Columbia, NYU, Yale on the boil over Israel’s war on Gaza: What’s going on?

Classes will be held virtually on Monday amid mounting tension between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli protesters, days after more than 100 students were arrested.

Top United States university campuses, including those of Yale, New York University (NYU) and Columbia University, are on edge amid arrests of pro-Palestinian demonstrators on Monday and mounting tension between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protesters over the war in Gaza.

On Sunday, a prominent rabbi linked to New York’s Columbia University and its affiliated Barnard College, Elie Buechler, urged Jewish students at the institution to stay home due to “extreme anti-Semitism” on the campus.

Columbia’s President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik announced in an official statement that all classes will be held virtually on Monday and that faculty and staff who can work remotely should do so. Monday marks Passover, a major Jewish holiday.

“Over the past days, there have been too many examples of intimidating and harassing behavior on our campus. Anti-Semitic language, like any other language that is used to hurt and frighten people, is unacceptable and appropriate action will be taken,” Shafik said in a statement.

On Monday, those tensions extended to midtown Manhattan, where the NYU campus is based, and to the Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut.

What happened at NYU and Yale on Monday?

From Yale, 60 people, including at least 47 student protesters, were arrested for trespassing after they blocked traffic around campus, according to a statement by Yale University President Peter Salovey on Monday.

Protesters were also arrested from NYU. On Monday night, NYU released a statement saying, “The police urged those on the plaza to leave peacefully, but ultimately made a number of arrests.”

NYU’s student-run newspaper Washington Square News published an update at 9:30pm local time (01:00 GMT) saying “all visible protesters have either dispersed or been arrested,” adding that the arrested protesters were kept in zip ties and the tents in the encampment were completely removed.

The NYPD moved in on an encampment in NYU’s Gould Plaza, preventing additional people from joining the protest. Several NYU students and faculty members were arrested by hundreds of policemen on charges of trespassing, Helga Tawil-Souri, an associate professor of Middle East and Islamic studies at NYU told Al Jazeera as she stood outside a police station, awaiting the release of several students and faculty members. “I don’t know how we trespass on our own campus.”

Tawil-Souri said the protest was peaceful. “I’ve been at NYU for almost 20 years and I’ve seen a number of protests happening. I don’t think I have ever seen a crackdown of this nature.”

Earlier, on April 18, New York police arrested more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters from Columbia on charges of trespassing. Several students were also suspended from Columbia and Barnard – which sits across Broadway from Columbia’s main campus in Morningside Heights – including Isra Hirsi, the daughter of Ilhan Omar, a Democrat in the United States House of Representatives.

What are the students protesting about?

A range of student groups are behind the protests. At Columbia, the so-called “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” has been organised by the student-led coalition, Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

The protesters are calling for Columbia to divest from corporations that profit from Israel’s war on Gaza. The CUAD website lists additional demands, calling for more financial transparency about Columbia’s investments, and the severing of academic ties and collaborations with Israeli universities and programmes. The groups are also calling for a complete ceasefire in Gaza.

In NYU, the encampment was organised by the NYU Palestine Solidarity Coalition, a newly formed on-campus group, comprising students and faculty from Students for Justice in Palestine, Faculty for Justice in Palestine, Law Students for Justice in Palestine, Shut it Down NYU, Jews Against Zionism and more than 20 other on-campus groups.

The NYU Alumni for Palestine website details a list of demands in an open letter to NYU’s leadership which was signed by 2,410 alumni. These include the condemnation of the killing of Palestinian civilians, the protection of students and faculty who are speaking up for Palestine against harassment, and divestment from “companies and institutions active in the Israeli occupation and genocide in Palestine”.

Additionally, the alumni letter calls on NYU leadership to shut down NYU’s Tel Aviv campus which “bars Palestinian students, faculty and affiliates from accessing academic opportunities at the site because of their ethnicity,” contradicting “NYU’s principles of academic freedom and egalitarianism”. The letter calls on leadership to re-evaluate the involvement of NYU, particularly its Tandon School of Engineering, in arms research and development, and to cease collaboration with arms manufacturers.

