Columbia University, After Vowing To Clear Protesters, Flinches and Extends Talks as Students Vie for Their 1968 Moment

Columbia University, my alma mater, reveres its 1968 student protest movement with oral history archives, anniversary celebrations, and professorships for participants.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Columbia University students at a rally on October 12, 2023 at New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Columbia University, after a night of tense standoffs with pro-Palestinian protesters and a deadline to clear the tents come and gone, flinched, announcing at three this morning that it was extending its negotiations with pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

This comes after Colombia’s president, Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, set a midnight deadline Tuesday night “to reach agreement” with encampment protesters or the university would “move forward with a plan to dismantle it.”

The midnight deadline sparked calls from pro-Palestinian activists to “flood” the campus and led many to believe that the university would call in police or the National Guard to clear the lawn, as they did last Thursday.

“We are making important progress with representatives of the student encampment,” a university spokesperson said in a statement shared with the Sun early Wednesday, adding that protesters had agreed to dismantle a “significant number of tents” and to prohibit “discriminatory or harassing language” in the encampment. Protesters also agreed to limit the encampment only to Columbia students.

“In light of this constructive dialogue, the university will continue conversations for the next 48 hours,” a university spokesperson said.

Columbia has become in the last week the epicenter of the anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian student protest movement. Tents fill the lawn in front of Butler Library with signs saying, “Welcome to the People’s University of Palestine” and “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.”

More than 100 protesters were arrested at Columbia last Thursday, but they rebuilt the encampment and continue to occupy the green. Classes went remote Monday in response to the melee and reports of targeted harassment of Jewish students. The university says it will do hybrid learning through the end of the semester. The campus gates are patrolled by police and IDs are checked before entry. 

Faculty staged a walkout Monday in support of the protestors. The university is struggling with how to foster free speech and open debate while also ensuring safety on campus. Are these protestors a real threat to Jewish students or are these coddled Gen Z-ers from middle- and upper-class suburbs trying desperately not to miss their generation’s 1968 moment?

“We are student activists at Columbia calling for divestment from genocide,” a statement from Colombia’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine says. “We follow in the footsteps of the civil rights and anti-war movements in our quest for liberation.”

Columbia University, my alma mater, reveres its 1968 student protest movement with oral history archives, anniversary celebrations, and professorships for participants. One of my graduate school professors liked to wax poetic about his participation in the sit-ins. Protest calls to action this week included side-by-side photographs of the current student encampment and the one in 1968. Many young, idealistic Ivy Leaguers want a purpose or to “change the world.” Now, they have Gaza.

Columbia is not alone. Police arrested more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters who had set up an encampment in NYU’s Gould Plaza Monday night. At Yale, police arrested about 50 protestors Monday taking part in an encampment at Beinecke Plaza. Harvard closed its gates to non-students. The University of Minnesota, UC Berkeley, MIT, Emerson, and others are also contending with so-called Gaza Solidarity Encampments.

The question facing school administrators — not just at Columbia — is when do the protests cross a line to intimidation or violence. Videos shared on social media over the weekend of the protests at Columbia show pro-Palestinian activists yelling at Jewish students to “Go back to Poland” and equating any Jew with a “Zionist,” their biggest enemy.

“The 7th of October is going to be every day for you!” a keffiyeh-clad protestor yells on Broadway outside the main Columbia gates.

Video of pro-Palestinian protesters at Yale forming a chain to block a Jewish student from entering an area of campus went viral on X. A Jewish student at Yale wrote in the Free Press that she was “stabbed in the eye” by pro-Palestinian protesters. A rabbi at Columbia’s Orthodox Union urged students in an email to leave campus “as soon as possible” for their safety.

“I am deeply concerned by what is happening at Columbia University,” Education Secretary Cardona posted to X Tuesday. “Antisemitic hate on college campuses is unacceptable.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression said in a statement that the “violence thus far appears to have been isolated,” but reiterated that the First Amendment does not protect “true threats and incitement to violence, as defined by the Supreme Court.”

“Colleges and universities must ensure students can engage in peaceful protest on campus. But we remind students that engaging in civil disobedience may result in punishment, including arrest,” the FIRE statement says.

Mayor Adams blamed “outside agitators” Tuesday for the melee at NYU and Columbia. He’s not wrong, at least in part.

The main organizing group of pro-Palestinian protests across the city since October 7 is Within Our Lifetime Palestine. I joined the group’s Telegram messaging app channel several months ago when I first covered these protests. I usually get one or two messages a day calling for people to show up to protest somewhere in the city. Most of the protests are called “Flood ____,” an obvious reference to Hamas’s name for the October 7 terrorist attack: Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.

Since last week, the messages have ramped up. I now get several a day to “Flood Columbia for Gaza” or asking for people to show up at NYU or the New School for protests. If there is any doubt about the group’s objectives — if “Flood” wasn’t enough — WOL Palestine’s website doesn’t mince words.

“We are anti-zionists. Zionism is a settler-colonial white supremacist ideology,” WOL Palestine’s website says. “We defend the right of Palestinians as colonized people to resist the zionist occupation by any means necessary.”

The student protesters at Columbia’s campus seem less sure of their cause. The Gaza Solidarity Encampment guidelines posted on a sign at Columbia includes a land acknowledgment and there is a tent with a “Trans people 4 Palestine” sign. Keffiyehs and masks are the fashion statement du jour, either to hide their identities or because it’s a fad, much like the protests likely are for many participants.

The Sun spoke with a member of Columbia’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, one the main organizers of the encampment, late last year. She requested anonymity. This student kept repeating the Students for Justice in Palestine talking point, “We want Palestinian liberation,” but she couldn’t articulate what that meant.

When asked whether she or her group advocates for a two-state solution, she said, “No, a one state solution where Palestinians and other people can live in peace.”

She said she wants Palestinians to control the land where Israel is. “What happens to the Israelis?” I asked.

After a ten second pause, she said, “Um, nothing, like nothing.”

“I think it is justified that you can fight back and resist against your colonial oppressors,” she said. She spoke about reading Franz Fanon in one of her required classes.

Students for Justice in Palestine’s website articulates the same amorphous oppressor versus oppressed worldview. “We believe the struggle for a free Palestine is also the struggle for Black liberation, gender and sexual freedom, and a livable and sustainable planet,” their website says. 

This is not a dismissal of the real threats and intimidation Jews face on college campuses. Many of these student protestors, though, are likely as ill-informed as this one. They are protesting for vague social justice notions like opposing “genocide.” They think hanging out in a tent and singing protest songs will make them the John Lewis or Tom Hayden of their generation.

Columbia’s own history of the 1968 protests says that the university’s decision then to arrest student protestors “dogged Columbia for years.” Ms. Shafik likely doesn’t want a repeat, in which the arrested students become martyrs.

The New York Sun

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