Young And Angry: Columbia Student Protests Continue To Rattle The Powers That Be

The young have become the conscience-keepers of the world. While the Great Powers continue to play their games and the world moves from one war to another, it is the young who feel the pain and want the bloodletting to halt

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"Gaza Solidarity Encampment" at Columbia University Photo: Getty Images

Campus unrest is sweeping across America’s Ivy League universities. Now, Campus unrest is sweeping across America’s Ivy League universities. Not since the Vietnam War of the 1970s have students gone on protest over a war in a foreign country.  The protests then accelerated US withdrawal from Vietnam. Today’s campus protests from coast to coast coincide with 200 days of Israel’s war on Gaza. The arrest of a protestor in the university of Southern California led to tension and the demand to let him free. Once that was down order the situation eased.  For the past week Columbia university in New York is in focus, but last year it was Harvard, Yale, MIT,  the university of Pennsylvania, and several others that saw massive pro-Palestine demonstrations. Many of today’s campus demonstrations are also in support of their counterparts at Columbia university, where there is a stand-off between students and university authorities. Protesting students are being castigated as anti-Semitic by the establishment.

Demonstrations against atrocities committed on civilians in Gaza is getting entwined with  anti-Israeli and anti-Jew debate in the US. Last week in the land of the free, the University of Southern California canceled 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.

University authorities across the US  are grappling with the complexities of balancing the much vaunted ideals of free speech and students right to  protest, (All guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution) with  the need for safety for all students. Many particularly Jewish students feel unsafe on campuses where protests are on.

The pressure from major donors to withdraw funding of institutions allowing the protests are also on. Robert Kraft, billionaire and former student of Columbia university, who is a major donor is hinting at stopping funding following student action in the campus. ``I am deeply saddened at the virulent hate that continues to grow on campus and throughout our country,” Kraft said in statement through his Foundation to Combat Antisemitism. “I am no longer confident that Columbia can protect its students and staff and I am not comfortable supporting the university until corrective action is taken.”

Earlier other donors including Jon Huntsman decided to stop giving money to the university of Pennsylvania. Billionaire hedge fund founder Leon Cooperman, another Columbia graduate also decided to pull out from providing funds to his alma mater. Kenneth Griffin, Wall street billionaire had halted donations to Harvard since students protests over Israel’s war on Gaza. Bill Ackman, another Harvard funder had wanted the names of student protestors so that none of them got hired and other CEOs.

The pro Palestine protests are against the US administration’s iron clad support for Israel’s war on Gaza following the Hamas attack of October 7 last year. They are demanding an immediate ceasefire to halt the carnage that has resulted in over 36,000 deaths including that of women and children. The Columbia college student council passed a resolution to boycott companies supporting Israel. A referendum on divestment was approved by the student council. This has grown from the movement by  Palestine supporters in the Middle East and other Muslim countries to boycott American multinationals like McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King, Coca Cola, KFC and Pizza Hut for their pro-Israel views.

 The majority of American’s including powerful business magnets as well as  the liberal press are pro-Israel. In public discourse the lines are often blurred, with many confusing criticism of the hard-right wing coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as anti-Jewish. The fact  that in Israel too, there is criticism of the Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies is somehow not acknowledged.

On Sunday the White House issued a statement : "While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous," the statement read. "And echoing the rhetoric of terrorist organisations, especially in the wake of the worst massacre committed against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, is despicable."

Not that there have been no instances of heckling of Jewish students in campuses, but  that is not widespread. Donors are concerned about the safety of Jewish students in these elite campuses.

A week of protests in Columbia had led to arrests of over 100 students when the NYPD was called in to clear the encampments of protesting students. The protesters include fire brand progressive Democrat Ilhan Omar’s daughter, Isra Hirsi, 21, who had earlier  been suspended by the university. Afterward she wrote on X,  that action was taken against her for "standing in solidarity with Palestinians facing a genocide".

Many faculty members have also supported the protestors “Thursday, April 18, 2024 will be remembered as a shameful day in Columbia’s history,” Christopher Brown, a professor in the history department, said to cheers from the crowd.The reference was to police action on the campus.

University authorities have decided to hold on line classes till the final weeks of the Spring semester to avoid disruption of studies.  But this comes with its own problems as students and parents are calling for refunding of the substantial tuition fees by the university authorities. Critics are angry that a group of pro-Palestinian students have held the university authorities to ransom by disrupting routine classes. The university has been criticized for not being able to handle the protests. Some members of Congress have called for the resignation of Columbia’s president Minouche Shafik for failing to quell the protests.

Former President Donald Trump predictably criticized Columbia university’s handling of the protests. He said on  Tuesday that the university made a “grave mistake” in making all classes at its main campus hybrid until the spring semester ends after days of tense demonstrations on campus. `What’s going on with the colleges where they're closing Columbia now? I mean, it's just crazy. Columbia should gain a little strength, a little courage and keep their school open. It's crazy. Because that means the other side wins”.


The tussle between the protesting students and the university seems likely to continue with a midnight deadline set for negotiations expired without an outcome. “We will have to consider alternative options for clearing the West Lawn and restoring calm to campus so that students can complete the term and graduate, ” Columbia university President  Minouche Shafik said. Protesters on their part have decided to continue their demonstration. Young people are well aware that it was the protesting students

The stand-off between the protesters and Colombia University continues. Meanwhile, while the world’s great powers, the movers and shakers of our times, see human suffering and war and support one or the other side in a conflict to further their own strategic interests, it is the young people who have become the conscience keepers of our times. Ordinary people and youngsters across Europe and  America are taking to the streets to stop the carnage in Gaza. Led by  President Joe Biden and America’s Western allies, Israel is being armed to the teeth to carry out indiscriminate targeting of hospitals, residential buildings, and refugee camps in Gaza. Young people call this a genocide. South Africa has taken Israel to the International Court of Justice at The Hague on this charge. Students want the US to stop arming  Israel. Yet for the rest of the world, including Israel’s Arab neighbours, daily death counts have become just more numbers. Every day without a ceasefire means more deaths in Gaza. Spare a thought also for the Israeli hostages still in Hamas captivity. One of the aims of Israel’s military action was to get every hostage released and to eliminate Hamas. Many Hamas foot soldiers have been killed but in the process thousands of innocent men, women and children have also perished. Aid workers are being relentlessly targeted and near famine conditions prevail in Gaza. The Big Boys continue to play their games while ordinary people suffer.


The war in Afghanistan is now a forgotten chapter. Democracy has long fled from Afghanistan, where the Taliban continues to keep women out of public view. Iraq remains a divided country though a regime change was brought about with the ouster of Saddam Hussain. And in Libya, there is no rule of law. A young man in Tunisia set himself ablaze and the fire that was lit gave rise to the Arab Spring. Yet that came to nothing. The Tahrir Square protests helped to overthrow long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, but hope was shortlived. Today another military man posing as a civilian is back at the helm. World leaders who hailed the Egyptian revolution are today doing business with Abdel Fath el-Sisi.


Women in Iran who took on the powerful Mullahs after the torture and killing of Mahsa Amini in September 2022, struggled valiantly against the regime, but were ruthlessly subdued. Everywhere it is the young, whether man or woman who have raised the banner of revolt against dictators. Yet Iran is now a forgotten story. Myanmar, Ukraine, and now Israel and Palestine, the world moves from one war to the next.