Students at Columbia University and supporters rallied Wednesday against the suspension of two pro-Palestinian student groups amid continuing tension at the Ivy League school over the Israel-Hamas war, a move that is raising concerns about free speech on campus.
Charged with violations of school policies, local chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace lost university funding and the eligibility to hold on-campus events for the remainder of the semester, college officials announced Friday.
Condemnation of the move was swift.
While some pro-Israel advocates praised the decision, saying it will help keep Jewish students safe on campus, pro-Palestinian students and faculty — plus supporters concerned about what they argue is a crackdown on dissent — panned the disciplinary measure.
“It is an unjust suspension,” said Mohsen Mahdaw, a Columbia undergraduate student from the West Bank and the co-president of Palestine Student Union.
“It’s a huge mistake on behalf of Columbia University,” said Mahdaw, who’s studying philosophy. “I think the suspension has started a spark and this spark has started a fire” that he predicted would only push students and faculty further away from supporting Israel.
Columbia’s campus has been roiled by protests and tension since Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel, followed by the Israeli military’s counteroffensive in Gaza.
Wednesday, hundreds gathered by the university’s main gates, the second day of protests against the university’s decision. Stuck behind barricades, the protesters, including those not affiliated with Columbia, spilled over the sidewalk and onto the street.The protest Wednesday was sponsored by the pro-Palestinian group Within Our Lifetime.
The university ramped up security, as students and faculty trying to get in campus waited on lines to not only to show but scan Columbia IDs.
Maryam Alwan, a member of Columbia’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine who is Palestinian-American, said that she has often found herself too scared to go to class or reach out for help from the university, as students around campus have recorded, followed and harassed her.
“I should not have to put myself at risk to show that I’m a human who deserves to mourn,” said Alwan, “a human who deserves to have free speech and call attention to the genocide of my people.”
“Members of SJP and JVP have remained masked and anonymous since we first started speaking out because we have been terrified for our safety. But where are we supposed to turn?” she said.
Before the demonstration, hundreds of students and faculty participated in an on-campus protest Tuesday organized by the Palestine Student Union in solidarity with the two suspended student groups, according to the student newspaper Columbia Spectator. Off campus, multiple letters are circulating online criticizing the university’s decisio to suspend the groups.
“At a time when the thoughtful exchange of ideas is at its most vital, the university should be meeting the moment by taking extra steps to work with student organizations to adhere to university policy. Instead, the university has chosen to shut them down,” read one of the petitions from alumni.
“This rash action suggests that the university itself has chosen sides in a conflict. In doing so, it has definitively chosen sides against its students,” they said.
SJP and JVP said via Instagram on Monday that their suspension is “an attack on free speech.”
The statement continued that the decision to put the student clubs on hold “indicates Columbia’s selective censorship of pro-Palestinian student organizations in order to prevent protest against Israel’s increasingly brutal attacks.”
“We recognize Columbia’s intimidation tactics for what they are,” the groups said.
Gerald Rosberg, who chairs a university special committee on campus safety, wrote in a statement Friday that both student groups “repeatedly violated University policies related to holding campus events.”
He pointed to a demonstration hosted by SJP and JVP on Nov. 9 that did not receive advanced university approval and “proceeded despite warnings and included threatening rhetoric and intimidation” — where an individual reportedly shouted“death to Jews.”
The expletive was quickly condemned by student leaders.