Anti-Israel protests more prevalent at elite US universities, study finds

Data suggests that Gaza war protests and encampments have not been seen as much at less exclusive US colleges with more lower-income students

Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activists take part in a protest to mark the 76th anniversary of the Nakba in the Queens borough of New York on May 15, 2024. (Leonardo Munoz / Leonardo Munoz / AFP)
Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activists take part in a protest to mark the 76th anniversary of the Nakba in the Queens borough of New York on May 15, 2024. (Leonardo Munoz / Leonardo Munoz / AFP)

A study published Friday suggests that pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protests and encampments are more prevalent in elite and exclusive universities than in  institutions that cater to lower-income students.

The study by Washington Monthly set out to discover whether the protests against the war in Gaza that swept across US college campuses in the last seven months were exclusive to elite colleges.

Using data from Harvard’s Crowd Counting Consortium, which tracks protests across the US, and news reports of protests and encampments at colleges, Washington Monthly discovered that in the majority of cases, less exclusive colleges that had a greater number of students with the Pell Grant for moderate- and low-income students did not have protests on their campuses.

The data was presented in scatter plots, but the universities in the graphs were not labeled. The graphs only showed whether or not colleges had protests or encampments on their campuses but did not specify what percentage of students participated in them.

The results showed that barring a few outliers, the majority of colleges that had protests or encampments were colleges where less than 40% of students were Pell Grant receivers, while colleges where 40%-60% were Pell Grant students had more protests than encampments.

Meanwhile, the data showed that for the most part, the less exclusive colleges with more Pell Grant students did not have either protests or encampments on their campuses in the last seven months.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters walk from Columbia University down to Hunter College, May 6, 2024, in New York City. (SPENCER PLATT / Getty Images via AFP)

Among private universities, the data clearly showed that the vast majority of encampments were set up at universities with the highest tuitions and the lowest percentages of Pell Grant students.

Some private colleges with moderate tuition rates where up to 60% of students were Pell Grant receivers did have protests, but the colleges with lower tuition and more Pell students didn’t have either encampments or demonstrations.

The trend was far less obvious among public colleges, where encampments and protests were spread more widely across the spectrum than in private institutions. Still, those with the lowest tuitions and the most Pell Grant students had neither encampments nor protests.

Speculating on the explanation for the results, Washington Monthly noted that students from lower-income families could have more pressing responsibilities like jobs or relatives to take care of.

The publication also suggested that there could be a political explanation as students in more conservative colleges could feel under more pressure not to protest.

Anti-Israel protests began in many universities worldwide on October 7 when Israel declared war on Hamas following the terrorist organization’s unprecedented attack on Israel, in which some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and 252 were taken hostage.

Demonstrators from the pro-Palestinian encampment on Columbia’s campus show a banner as they barricade themselves inside Hamilton Hall, an academic building which has been occupied in past student movements, and name it after a Palestinian child allegedly killed in Gaza, April 30, 2024 in New York City. (Alex Kent/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP)

The protests were thrust into the spotlight in April when protesters at Columbia University in New York erected an encampment on campus demanding that the institution divest from Israel. Police were sent in to dismantle the tents and arrested over 100 demonstrators, but the encampment was back a couple of days later.

Inspired by Columbia, students in universities across the US and in Europe set up their own encampments, some of which were later taken down voluntarily after the protesters came to terms with their universities.

The protest encampments were soon followed by demonstrators occupying buildings in some colleges and being cleared out by police.

However, despite the apparent prominence of the protests, a Generation Lab poll published by Axios earlier this month found that only a small minority (8%) of students across the US had participated in the demonstrations, and 81% supported holding them accountable for physical damage they wrought or rules they broke.

In fact, the situation in the Middle East was rated only ninth most important to students, after issues that more directly affected them like healthcare, educational funding, and gun control.

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