Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images

The Columbia protests and the debate over pro-Palestinian college students, explained.

Protests over the war in Gaza erupted on Columbia University’s campus in mid-April, inspiring demonstrations at other universities across the country as well as in Canada, Australia, and France.

But as those protests — many of which center on encampments and demands that universities divest from Israel — have grown, so too have intense crackdowns involving local law enforcement.

Wednesday at UCLA, masked counter-protesters attacked pro-Palestine protesters in their encampment with metal pipes, mace, and pepper spray and threw at least one firework, while police were slow to intervene, according to Al Jazeera. The encampment was later cleared by police. That outburst followed a police action at Columbia that saw officers arresting student protesters who had occupied a building, and the arrests of hundreds of other protesters across the US now more than 2,000, according to the Washington Post.

President Joe Biden gave an address in the wake of these developments, affirming the right to protest in remarks at the White House Thursday, but “not the right to cause chaos.”

“It’s against the law when violence occurs,” Biden said, adding that he would not seek to deploy the National Guard to stem the unrest. Biden, who has staunchly supported Israel’s war in Gaza after October 7, had previously denounced both “antisemitic protests” and “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

His remarks are a reminder of how much political scrutiny colleges and universities are currently under, particularly when it comes to issues of Israel and Palestine, as Israel’s war on Hamas stretches into its eighth month. Previous rounds of congressional testimony made top universities the locus around which America litigates questions about the US’s support of Israel amid its deadly war in Gaza, free speech, antisemitism, and anti-Muslim discrimination — and a convenient target for political elites looking to make a point. And not just Biden: House Speaker Mike Johnson, visited Columbia’s campus, and now claims “antisemitism is a virus” spreading on college campuses. Under Johnson’s leadership, the House passed a bill Wednesday that would adopt the working definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”

As politicians weigh in, some universities — including Columbia — have taken steps to shut down encampments, often without considering students’ central demand — that their schools divest any investments in Israel. Others, including Brown University, have entered into agreements with demonstrators, accepting some of their demands.

Overall, the controversies at Columbia and other campuses illustrate how universities have struggled to uphold their dual commitments to free speech and protecting their students during a fraught political moment when more young people sympathize with the Palestinian cause than with the Israeli government. Concerns about antisemitism at the protests (often attributed to students, but largely perpetrated by outsiders according to anecdotal reporting) also piqued national attention, as has the very public role of police.

“Calling the police on campus is such a breach of the culture of a college or university,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is representing arrested Columbia students, told Vox. “To do so in response to nonviolent student protest is beyond the pale, and it really undermines the standing of the university in the eyes of a broad swath of the population as a place of free, open, and robust dialogue and debate.”

What’s actually happening on college campuses

Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protests have become a prominent feature on college campuses since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel. They reached a fever pitch in December when the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania gave controversial testimony before Congress about campus antisemitism, both real and hypothetical.

The demonstrations were reanimated after Columbia president Nemat Shafik gave congressional testimony that, per the Associated Press, focused on “fighting antisemitism rather than protecting free speech.” Students erected tents on Columbia’s main lawn to show solidarity with Gaza. Then Shafik took the controversial step of calling in the police to arrest those involved.

They have spread not just across the country — at campuses including at Yale University, New York University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Miami University in Ohio, and Temple University in Philadelphia and others — but also internationally.

Over the course of the protests, hundreds of people at Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas-Austin, Emerson College, the University of Southern California, and New York University have faced mass arrests as administrators seek to quell the unrest.

Police involvement in the protests has intensified in recent days: Local law enforcement removed students at Cal Poly Humboldt from a university hall they had been occupying for a week. Dozens of NYPD officers entered Columbia University Tuesday night, arresting a group of protesters who occupied a university building. Protesters at Cal Poly Humboldt, Columbia, UCLA, City College of New York, the University of New Mexico, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and others were also arrested. In Paris, France, students at Sciences Po were removed by police after occupying a school building.

At least 47 students were arrested at Yale days after its encampment sprung up, and more than 150 were arrested at New York University. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed Texas police to the UT-Austin campus, where they arrested 34 including a journalist. Boston police also arrested 108 people at a protest led by Emerson College students who linked arms tightly and raised umbrellas; four officers were injured while trying to break up the crowd.

In an echo of previous protest movements — including those at universities in the mid-20th century, as well as more recent demonstrations for civil rightsprotests at some schools, including the University of Texas, appear to be growing in response to police crackdowns on protesters. There have been anecdotal reports of police violence during Tuesday night’s police raid at Columbia; those are difficult to verify, as press — including student reporters — were not allowed in the occupied building at the time. As of Friday, media is still being denied access to Columbia’s campus.

