Student Protests In Major Universities Shaking US Amid Israel's Raging War On Gaza

Students protesting in American universities are asking the US government to rethink its policy towards Israel

Photo: AP
The Unrest Is Spreading Across USA’s Campuses: A pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Texas in Austin on April 24, 2024 Photo: AP

Hundreds of police officers stormed into Columbia University on Tuesday night in a renewed attempt to quell pro-Palestinian protests that have swept college campuses in the United States. Several students have been arrested amid allegations that the NYPD took “heavy-handed steps” to disperse and dismantle pro-Palestinian protests.

The police cleared 30 to 40 people from inside Columbia University's Hamilton Hall late Tuesday after protesters occupied the administration building in New York earlier in the day. Law enforcement will be there through May 17, the end of the university's commencement events.

These are some of the new developments in the story after it was sent for printing.

“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”

—Ernest Hemingway

A wave of pro-Palestine demonstrations is sweeping across American campuses, with protests spreading to European colleges in Paris, Geneva, Berlin and London. Not since the Vietnam War, and the student movements of 1968 and the early 1970s, has a war in a foreign land whipped up so much anger in the US. Will the student unrest, which is now morphing into a similar larger movement, force the US administration to change track? It is too early to say if the anti-war movement can garner widespread public support. In Vietnam, the US was directly involved and body bags were coming in every day on military flights from Saigon. A majority of Americans wanted the troops back home. The students and the general public were on the same page on Vietnam. It is not the same now as a majority of Americans support Israel.

The US is not fighting the Gaza war with boots on the ground. Yet, as Israel’s main backer and an iron-clad supporter of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, students believe the US is as responsible for the “genocide’’ in Gaza. President Joe Biden is arming, funding and providing political and diplomatic support to Israel in its almost genocidal attack on the people of Gaza as collective punishment for the Hamas strike inside Israel on October 7 that shocked the world.

The epicentre of the current student unrest is New York’s prestigious Columbia University, where students have set up a pro-Palestinian protest encampment and are clashing with university authorities, which called in the New York Police Department (NYPD) to clear the ground. But they came back the next day in larger numbers to continue the protests. At the moment, talks are on between university authorities and Columbia’s protesters. University President Minouche Shafik is under fire from students for calling in the police and also for being too soft. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson wants her sacked. He visited the campus to express solidarity with the Jewish students. He was booed when he denounced the protests as “mob rule” and said that the “virus of anti-Semitism” was spreading in the campus.

Following the unrest, Columbia authorities have announced online classes to ensure that teaching is not affected. However, there has been a backlash with some parents demanding that the hefty tuition fees paid by students for in-person classes are given back. Luckily, the academic session ended on April 29.

Since last week’s protests in Columbia, campuses from coast to coast are taking the cue. At Atlanta’s Emory University, protestors and law enforcers clashed with each other, resulting in the arrest of a clutch of students and two professors. Student protests have also been reported in Brown University, Yale University, University of California, Berkeley, Emerson College, Indiana University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, George Washington University, University of Texas at Austin, University of Minnesota as well as in the City University of New York and many others. Harvard students are putting up tents on the college grounds. Around 100 protesters from the University of Southern California were detained by the police. The university had earlier cancelled student Asna Tabassum’s graduation speech for her pro-Palestine social media posts. The university said there is “no free-speech entitlement” to speak at the commencement. So far, over 500 anti-war protesters, both students and teachers, are being held by the police across the US. Will the protests gather steam or fizzle?

Jewish Intervention

The campus protests have angered several powerful Jewish billionaires who want to stop funding some of the Ivy League universities where protests are taking place. Billionaire Robert Kraft, a former student of Columbia University, has hinted that he would stop funding his university. “I am deeply saddened at the virulent hate that continues to grow on campuses throughout our country,” Kraft said. “I am no longer confident that Columbia University can protect its students and staff, and I am not comfortable supporting the University until corrective action is taken.” Others like Jon Huntsman and Leon Cooperman have stopped funding campuses where protests are on. Bill Ackman, another Harvard funder, went a step further and wanted the names of student protestors so that none of them got hired by him and other CEOs of top companies.

University authorities across the US are grappling with the complexities of trying to balance students’ right to freely express themselves as well as protest, as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, with the need to maintain peace and security for all students on the campus. Some Jewish students are uncomfortable and feel unsafe on campuses where protests are on. But there are many Jewish students who have joined the anti-Israel demonstrations.

In the US, the Israel-Palestine narrative is often couched in the language of anti-Semitism. American Jews have strong connections to Israel. The pro-Jewish lobby in the US is extremely powerful and can influence politics, business and the media. Support for Palestine is often linked to anti-Semitism by large sections in the country. But in public discourse, the lines are often blurred, with many confusing criticism of the hard right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu as anti-Jewish. But the fact that in Israel too there is criticism of Netanyahu’s policies is somehow forgotten. Republican politicians are critical of the campus protests and dub the protesters as anti-Semitic.

Netanyahu has condemned the campus protests and said in a video message: “Anti-Semitism on campuses in the US is reminiscent of what happened in German universities in the 1930s. It’s unconscionable.” Greg Abbot, Texas’ Republican Governor, echoed Netanyahu when he said: “These protesters belong in jail… students joining in hate-filled, anti-Semitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled.” To which Ben Jamal, the UK-based director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: “This tactic of conflating anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the State of Israel is a very familiar one, and is used globally by Israel to silence those who are advocating for Palestinian rights.”


Not that some students have not used hate speech. Khymani James, a protest leader from Columbia University, has been banned for saying in a social media post, which was widely circulated, that “Zionists don’t deserve to live’’. He continued: “The same way we’re very comfortable accepting that Nazis don’t deserve to live, fascists don’t deserve to live, racists don’t deserve to live, Zionists, they shouldn’t live in this world.” He later apologised and said: “I misspoke at the heat of the moment.’’ But for the majority of students, it is not so much hatred for Israel as compassion for the suffering civilians of Gaza.


The demand of the students is for the Biden Administration to stop providing lethal arms to Israel that has helped the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to kill over 34,000 civilians, one-fourth of them being women and children. They want an immediate ceasefire to end the bloodletting and allow the much-needed food and medical aid to get through to Gaza. Students are urging their universities to break links with academic institutions of Israel, and companies with close connections with Tel Aviv. This move is inspired by Palestine supporters in the Middle East and other Muslim countries who have called for the boycott of American companies such as McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King, Coca-Cola, KFC and Pizza Hut for their pro-Israeli views.


For the major powers, the figures of the dead and wounded remain just numbers, as they look to their own strategic interests. But students and young people across the world feel the pain of war and are horrified by the images of death and destruction in Gaza. Student bodies have galvanised into action to raise their voices against injustice. By doing so, young people have become the conscience keepers of the world, asking their governments to rethink.

(This appeared in the print as 'Occupy Ivy League')