Columbia University’s ongoing talks over pro-Palestinian encampment slammed by Jewish campus leader

NEW YORK — Columbia University officials and the student protesters behind a pro-Gaza encampment negotiated Friday past a school-set deadline to clear the schools’s main lawn — much to the dismay of a leading Jewish campus organization.

Brian Cohen, the Lavine Family executive director of Hillel, was sharply critical of the university allowing the encampment to continue, despite what university officials have said is a violation of school policies.

“It’s not my standard practice to be public about what is happening on campus,” he said at a news conference at Columbia’s Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life. “But I tried working with the University for months behind the scenes, and they have consistently failed to address the crisis on campus.”

“Unfortunately, it is going to take time to restore our universities to the values that they are supposed to uphold. But there is also one clear step we are calling on administrators to take today: Uphold your codes of conduct. Enforce your rules,” he told reporters.

The encampments at Columbia and other colleges across New York and the nation have come under fire over allegations of abusive and antisemitic rhetoric. At CCNY late Thursday, protesters called for the elimination of Israel as they chased off someone they said they knew was a “Zionist.”

At Columbia, the administration initially told the protesters they needed to clear out by midnight Tuesday, then extended the deadline 48 hours. The encampment remained in place Friday with visits by New York Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, both Democrats. Despite rumors the NYPD was preparing to move in a second time, university officials said that was not the case. The police cleared the campus last week only to have the protesters return.

“There is a rumor that the NYPD has been invited to campus this evening,” the Columbia Office of the President said in a statement overnight Thursday. “This rumor is false.

“The talks have shown progress and are continuing as planned,” it continued.

For the last week, a small group of administrators and student organizers have been meeting to iron out a deal to dismantle a pro-Palestinian encampment. Students are demanding the university divest from Israel and reverse all disciplinary action against antiwar advocates.

“A formal process is underway and continues,” Columbia spokesman Ben Chang said Friday evening.

Student organizers said university officials’ decision to not bring in law enforcement a second time suggested there is no hard cutoff to clear the encampment, despite fast-approaching preparations for graduation next month.

“This also goes to show that Columbia’s deadlines are always movable,” said Jonathan Ben-Menachem, a fourth year Ph.D. student in the sociology department, who is Jewish, “provided students and faculty take collective action in support of the encampment.”

Despite a marathon negotiation session Thursday that lasted 11 hours, students said they are still at an impasse with university officials on their primary ask: divestment.

“We will not accept anything less than the demands that we published,” said Mahmoud Khalil, a Palestinian graduate student and one of the negotiators for the protesters.

Also on Friday, Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman, who have criticized Israel’s policy on Gaza, visited the encampment, the student outlet BWOG reported from inside the closed-off tent demonstration. Their appearance came after a visit by Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., whose daughter Isra Hirsi was among the Columbia students arrested and suspended last week.

“Any leader who has called in enforcement and violence on folks that are peacefully organizing should be deeply ashamed of themselves. I would imagine a decision like that would follow a person for a very long time,” Ocasio-Cortez told BWOG.

Along the perimeter of campus, several hundred pro-Israel demonstrators gathered outside Broadway, demanding the Columbia campus refocus its attention on Israelis held hostage by Hamas since the Oct. 7 attack.

Protesters — including many unaffiliated with the university — waved hostage posters and Israeli flags.

“I was so excited to study here, because I was looking forward to having a discourse, to having constructive dialogue about many things, including the Middle East,” Columbia student Dana Cwaigrach said.

“So I’m here to remind Columbia University and mostly my fellow classmates, the people who I’ve been in school with for the past two years who are now protesting in these encampments inside the university: We want peace. We want a ceasefire. But in order for a ceasefire to be achieved, we need to let the hostages go.”

The encampment initially sprang up while President Minouche Shafik was in Washington, D.C., testifying before Congress on antisemitism. Within 30 hours later, university officially called the police, who arrested more than 100 protesters on campus.

While some Jewish groups and Republican lawmakers, including U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, have called on the university to take action against campus unrest, Shafik has faced a deluge of criticism by many students and faculty for bringing in riot gear onto campus for the first time in decades.

On Thursday, Columbia students filed a civil rights complaint through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, demanding an investigation into the university’s treatment of Palestinian students, including the use of police.