The protests are calling on universities to divest from firms that they contend profit from Israel’s war and occupation in Palestine, more than six months after the start of the war and as the death toll in Gaza has exceeded 34,000. Some groups at universities that conduct military research, like New York University, are also requesting their schools end work contributing to weapons development as well.

Following Shafik’s testimony, Columbia students pitched more than 50 tents on the lawn in what they called a “Liberated Zone” on April 17. But the tents stayed up only about a day and a half before Shafik intervened. “The current encampment violates all of the new policies, severely disrupts campus life, and creates a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students,” she wrote in an April 18 letter to the Columbia community.

The police arrived shortly thereafter to arrest students for trespassing and removed more than 100 protesters, tying their hands with zip ties. Some have also been suspended and removed from student housing.

In the days since, negotiators from the group leading the protest at Columbia — Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) — have been in discussion with university administrators about the demonstrators’ demands. Those negotiations were cut off the morning of April 29.

A lot of the national attention has focused less on the protesters’ demands or the US-Israeli relationship — and the destruction of Gaza — and more on allegations that the protests are inherently antisemitic for criticizing Israel, or that specific antisemitic incidents have occurred. Shafik announced that classes would be hybrid through the end of the academic year to provide a “reset” on the conversation and in light of students’ safety concerns. Shafik requested on April 30 that the NYPD maintain a presence on the university campus until mid-May.

Rabbi Elie Buechler, a rabbi associated with Columbia University’s Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, had urged hundreds of Orthodox Jewish students to go home and suggested they stay there for their safety. Brandeis University, a historically Jewish institution, has extended its transfer application period to accommodate students who feel unsafe on their campuses.

The protests have been complicated by the way they’ve been characterized

Student protests on Columbia’s campus were largely nonviolent until the night of April 30, when the NYPD entered Hamilton Hall — the building protesters occupied and renamed “Hind’s Hall” for Hind Rajab, the 6-year-old Palestinian girl allegedly killed by Israeli troops alongside her family in January. An Instagram video shared by CUAD appears to show an individual being pushed or kicked down the stairs in front of the building, and one student told Vox they saw some of the arrested protesters bloodied and with visible wounds. New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg confirmed Friday that a NYPD officer fired his gun while inside the school building. No one is believed to have been injured.

Representatives from the New York Police Department said during a press conference shortly after the Columbia encampment opened that there had been some incidents in which Israeli flags were snatched from students and unspecified hateful things said. But they said that there have not been any reports of Columbia students being physically harmed or any credible threats made against individuals or groups associated with the university community ahead of the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover.

However, a video surfaced in late April of what appeared to be masked pro-Palestinian protesters outside of Columbia’s gates shouting, “The 7th of October is going to be every day for you,” at Jewish students. It’s not clear whether those shouting were affiliated with the university.

Just after the video was circulated, President Joe Biden issued a statement: “This blatant Antisemitism is reprehensible and dangerous — and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country.”

That statement served as a “blanket condemnation of the Columbia protests,” said Matt Berkman, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at Oberlin College. It failed to distinguish those featured in the video who may not have been affiliated with the university from the vast majority of student protesters, who based on many different accounts, have been peaceful. And it flattened the makeup of the protests, which include a number of Jewish students. Jewish students who have been suspended from Columbia and Barnard stated that they had celebrated a Passover Seder within the encampment at a press conference.

In a video address, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also misleadingly characterized the protests, falsely claiming that “antisemitic mobs have taken over leading universities” in a video address and compared them to rallies held in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party.

“Pro-Israel activists are clearly invested in painting everyone at Columbia, whether inside or outside the gates, with the same broad brush,” Berkman said.

There are antisemitic incidents in the United States, which represent real danger to Jewish communities and individuals — and they have increased since the Hamas attacks on October 7.

In December, the Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents had increased by nearly 340 percent since then. Complicating its data, however, is the fact that the ADL’s annual audit of antisemitic assaults, vandalism, and harassment also includes in the latter categories some anti-Zionist activism. Removing all Israel-related incidents from their count, America has a smaller but still big problem: Non-Israel-related antisemitic incidents still rose by 65 percent compared to 2022, per their data.

Columbia students aren’t alone in facing broad accusations of antisemitism. Students at Yale, the Ohio State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and others have all been called out by the ADL for engaging in Palestine solidarity protests as well as for specific incidents of antisemitism. Nor are they alone in facing arrest; NYU students and faculty and students at Yale have also been arrested.

Police involvement in the protests — particularly on New York City campuses — has been met with backlash, particularly from university faculty and activists.

“NYPD presence in our neighborhood endangers our entire community,” the Columbia chapter of the American Association of University Professors wrote in an April 30 letter. “Armed police entering our campus places students and everyone else on campus at risk.”

The letter claims that faculty efforts to defuse tension between the protesters and administration had been rebuffed, and that university administration had failed to consult faculty when deciding to bring the police on campus.

