House Speaker set to visit school Wednesday

Columbia threatens to remove anti-Israel encampment as protests roil universities

Deadline extended after progress in talks with activists, who demand school rescind threat to bring in National Guard; classes canceled at Cal campus as protesters occupy building

Students gather at an anti-Israel encampment at Columbia University, New York, April 23, 2024. (Cecilia Sanchez/AFPTV/AFP)

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik called Tuesday for an encampment of pro-Palestinian protesters set up at the school’s upper Manhattan campus to be removed, setting and then reportedly extending a deadline for student organizers and representatives of the Ivy League school to reach an agreement on ending the protest.

The move by Shafik came as she has become entangled in a bruising battle between activists angered by Israel’s war on the Hamas terror group in Gaza and Jewish students and faculty who say the demonstrations include antisemitic harassment and calls for violence against Jews.

Students at a growing number of United States colleges have gathered in protest encampments with a unified demand of their schools: Stop doing business with Israel — or any companies that empower its ongoing war in Gaza, joining a decades-old campaign against Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians that pro-Israel groups say is tantamount to calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

The university initially set a deadline of midnight Tuesday for the tent encampment to be removed, but as of Wednesday morning the protesters were still in place.

The Columbia Spectator student newspaper reported early Wednesday that the school said in a statement it had decided to extend the deadline by 48 hours after progress had been made in talks with activist leaders.

Protesters had agreed to remove some tents, restrict access to the protest zone to students, comply with fire safety codes and had “taken steps to make the encampment welcome to all and have prohibited discriminatory or harassing language,” the paper reported, quoting a school spokesperson.

Earlier, the local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine said activists had walked away from negotiations after school administrators threatened to send in both New York City police and National Guard troops to remove the tents.

“Without assurances of good faith bargaining and protections for nonviolent protestors against police and military violence, we will not be returning to the table,” read a statement posted on social media.

In a letter addressed to “fellow members of the Columbia community,” hours earlier, Shafik said that she “fully support[s] the importance of free speech, respect the right to demonstrate, and recognize that many of the protestors have gathered peacefully.”

A man walks past Israeli and US flags alongside portraits of Israelis taken hostage by the Palestinian terror group Hamas, in front of the anti-Israel encampment at Columbia University in New York on April 23, 2024. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

“However, the encampment raises serious safety concerns, disrupts campus life, and has created a tense and at times hostile environment for many members of our community. It is essential that we move forward with a plan to dismantle it,” she added.

According to Shafik, negotiations have been going on for several days. If the talks fail, she wrote “we will have to consider alternative options for clearing the [encampment] and restoring calm to campus so that students can complete the term and graduate.”

Students move a tent inside Columbia University on April 24, 2024 in New York City. (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images/AFP)

Ahead of the midnight deadline, some protesters voluntarily packed up their tents and moved to another part of campus, but returned to the main encampment after the deadline passed, the Spectator student newspaper reported.

The heightened tension arrived the night before US House Speaker Mike Johnson’s trip to Columbia to visit with Jewish students and address antisemitism on college campuses.

Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protesters gather outside of Columbia University in New York on April 23, 2024. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

Inspired by ongoing protests and angered over the arrests last week of more than 100 students at Columbia University, students from Massachusetts to California are now gathering by the hundreds on campuses, setting up tent camps and pledging to stay put until their demands are met.

“We want to be visible,” said Columbia protest leader Mahmoud Khalil, who noted that students at the university have been pushing for divestment from Israel since 2002. “The university should do something about what we’re asking for, about the genocide that’s happening in Gaza. They should stop investing in this genocide.”

Police officers walk outside Columbia University on April 23, 2024 in New York City. (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images/AFP)

Across the country, protestors at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt started using furniture, tents, chains and zip ties to block the building’s entrances Monday evening, and an unknown number of students had occupied a second campus building Tuesday.

“We are not afraid of you!” the protestors chanted before officers in riot gear pushed into them at the building’s entrance, video showed. Student Peyton McKinzie said she was walking on campus Monday when she saw police grabbing one woman by the hair, and another student having their head bandaged for an injury.

“I think a lot of students are in shock about it,” she told The Associated Press.

Three students have been arrested, according to a statement from Cal Poly Humboldt, which shut down the campus until Wednesday.

The upwelling of demonstrations has left universities struggling to balance campus safety with free speech rights.

Critics of the protests, including prominent Republican members of the US Congress, have stepped up accusations of antisemitism and harassment by at least some protesters. Civil rights advocates, including the ACLU, have raised free speech concerns over the arrests.

A pro-Israel demonstrator stands in the anti-Israel encampment on the campus of Columbia University in New York City on April 23, 2024. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

There have been heated exchanges of words and insults between anti-Israel and pro-Israel demonstrators, particularly in the public streets around Columbia, leading congressional Republicans on Tuesday to demand that US President Joe Biden do more to protect Jewish students.

Several campus protesters Reuters spoke to attributed the off-campus incidents to rogue provocateurs who are trying to hijack the protests’ message.

“There are no universities left in Gaza. So we chose to reclaim our university for the people of Palestine,” said Soph Askanase, a Jewish Columbia student who was arrested and suspended for protesting. “Antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism, in particular racism against Arabs and Palestinians, are all cut from the same cloth.”

