Columbia University cancels in-person classes after days of anti-war protests

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protests over the war in Gaza have been staged at universities across the US

Protests continue at Columbia University after pro-Palestine encampment arrests

Protests continue at Columbia University after pro-Palestine encampment arrests
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Columbia University cancelled in-person classes for Monday after days of protests over the Israel-Gaza war at the prestigious institution in New York led to condemnation from the White House.

More than 100 student protesters – part of the Columbia University Apartheid Divest coalition – are camping out at the school in New York City's Upper West Side.

They are calling for the university to divest from businesses connected to Israel and from academic programmes it has with schools in the country.

“It's been just so beautiful to see how it's grown,” Columbia graduate student Linnea Norton told The National.

“The first couple of days, it was really rough because it was also raining and a tough time.

"And so it's just a beautiful to see everybody out in the sun.”

Protesters set up more than a dozen tents and occupied places throughout the campus. There was a first-aid tent and food tables for demonstrators.

A sign gave details of events that were occurring on Monday, including Jewish seder and Muslim prayer times.

Ms Norton said that she had been arrested and suspended for her involvement in the first camp last week, and that the school is trying to evict her from graduate student housing.

All classes were held online after university president Nemat Shafik condemned what she called anti-Semitic language and intimidating and harassing behaviour on the campus. The school later announced its Morningside campus would offer hybrid learning for the rest of the spring term, which ends in a few weeks.

“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. “We need a reset.”

More than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested last Thursday after she authorised New York police to clear out an overnight camp set up by students demonstrating against the university's financial connections to Israel.

Shortly after a campus lawn was cleared by the NYPD, supporters occupied an adjacent lawn, setting up a new camp that has had round-the-clock inhabitants since Thursday.

On Monday morning, campus police were checking IDs by each gate into the university, while NYPD officers stood on pavements and the roadway next to Columbia.

A small group of pro-Palestine protesters circled near a gate where the student encampment was viewable, chanting: “Free, free Palestine.”

Joan Glickman, a Columbia past student who travelled from outside the city, told The National that she was at the school to “support the students inside of the universities of Columbia and Barnard who have taken a strong stand against genocide”.

“How can I not support that?”

About a dozen pro-Israel demonstrators were also outside the gates.

Large pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian protests over the war in Gaza have been staged at universities across the US since October 7, when the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7 killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies.

Protesters claim Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, where more than 34,100 people have been killed, according to the enclave's Health Ministry.

At Yale, a group of pro-Palestinian students have gone on hunger strike over university's Israel arms investments and a protest encampment was cleared on Monday, resulting in a few dozen arrests.

Protesters have set up an encampment at Boston's Emerson College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

And another protest at New York University saw officers arrest dozens of people shortly after nightfall.

Harvard University closed public access to the Harvard Yard lawn in an effort to fend off protests.

Universities across the US have reported incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

President Joe Biden on Sunday said in a statement his administration has put the full force of the federal government behind protecting the Jewish community.

“Even in recent days, we’ve seen harassment and calls for violence against Jews,” Mr Biden said.

“This blatant anti-Semitism is reprehensible and dangerous – and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country.”

Elie Buechler, an Orthodox rabbi at Columbia University and its affiliate Barnard College, said campus and city police could not guarantee the safety of Jewish students, local media reported.

“It deeply pains me to say that I would strongly recommend you return home as soon as possible and remain home until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved,” Mr Buechler said in a WhatsApp message sent to hundreds of students before the start of Passover at the weekend.

But the largest Jewish organisation at the university issued a statement after Mr Buechler's message, saying it does not believe students should leave the campus.

“During times of crisis, Columbia/Barnard Hillel is always here for Jewish students,” Brian Cohen said in a statement issued by the organisation.

“To the students who remain on campus for Passover, we look forward to celebrating with you in the days ahead.”

Ms Shafik's decision to call in the city police on the student encampment last week has been widely criticised.

It received condemnation from the UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

“I remind Columbia to respect academic freedoms and students' fundamental rights,” Clement Voule said in a post on X at the weekend.

“I think it's outrageous how the university has handled it,” Ms Glickman told The National. “The students were peaceful.

“People in Gaza walked to the wall many years ago in a peaceful protest and they were murdered.

"And here you are totally peaceful on the university campus and they brought in the New York City Police Department – what a waste of resources.”

Also on Monday, students at New York University's downtown campus set up an encampment at a plaza on Monday, which was cleared later by an administrative request to the NYPD. More than 130 students and staff were arrested.

Ms Norton said of the activity across the country: “It's been really heartening, of course, to see all of these other students starting encampments and being in solidarity with us, but also, of course, ultimately with Gaza.”

But she worried the new movement was more about “academic freedom and freedom of expression”.

“I hope that this solidarity and solidarity with the other students at other campuses really shows the administration that we mean business and we're not stopping until there's a permanent and lasting ceasefire in Gaza, and full divestment,” Ms Norton said.

Updated: May 01, 2024, 4:54 PM