Columbia kicks the hornet’s nest with student protests over Israel-Hamas war

Columbia kicks the hornet’s nest with student protests over Israel-Hamas war

Columbia University administrators appear to have only inflamed student protesters against the Israel-Hamas war both on their campus and at other schools after leadership chose to have more than 100 students arrested over pro-Palestine demonstrations Friday.

Under pressure from politicians on both sides of the aisle, university President Minouche Shafik faces calls to resign as hundreds of students now occupy the center of campus in a protest calling for a cease-fire in the war and for the Biden administration to halt military aid to Israel.

Students launched what they dubbed the Gaza Solidarity Encampment last Wednesday, the same day Shafik faced harsh questioning from the House Education Committee on campus antisemitism.

Shafik’s order for arrests has only bolstered the demonstrations, which have now spread to numerous college campuses nationwide, including New York University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The Biden administration denounced the protests Sunday, calling them “blatantly antisemitic” and saying they were encouraging “calls for violence.” New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) made similar comments.

At least three Barnard College students have been suspended, including the daughter of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

Safety concerns for Jewish students on campus have also been raised, leading Columbia to move classes online starting Monday, hours before the Jewish holiday of Passover begins.

Antisemitism has been soaring both nationwide and internationally since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, but a significant portion of the protesting students are Jewish, and protest groups have fought back against characterizations of their demonstrations as antisemitic. There have been no reports of violence from the protests.

“We are frustrated by media distractions focusing on inflammatory individuals who do not represent us,” protest leaders wrote in a statement Sunday. “Our members have been misidentified by a politically motivated mob.”

“We firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry and stand vigilant against non-students attempting to disrupt the solidarity being forged among students,” they continued. “Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, Jewish, Black and pro-Palestinian classmates and colleagues who represent the full diversity of our country.”

On Monday, lawmakers from both parties called on Shafik to rein in the protests or step down from her post. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said university leadership has “clearly lost control of its campus, putting Jewish students’ safety at risk.”

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) added that Shafik should “do your job or resign,” comparing the protests to the violent white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

The Israeli government also commented on the protest, calling the students “terrorists” in a post on the social media platform X.

On Sunday, Education Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) warned that she could call Shafik in front of her committee again over the “unacceptable” demonstrations.

“Columbia’s continued failure to restore order and safety promptly to campus constitutes a major breach of the University’s Title VI obligations, upon which federal financial assistance is contingent, and which must immediately be rectified,” Foxx wrote in a letter. “If you do not rectify this danger, then the Committee will not hesitate in holding you accountable.”

As the Israeli military operation in Gaza becomes increasingly unpopular among Americans, especially Democrats, those critical of antiwar protests have repeatedly turned their attention to Ivy League college campuses.

The leaders of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT faced a similar grilling as Shafik from the Education Committee in December, sparking widespread backlash that eventually saw two of the three schools head resigning.

The Biden administration has generally joined these criticisms, while also applying pressure on the Israeli government to slow its military advance in Gaza, urging it to allow more humanitarian aid into the territory.

Six months since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, a majority of Democrats said they believe the U.S. should limit military aid to Israel, according to polls, citing concerns over mass civilian casualties in Gaza and accusations of war crimes.

In response to the criticisms of Columbia’s administration, Shafik said Monday in a statement that she is “deeply saddened” by campus protests.

“The decibel of our disagreements has only increased in recent days,” she said. “These tensions have been exploited and amplified by individuals who are not affiliated with Columbia who have come to campus to pursue their own agendas. We need a reset.”

“There is a terrible conflict raging in the Middle East with devastating human consequences,” she continued. “But we cannot have one group dictate terms and attempt to disrupt important milestones like graduation to advance their point of view. Let’s sit down and talk and argue and find ways to compromise on solutions.”

University leaders will hold discussions with student protesters and faculty in the coming days in an attempt to “deescalate” tensions on campus, she said.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.