Columbia suspends in-person classes as arrests made and Jewish students report threats. What’s behind the protests?

All eyes are on New York’s Columbia University as the school contends with pro-Palestinian protests and rising concerns about antisemitism.

The university’s president moved classes online on Monday due to tensions, while one rabbi called for Jewish students to leave campus over fears of antisemitic violence and harassment on Monday, the first day of Passover.

For the past week, hundreds of pro-Palestine student activists have demanded that Columbia divest its financial ties with Israel due to the country’s war in Gaza, launching street demonstrations and building a massive encampment on the college campus, leading the school to call in the New York Police Department (NYPD).

Here’s everything you need to know about the protests at Columbia, and other major US universities.

Pro-Palestine and pro-Israel demonstrators protest outside of Columbia University on Monday as tensions rise on the college campus in New York (AFP via Getty Images)
Pro-Palestine and pro-Israel demonstrators protest outside of Columbia University on Monday as tensions rise on the college campus in New York (AFP via Getty Images)

What is happening at Columbia University?

While students at Columbia have been protesting against the Israel-Hamas war since it began on 7 October last year, pro-Palestinian demonstrations ramped up last week.

Last Wednesday, Columbia university president Minouche Shafik and other school officials testified before Congress about the pro-Palestine protests and reports of antisemitism on the school’s campus.

Ms Shafik, in an effort to show the school’s commitment to battling antisemitism, told lawmakers that 15 students had been suspended and one visiting professor was fired for their comments about the Israel-Hamas war.

Minnesota Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar’s daughter, Isra Hirsi, was among the students arrested.

Isra Hirsi was arrested for her participation in a pro-Palestine protest at Columbia University (@peoplesdispatch/X)
Isra Hirsi was arrested for her participation in a pro-Palestine protest at Columbia University (@peoplesdispatch/X)

Last Thursday, pro-Palestine student protesters erected a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on the university’s iconic south lawn in upper Manhattan, demanding that Columbia divest from companies with ties to Israel.

On 7 October 2023, Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking another 200 hostages. In response, Israel launched an offensive on Gaza. These attacks have killed more than 33,400 people, according to the Palestinian health ministry, and United Nations says the territory is on the brink of a “man-made famine”.

Ms Shafik called in the NYPD with officers arresting at least 100 students last Thursday. It was reportedly the first time officers have been called to campus for a protest since 1996, when they responded to a student occupation of an administrative building.

NYPD chief John Chell later said that the student arrests “were peaceful...and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner,” according to Columbia Spectator, the college student newspaper. Officers also disassembled the encampment on Thursday but students began rebuilding it the following day.

During a weekend of more protests, some Jewish students reported antisemitic harassment and even physical assaults.

Pro-Palestinian protesters have established an encampment, pictured above on Sunday, on the Columbia University campus (Anadolu via Getty Images)
Pro-Palestinian protesters have established an encampment, pictured above on Sunday, on the Columbia University campus (Anadolu via Getty Images)

One Jewish student claimed that protesters told him to “go back to Poland” after he arrived at their protest with Israeli and American flags.

Another student said that she was hit in the eye with a Palestinian flag amid a chaotic protest, resulting in a hospital visit.

Ms Shafik announced on Monday that Columbia college classes would be held virtually. It is unclear how long online classes will last.

What have people said about the protests?

Columbia University officials have called for students to de-escalate tensions and “rebuild ties”.

Lawmakers on the national stage have also weighed in. “The Squad”, a group of progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives, responded to the protests after Representative Omar’s daughter was detained as part of the Columbia arrests.

Ms Hirsi said that police kept her zip-tied for around seven hours and she spent eight hours in custody. She told Teen Vogue that she was left “homeless and hungry” after Columbia suspended her, blocking her from her dorm and the college dining hall.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another Squad member, criticised her arrest.

“How does a student with no disciplinary record suddenly get to a suspension less than 24 hours after a nonviolent protest?” Ms Ocasio-Cortez wrote on X. Another member, Representative Rashida Tlaib, called the arrests “appalling.”

The Columbia University chapter of the American Association of University Professors also criticised Ms Shafik for calling in the NYPD on student protesters last week.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the Administration’s suspension of students engaged in peaceful protest and their arrest by the New York City Police Department,” the group said in a statement on Friday.

Several faculty members staged a walkout on Monday to protest the previous week’s arrests, according to Columbia Law Professor Bassam Khawaja.

Meanwhile, a rabbi with Columbia University said Jewish students are not safe on campus. Rabbi Elie Buechler, who is affiliated with Columbia/Barnard Hillel, sent a message to 300 Jewish students warning them to leave campus ahead of Passover on Monday.

“The events of the last few days, especially last night, have made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety in the face of extreme antisemitism and anarchy,” Rabbi Buechler wrote.

However Columbia/Barnard Hillel, the school’s centre for Jewish life, said that it does not believe students need to leave campus. But the organisation did say school officials and police must “do more to ensure the safety” of Jewish students.

President Joe Biden’s administration also condemned alleged acts of antisemitism on Columbia’s campus.

“While every American has the right to peaceful protect, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly Antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous – they have absolutely no place on any college campus, or anywhere in the United States of America,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates said in a statement on Sunday.

What is happening at other colleges?

Riot police responded to a similar protest encampment at Yale University on Monday, arresting about 47 students.

Around 100 Pro-Palestinian student protestors have been camped out on the Connecticut school’s Beinecke Plaza for three days.

Yale president Peter Salovey sent students an email on Sunday warning the school “will pursue disciplinary actions according to its policies” during the ongoing demonstrations.

“Many of the students participating in the protests, including those conducting counterprotests, have done so peacefully. However, I am aware of reports of egregious behavior, such as intimidation and harassment, pushing those in crowds, removal of the plaza flag, and other harmful acts,” he wrote.

“Yale does not tolerate actions, including remarks, that threaten, harass, or intimidate members of the university’s Jewish, Muslim, and other communities.”

Pro-Palestine encampments were set up at several Boston-area schools on Monday, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Tufts University and Emerson University.

An encampment was also reported on the University of Michigan campus on Monday afternoon.

Have the protests moved beyond colleges?

Before the Columbia protests ramped up, Google fired 28 employees who had protested and demanded the company divest from Israel.

Last Tuesday, employees staged a demonstration in the company’s offices against their cloud contract with the Israeli government. The company announced the workers were dismissed after the protests, claiming they physically hindered the work of others and displayed “unacceptable behaviour”.

Columbia’s president also said non-students may be co-opting protests.

“These tensions have been exploited and amplified by individuals who are not affiliated with Columbia who have come to campus to pursue their own agendas,” Ms Shafik said in a Monday morning statement. “We need a reset.”