Thursday, May 23, 2024

Israel Gaza conflict: Leading US colleges face growing campus crisis over protests

HomeWARIsrael Gaza conflict: Leading US colleges face growing campus crisis over protests

A massive wave of disruptive protests over the deadly Israeli military operation in Gaza has swept across America’s college campuses, sparking chaos, violence and mass arrests as university leaders desperately try to calm the crisis.

From the elite halls of Columbia and Yale to the progressive bastions of Berkeley and MIT, student activists have erected “occupied zones” to denounce Israel’s actions in Gaza. They are demanding their schools cut financial ties with companies that aid the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

The charged demonstrations have given rise to shocking scenes rarely witnessed in the insular ivory tower. Protesters have clashed with police in brutal melees, with dozens arrested. Allegations of antisemitism and hate speech have flown in both directions. And amid the pandemonium, Jewish students say they have been subjected to intimidation and vile rhetoric.

The crisis exploded at Columbia last week after encampments of student protesters calling for boycotts of Israel took over parts of the Manhattan campus. Witnesses say the crowds featured radicals unaffiliated with Columbia who hurled antisemitic slurs and chanted support for Hamas, the militant group whose October 7 attack on Israeli civilians sparked the latest Gaza conflict.

More than 1,200 Israelis and foreigners were killed in that strike, Israel says, while over 34,000 Palestinians — most of them women and children — have so far lost their lives in Israel’s retaliatory invasion, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

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As protests raged at Columbia, large contingents of NYPD officers swarmed the campus perimeter. Dozens of demonstrators were arrested and hauled away in handcuffs, visuals sure to become a shocking touchstone in the escalating crisis.

Citing the specter of “intimidating and harassing behavior” by “outside agitators,” Columbia President Minouche Shafik made the controversial decision to abruptly shift all classes online, catching students and faculty by surprise.

The head of Columbia’s pro-Palestinian group, Students for Justice in Palestine, insisted the protesters had “firmly rejected any form of hate or bigotry.” But videos surfaced appearing to capture activist calls for Israel’s violent destruction.

Rep. Kathy Manning, who visited the protests, said she directly witnessed chants about eliminating the Jewish state. And a campus rabbi felt compelled to warn hundreds of Jewish Columbians to stay away from the school until the situation “dramatically improves,” a stunning message at an elite university in a diverse world city.

Shafik’s attempt to defuse tensions seems to have backfired spectacularly. She has come under furious pressure to resign from Rep. Elise Stefanik, the Republican congresswoman who accused the president of “Failure to stop students calling for terrorism against Jews.”

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Leading Democrats have also torched Shafik, with heavyweights like New Jersey’s Josh Gottheimer threatening economic retaliation if Jewish students do not feel “welcome and safe.” And the top Republican on the House education committee suggested the university’s federal funding could be imperiled.

But Shafik has her defenders too. The school’s own Knight First Amendment Institute blasted the “urgent” police crackdown as likely unconstitutional, arguing there was no evidence of a “clear and present danger to persons, property or university operations” that would justify bringing in outside law enforcement under campus rules.

The convulsions have replicated at other prestigious campuses, often with similarly shocking results. At Yale in Connecticut, nearly 50 student activists were arrested over the weekend after “encampments” grew to involve hundreds of protesters.

In New York City, police dismantled a Palestinian solidarity protest outside NYU’s business school, while campuses in Boston, Ann Arbor and the San Francisco Bay Area have faced similar chaos.

The protests have galvanized hardliners on both extremes of the debate over Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. More liberal members of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the House’s lone Palestinian-American member, have backed the campus boycott movement.

Conservatives and centrist Democrats, meanwhile, have rushed to condemn the protests while reaffirming their support for Israel, creating the charged backdrop of a fierce national political proxy war over Gaza.

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President Biden appeared to validate concerns on both sides by condemning the “antisemitic protests” while also criticizing those failing to “understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

Pro-Palestinian groups have seized on the Gaza crisis to escalate their rhetoric and tactics nationwide. They have repeatedly blockaded major roads and even airports in cities like Chicago and Seattle with human chains, restricting travel at key chokepoints.

In New York, die-hard activists briefly shut down the iconic Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges before being dispersed by police.

While most demonstrations have remained peaceful, the confrontations have at times turned ugly. And there are fears the situation could spiral further should the deadly Israeli operation, whose stated goal is crippling Hamas and recovering hostages, drag on without resolution.

Rocked by an unprecedented challenge, university presidents now face a daunting leadership test as they seek to protect free speech and inquiry while preventing antisemitic bile and physical endangerment of students.

All eyes are on figures like Columbia’s Shafik to determine if they can navigate these treacherous political waters without radicalizing or retraumatizing their own communities in the process.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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