Veronica Salama, who as a staff attorney at NYCLU is part of the team defending these students, told Vox that Shafik called the police as part of her emergency powers — but in doing so violated university policy. Vox has reached out to Columbia for comment and will update with its response.

What’s behind the protests?

In many ways, the demands of the protesters have been overshadowed by the controversy.

At Columbia, the protesters belong to the coalition CUAD, which formed in 2016 to demand Columbia and Barnard College disclose investments in and divest — or remove from its investment portfolio — from Israeli and American companies and institutions that support Israel, citing its wars in Gaza and oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.

Shafik said in a statement that the school will not divest from Israeli companies or those that contribute to the ongoing occupation and destruction of Gaza; instead she offered a process to make Columbia’s investments more transparent to students and pledged to support early childhood development in Gaza and displaced scholars from the region.

The coalition’s demands for divestment are of a piece with the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement started by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005. BDS cites as its inspiration the anti-apartheid activists of the 1980s who targeted South Africa’s apartheid government with boycotts.

While that movement wasn’t decisive in bringing down that government, it was successful in alienating the apartheid government from major global players like Barclays bank, the Olympics, and the International Cricket Conference, forcing countries and international institutions to confront their complicity in South Africa’s racist policies.

In addition to divestment from “companies profiting from Israeli apartheid,” CUAD has a list of five other demands, including a call for an immediate ceasefire from government officials including President Joe Biden, and, importantly, an end to the dual degree program that Columbia has with Tel Aviv University.

These demands echo those of student groups at other colleges and universities. NYU student activists are also demanding the university shut down its Tel Aviv campus and “divest from all corporations aiding in the genocide,” including weapons companies, and ban weapons tech research that benefits Israel.

Two universities, Brown and Northwestern, have reached deals with student protesters and refused to take disciplinary or legal action against them. Northwestern has pledged to disclose its investments, and Brown has promised to hold a university board vote on whether to divest. However, the administration will not hold that vote until October. Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, has agreed to explore divestment and call for a ceasefire.

Critics allege that BDS and anti-Zionism are at their core antisemitic, arguing that BDS delegitimizes Israel and “effectively reject[s] or ignore[s] the Jewish people’s right of self-determination, or that, if implemented, would result in the eradication of the world’s only Jewish state, are antisemitic,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The nature and tenor of the campus anti-war protests has been at the forefront of both media coverage and congressional hearings on antisemitism and campus free speech. But administrative response to them — particularly calling the police and issuing suspensions — has added a new dimension to the debate.

It’s all part of a broader fight over free speech and antisemitism on college campuses

Universities have struggled to balance their goals of protecting free speech and combatting antisemitism since the outbreak of war in Gaza, which has proved a political minefield.

In December, a trio of university presidents who testified before Congress were accused (if not fairly) of being too permissive of free speech in the face of antisemitism or being too legalistic in their explanations of their situation.

Now, some universities seem to be changing their tack.

Shafik called in the police on protesters despite Columbia’s longstanding reputation as a bastion of free speech. The University of Southern California recently canceled the commencement speech of its pro-Palestinian valedictorian over campus safety concerns. And now NYU and other institutions have also instituted police crackdowns on protesters.

Private universities, like many of those experiencing protests today, have long maintained policies that protect free speech similarly to the First Amendment: permitting anything up to genuine threats of violence and threatening behavior that would warrant punishment or even referrals to the criminal system. But the last six months have seemingly made many of them question not just when and where a threat begins, but also maybe even those commitments to students’ free speech more broadly. And complicating this all is a years-long history of pro-Palestinian activists saying they face targeted harassment.

Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said that if Columbia wants to remain committed to free speech, it has an obligation to apply its speech policies in an equitable manner that is unbiased against any particular viewpoint and to ensure that students currently facing disciplinary action are offered due process.

“Columbia providing due process, while fairly and consistently applying its viewpoint-neutral speech policies, will be absolutely mandatory here if Columbia wants to start back on the right path,” Morey said.

Prohibiting students from camping out or blocking entrances or exits is “all above board” if applied uniformly, Morey added. But schools should see calling the police to enforce any such policies as a last resort, said Frederick Lawrence, the former president of Brandeis University and a lecturer at Georgetown Law.

“I understand the very strong desire to protect the safety of all the students involved,” he said. “At the end of the day, the presumption should be in favor of free speech and free expression, and there are exceptions to that, but [starting] with that presumption often brings a lot of clarity to these vital decisions.”

Correction, April 25, 4:30 pm ET: This story originally misstated the Anti-Defamation League’s methodology for tracking antisemitic incidents. It differentiates among the categories of assault, vandalism, and harassment. Among the latter categories, it includes some anti-Zionist expressions.

Update, May 3, 5 pm ET: This story was originally published on April 24 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to include the expansion of the protests.

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