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Tensions running high at East Coast campuses over protests around Israel-Hamas war

BOSTON (AP) — Administrators of MIT suspended a number of students Thursday from the prestigious technology school after Israel-Hamas war protesters took over a prominent building for much of the day and then some refused to leave by a set deadline.

It was far from the only disruption at college campuses in recent days over the war. Seven people were arrested at a demonstration on Friday at Brandeis University, which this week banned a pro-Palestinian student group, while nearly two dozen students were arrested over a protest at Brown University. On Friday, Columbia University announced it was suspending Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace as official student groups through the end of the term. It accused both of repeatedly violating campus policies including an unauthorized event Thursday.

The range of responses to these protests show that college administrators are struggling to address protests that have gotten heated and turned once-quiet spaces on campus into places where some students say they don't feel safe.

At MIT, Sally Kornbluth, the school’s president, sent a letter to all students outlining the “boundaries of protest on campus” during a pro-Palestinian demonstration that she described as “disruptive” and “loud.” The protest in the building called Lobby 7 lasted much of the day and attracted counterprotesters.

When some protesters refused to leave after a deadline was set, the school said it would suspend them. But after hearing concerns including visa issues, Kornbluth said they would be “suspended from non-academic campus activities.” It was unclear how many students would be affected and when that would happen.

“After exhausting all other avenues for de-escalating the situation, we informed all protesters that they must leave the lobby area within a set time, or they would be subject to suspension,” Kornbluth wrote. “Many chose to leave, and I appreciate their cooperation. Some did not.”

People on both sides criticized the response.

“Our love and fight for the people of Gaza will not be swayed by the administration’s fear tactics,” MIT-wide Coalition for Palestine organizer Mohamed Mohamed said in a statement. “While the administration may possess the means to send letters and emails to all students, staff, faculty, and workers, we possess something even more potent — a just cause and the collective voices of thousands in the MIT community who remain committed to advocating for an end to the genocide and an end to the occupation.”

At the same time, the MIT Israel Alliance criticized the university for not academically suspending any of the protesters, whom they accused of preventing students from attending classes.

“Instead of dispersing the mob or de-escalating the situation by rerouting all students from Lobby 7, Jewish students specifically were warned not to enter MIT’s front entrance due to a risk to their physical safety,” the group said in a statement. “The onus to protect Jewish students should not be on the students themselves.”

The latest war began with an attack on Oct. 7 by Hamas militants who targeted towns, farming communities and a music festival near the Gaza border, killing at least 1,200 people. Israel has responded with weeks of attacks in Gaza, which have killed more than 11,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry — most of them Palestinian civilians.

On Wednesday, Brandeis University President Ron Liebowitz put out a statement to the school community saying it no longer recognized the Brandeis chapter of the National Students for Justice in Palestine. It made the move over what the university said was the group's support of Hamas and its “its call for the violent elimination of Israel and the Jewish people," he wrote.

Brandies was founded in 1948 by the American Jewish community.

The group, according to The Boston Globe, was sent a notice Monday that its status as an official student group had been rescinded.

“All students, faculty, and staff are welcome here, and encouraged to participate in the free exchange of ideas,” Liebowitz wrote. “To promote such free exchange, we must not and do not condone hate, the incitement of violence, or threats against or harassment of anyone, be they Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Israeli, Palestinian, or any other religion or ethnicity.”

The Brandeis chapter of the National Students for Justice in Palestine could not be reached for comment. But the Globe reported that the group, in an October statement after Hamas attacked Israel, said it was a “moral imperative to recognize and support the resilience of the people who have endured 75 years of oppression, displacement, and the denial of their basic rights.” That included “armed resistance."

On Wednesday in Providence, Rhode Island, Brown University's Department of Public Safety arrested 20 students who refused to leave a campus building during a sit-in. The students, with the group BrownU Jews for Ceasefire Now, posted on X that they were calling on the university to promote an “immediate ceasefire and a lasting peace” as well as the divestment of its endowment from companies that “enable war crimes in Gaza.”

In a statement, the university said it repeatedly warned students they were trespassing before arresting them.

“At Brown, we recognize our responsibility for being an educational institution that manages challenging discussions in a way that remains true to the fundamental principle of freedom of expression while emphasizing the importance of safety for all community members,” Brown said in a statement. “Brown leaders have met with many student groups in recent weeks to listen to and address concerns, and we will continue to do so moving forward."