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Pro-Palestinian protests sweep US universities, target financial links with Israel

The Israel-Hamas war has gone on for nearly seven months with no end in sight, devastating Gaza and killing more than 34,000 Palestinians. Now, students at prestigious US universities have demanded their schools to condemn Israel's assault and stop accepting investments that benefit Israel.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Published on: April 24, 2024 17:30 IST
US universities, pro-Palestinian protests, Israel Hamas war
Image Source : REUTERS A pro-Palestinian encampment outside the Columbia University.

Washington: The arrest of 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Columbia last week has sparked a wave of similar protests across several American colleges and universities as the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the besieged Gaza Strip continues, leading to a debate on where to draw the line between allowing free speech while maintaining free and inclusive campuses. The Columbia University has cancelled in-person classes and around 130 students were at the New York University and 45 at Yale, while the gates to Harvard Yard were also closed.

An encampment set up by students at New York University attracted hundreds of protesters as of Monday, prompting the university authorities to call the police after the scene became disorderly. The university said it learned of reports of "intimidating chants and several antisemitic incidents". Pro-Palestinian students have demanded their schools condemn Israel's assault in Gaza and divest from companies that sell weapons to Israel.

On the other hand, some Jewish students have said that much of the criticism of Israel has turned into antisemitism and made them feel unsafe. "Antisemitism is never OK. That's not what we stand for and that's why there are so many Jewish comrades that are here with us today," said New York University law student Byul Yoon.

President Minouche Shafik of Columbia University has come under scrutiny from both faculty and students for summoning the police last week to disband a pro-Palestinian encampment. Several Republican US House Representatives from New York have demanded the resignation of Shafik, expressing a lack of confidence in her leadership amid the crisis. Pro-Palestinian encampments have sprouted up at various other institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Emerson College, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Michigan.

Protesters demand schools to end financial links with Israel

Inspired by ongoing protests and the arrests last week of more than 100 students at Columbia University, students from Massachusetts to California are now gathering by the hundreds on campuses, setting up tent camps and pledging to stay put. The students have demanded their schools stop doing business with Israel or any companies that empower the ongoing war in Gaza. 

This movement has reached a new strength after nearly seven months of the war with no end in sight, devastating the coastal enclave, killing more than 34,000 Palestinians - mostly women and children - and creating an acute shortage of essential supplies like food and water for the 2.3 million population there. Despite rising international calls for an immediate ceasefire, Israel has refused to end the war and is now planning an invasion in the Rafah city, where over half the population has taken shelter.

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Image Source : REUTERSPro-Palestinian demonstrators protest outside the Columbia University.

"The university should do something about what we're asking for, about the genocide that's happening in Gaza. They should stop investing in this genocide," said protest leader Mahmoud Khalil from Columbia University, who noted that students at the university have been pushing for divestment from Israel since 2002. The students have asked colleges to stop accepting research money from Israel for projects that aid its military efforts and stop investing in college endowments with managers that profit from Israeli companies.

Student governments at some colleges in recent weeks have passed resolutions calling for an end to investments and academic partnerships with Israel. Such bills were passed by student bodies at Columbia, Harvard Law, Rutgers and American University. Officials at several universities say they want to have a conversation with students and honour their right to protest, but have echoed concerns of rising antisemitism.

Students at Harvard and Yale are now demanding greater transparency in funding, along with their calls for divestment. Transparency was one of the key demands at Emerson College, where 80 students and other supporters occupied a busy courtyard on the downtown Boston campus Tuesday. Students at the University of Michigan have said the school sends over $6 billion to investment managers who profit from Israeli companies or contractors.

Reactions of universities to such demands

Sylvia Burwell, president of American University, rejected a resolution from the undergraduate senate to end investments and partnerships with Israel. “Such actions threaten academic freedom, the respectful free expression of ideas and views, and the values of inclusion and belonging that are central to our community,” Burwell said in a statement.

Burwell cited the university's “longstanding position” against the decades-old Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which critics say veers into antisemitism. Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called it a “pernicious threat” in 2019, saying it fueled bias against Jews on US campuses.

India Tv - US universities, pro-Palestinian protests, Israel Hamas war

Image Source : REUTERSProtesters demonstrate against Israel outside of Hillsborough Community College in Florida.

However, at Yale, where dozens of student protesters were arrested on Monday, President Peter Salovey noted in a message to campus that, after hearing from students, the university's Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility had recommended against divesting from military weapons manufacturers. President Minouche Shafik at Columbia said there should be “serious conversations” about how the university can help in the Middle East, but one group should not dictate terms.

According to an Education Department database, about 100 US colleges have reported gifts or contracts from Israel totalling $375 million over the past two decades. The data tells little about where the money comes from, however, or how it was used. Some students at MIT have published the names of several researchers who accept money from Israel's defence ministry for projects that the students say could help with drone navigation and missile protection.

As demonstrations continue to ripple through campuses nationwide, US House Speaker Mike Johnson is scheduled to visit Columbia University on Wednesday to meet with Jewish students and address the concerning surge of virulent antisemitism on college campuses, according to his office. 

(with inputs from agencies)

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