Columbia protesters defy deadline to leave; university refuses to divest from Israel

As talks collapse, president Minouche Shafik offers investment in Gaza, while urging anti-Israel protesters to disperse voluntarily; some demonstrators warn university ‘will burn’

Columbia University faculty and staff gather on the campus in solidarity with student protesters who are demonstrating against the university's investments in Israel, April 29, 2024, in New York.  (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)
Columbia University faculty and staff gather on the campus in solidarity with student protesters who are demonstrating against the university's investments in Israel, April 29, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

Student demonstrators at Columbia University, the epicenter of anti-Israel protests that have erupted at US colleges, said Monday they would not budge until the school met their demands, defying an ultimatum to disperse or face suspension.

Columbia, which said many Jewish students have left its campus, on Monday demanded that the protesters’ encampment be cleared, and added that it would not divest financial holdings linked to Israel — a key demand of demonstrators.

But student protestors pushed back, vowing to defend their camp on the prestigious institution’s main lawn, despite threats of suspensions and disciplinary action after a 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) deadline.

Pictures shared by the local branch of Students for Justice in Palestine, which despite being suspended has been calling for its supporters to flock to the encampment, showed paper copies of the ultimatum with “Columbia will burn” and “I aint [sic] reading all that Free Palestine” written on them.

Across the United States, police arrested around 275 people on four separate campuses over the weekend, with the White House calling on the growing protests in recent weeks to remain peaceful.

Columbia President Minouche Shafik said the administration was willing to invest in Gaza, in a statement made after administration negotiators failed to come to and agreement with leaders of the protests.

Protests against the Gaza war, with its high death toll among Palestinian civilians, have posed a challenge to university administrators trying to balance free speech rights with complaints that the rallies have veered into antisemitism and threats of violence.

Shafik appealed to the protesters to remove their unauthorized encampment which has been up in the West Lawn for more than a week. The demonstrators missed two deadlines to remove the encampment while negotiating with the university on their three demands: divestment from Israel, transparency in Columbia’s finances, and amnesty for students and faculty disciplined for their part in the protests.

The university, Shafik wrote in her statement, was “committed to our four core principles”: keeping all members of the community safe, academic freedom and free speech, respect for opposing views and compliance with protest guidelines, and condemnation of hate.

“Antisemitic language and actions are unacceptable and calls for violence are simply abhorrent,” she wrote after videos taken inside the encampment showed some students chanting “Zionists not allowed here,” “Go back to Poland,” and other students calling for “10,000 October 7ths.”

Shafik went on to say that it was a tragedy that Jewish students had felt the need to leave campus in recent weeks due to the “intolerable” atmosphere. Classes were moved online after many Jewish students left campus, saying they felt unsafe.

Columbia University President Nemat 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)

“To those students and their families, I want to say to you clearly: You are a valued part of the Columbia community. This is your campus too. We are committed to making Columbia safe for everyone, and to ensuring that you feel welcome and valued,” she wrote.

In an attempt to remedy the situation and “balance these principles,” Shafik said that academic leaders had been in talks with protest organizers to try and reach an agreement but that “regretfully,” negotiations had failed.

“The University’s goal for the talks was a collaborative resolution with the protesters that would result in the orderly removal of the encampment from the lawn. The students also were asked to commit going forward to following the university’s rules, including those on the time, place, and manner for demonstrations and events,” she wrote.

Shafik wrote that despite the protesters’ demands, the university would not divest from Israel but that it had offered to compromise with protesters by making “investments in health and education in Gaza, including supporting early childhood development and support for displaced scholars.”

She also offered “a process for students to access a list of Columbia’s direct investment holdings, and to increase the frequency of updates to that list.

A sign sits erected at the pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel demonstration encampment at Columbia University in New York, April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah, File)

Since the encampment and protests have created an “unwelcoming environment” for Jewish students and faculty and a distraction for students who are trying to complete the academic year, Shafik said the protest no longer complied with guidelines. She pledged that they could continue after exams and Commencement “with two day’s notice in authorized locations.”

“We also do not want to deprive thousands of students and their families and friends of a graduation celebration. Please recall that many in this graduating class did not get a celebration when graduating from high school because of the pandemic, and many of them are the first in their families to earn a university degree. We owe it to all of our graduates and their loved ones to honor their achievement,” she wrote, before promising that Commencement would take place and urging the protesters to voluntarily disperse.

While pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests have been held regularly on US campuses since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7 with the terrorist organization’s unprecedented attack on Israel in which 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were murdered and 253 were taken hostage, the demonstrations sparked renewed attention after Columbia protesters set up their encampment earlier this month.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel students gather at an encampment on the Columbia University campus, April 29, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

After the NYPD removed the encampment and arrested more than 100 protesters, demonstrators at other universities around the country and in Europe were inspired and erected their own encampments while the Columbia one was reassembled.

Protest organizers deny accusations of antisemitism, arguing that their actions are aimed at the Israeli government and its prosecution of the conflict in Gaza.

They also claim the more threatening incidents have been engineered by non-student agitators.

One student protest group at Columbia called Saturday for demonstrators to gather on Monday “to protect the encampment.”

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