The encampment at Yale has been continuing since Friday, with protesters demanding that Yale divest from military weapons manufacturers.

At least 34,000 people have died in Gaza as a result of Israel’s unrelenting bombardment of the beleaguered enclave and its ground assault. Restrictions on the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza have also pushed the enclave to the brink of starvation.

What are their critics accusing them of – and what happened on Sunday?

Some protesters have been accused of anti-Semitism and harassment of Jewish students at the university.

On Sunday, those allegations gathered further steam after footage on social media appeared to show pro-Palestine activists outside the Columbia campus telling pro-Israel students to “go back to Poland”. One activist said that October 7 “will happen not one more time, not five more times, not 10 more times, not 100 more times, not 1,000 more times, but 10,000 times”, referring to the Hamas attacks on southern Israel that killed 1,139 people. Another activist can be heard saying that October 7 will “be every day for you”.

A chapter of an international Orthodox Jewish movement, Chabad at Columbia University, released a statement saying that protesters also told Jewish students, “You have no culture”, “All you do is colonise” and to “Go back to Europe”.

Yet another video shows a student protester at a gathering inside Columbia saying: “Let it be known that it was the Al-Aqsa Flood that put the global Intifada back on the table again.”

Hamas had called its October 7 attacks on Israel “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood”.

In a statement on Sunday, CUAD distanced itself from what it said were “media distractions focusing on inflammatory individuals who do not represent us”.

“At universities across the nation, our movement is united in valuing every human life,” the statement said.

CUAD has insisted that its members “have been misidentified by a politically motivated mob”.

In the statement, the group said: “We have been doxxed in the press, arrested by the NYPD [New York Police Department], and locked out of our homes by the university. We have knowingly put ourselves in danger because we can no longer be complicit in Columbia funnelling our tuition dollars and grant funding into companies that profit from death.”

Meanwhile, student demonstrators at other US Universities, including the University of California, Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, Emerson College and Tufts have also established protest encampments.

What did Columbia head Shafik say to Congress and why are there calls for her resignation again?

Days before the latest escalation in tensions on campus, leaders of Columbia University, including Shafik, appeared before a committee in the US Congress to face questions about the alleged anti-Semitism on campus.

Before that, Shafik had pledged on April 17 to take firm action to combat anti-Semitism. She said Columbia had already suspended 15 students and had six on disciplinary probation.

“These are more disciplinary actions that have been taken probably in the last decade at Columbia. And I promise you, from the messages I’m hearing from students, they are getting the message that violations of our policies will have consequences,” Shafik said.

Yet pro-Israel students and faculty have criticised the Columbia administration for not doing enough to make them feel safe – and have called for Shafik’s resignation. Pro-Palestinian protesters too, have accused Columbia of stifling their freedom of expression.

In November, Columbia suspended Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. In March, the New York Civil Liberties Union said it would sue Columbia over the suspensions.

In January, the university banned a group of individuals from campus after they were accused of being involved in spraying pro-Palestinian protesters with a foul-smelling chemical.

On Monday, the protest in Columbia continued as hundreds of people, including students and faculty, also condemned the arrest and suspension of students. Criticising Shafik’s decision to call riot police to disperse students earlier, the protesters demanded that Shafik resign.

Shafik also faces pressure to resign from the other side. Columbia Jewish Alumni Association made an X post on Monday, which said: “CJAA demands that Shafik ENFORCE RULES, CALL IN NYPD, RESTORE ORDER… or RESIGN.”

What have President Biden and others said?

In a statement on Sunday to commemorate Passover, US President Joe Biden condemned what he described as “blatant” anti-Semitism at Columbia University, calling it “reprehensible and dangerous” and saying “it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country”.

This was after the White House released a separate statement calling out “physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community”.

Condemnation of the Sunday protest also came from New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York State Governor Kathy Hochul.

UN Special Rapporteur for Palestine Francesca Albanese wrote an X post on Monday highlighting the arrests made by Columbia University and the alleged targeting of students who showed solidarity with Palestine in European universities.

She wrote: “What lessons are Western universities and governments imparting to their young citizens and students when they attack the very values and rights that are said to be foundational to Western societies?”

Source: Al Jazeera