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik testifies during a US House Education Committee hearing about antisemitism on college campuses, on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 17, 2024. (Drew Angerer/AFP)

The Israel-Hamas war erupted when 3,000 terrorists poured across the border with Israel on October 7 in an unprecedented Hamas-led massacre that resulted in the deaths of 1,200 people, mostly civilians, while 253 were kidnapped to Gaza.

The ensuing Israeli offensive has killed over 34,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. This figure cannot be independently verified and includes over 13,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed since the beginning of the war. The IDF says 261 of its soldiers have been killed in the fighting.

Protesters want university endowments to divest from Israeli interests and the US to end or at least condition Israeli military aid on improving the plight of Palestinians.

Outside the Brooklyn home of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, some Jewish demonstrators said they were taking the second night of the weeklong feast of Passover, a holiday feast when families gather and celebrate the biblical account of the Israelites’ freedom from Egyptian slavery, to reaffirm their faith and distance themselves from the Israeli government’s war strategy.

“Stop arming Israel,” “Stop funding genocide” and “Let Gaza live,” the crowd of some 2,000 chanted.

“I don’t see what Israel is doing as self-defense. I see incredible, absolutely unbelievable human rights violations,” said Katherine Stern, 62, of Woodstock, New York, who gave up her family Seder 120 miles (190 kilometers) away to attend the Brooklyn protest.

Police officers detain people as anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian protesters block the street near the home of US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the Brooklyn borough of New York, on April 23, 2024. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

Organizers staged music and songs from Jewish and other cultures, giving prominence to Canadian author Naomi Klein, a peace activist who drew on her Jewish roots to argue against Zionism, which she called a “false idol.”

“We want freedom from the project that connects genocide in our name,” Klein said to cheers. “We seek to migrate Judaism from an ethnostate that wants Jews to be perennially afraid… or that we go running to its fortress, or at least keep sending them the weapons and the donations.”

The protest reached a standoff on Tuesday when New York police began to arrest people over disorderly conduct, restraining those who refused to move with zip ties. At least 100 people were seen being arrested, The New York Times reported.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations criticized the use of police force to stifle dissent, saying it undermined academic freedom.

“So does defaming and endangering Jewish, Muslim and Palestinian… students based on suspiciously inflammatory remarks that a few unidentified, masked individuals have made outside of campus,” Afaf Nasher, executive director of CAIR in New York, said in a statement.

Other students blamed universities for failing to protect their right to protest or stand up for human rights.

“As a Palestinian student, I too did not feel safe for the past six months, and that was as a direct result of Columbia’s one-sided statements and inaction,” said Khalil, a Palestinian student at Columbia.

Students at the University of California, Berkeley — a school well known for its student activism during the 1960s — set up tents in solidarity with protesters at other schools.

Milton Zerman, 25, a second-year student at Berkeley’s law school, who is from Los Angeles, said Jewish and Israeli students have suffered from hateful harassment.

“When you’re an Israeli student on this campus, you feel like you have a target on your back, you feel unsafe and it’s no wonder students from Israel are so hesitant to come here,” Zerman said.

A pro-Palestinian protester holds a stethoscope as they face NYPD officers during a protest against Israel on the campus of New York University (NYU) in New York on April 22, 2024. (Alex Kent/AFP)

New York police arrested more than 120 protesters at New York University on Monday and more than 100 at Columbia University last week. Columbia canceled in-person classes at its Upper Manhattan campus on Monday in a bid to defuse tensions.

Motivated by the Columbia protests, students at the University of Michigan were camping out on a campus plaza Tuesday demanding an end to financial investments with Israel. They say the school sends more than $6 billion to investment managers who profit from Israeli companies or contractors. They also cited investments in companies that produce drones or warplanes used in Israel, and in surveillance products used at checkpoints into Gaza.

University of Michigan officials said that they have no direct investments with Israeli companies and that indirect investments made through funds amount to a fraction of 1% of the university’s $18 billion endowment. The school rejected calls for divestment, citing a nearly 20-year-old policy “that shields the university’s investments from political pressures.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Isa Liggans, of Odenton, Md., front left, takes part in Muslim prayer with others Monday, April 22, 2024, at an encampment of tents at MIT, in Cambridge, Mass. Students at MIT set up the encampment of tents on campus to protest what they said was MIT’s failure to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and to cut ties to Israel’s military. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

At the University of Minnesota campus in St. Paul, police cleared an encampment after the school asked them to take action, citing violations of university policy and trespassing law.

Transparency was one of the key demands at Emerson College, where 80 students and other supporters occupied a busy courtyard on the downtown Boston campus Tuesday.

Twelve tents sporting slogans including “Free Gaza” or “No US $ For Israel” lined the entrance to the courtyard, with sleeping bags and pillows peeking out through the zippered doors.

Students sat cross-legged on the brick paving stones typing away on final papers and reading for exams. The semester ends in a couple of weeks.

“I would love to go home and have a shower,” said Owen Buxton, a film major, “but I will not leave until we reach our demands or I am dragged out by police.”

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