U.S. student encampments demand: Divest from Israeli apartheid!

April 22 – The global struggle in solidarity with the Palestinians against the horrific U.S./Israeli genocide since October 7 has become a major focus on U.S. college campuses. Prestigious Columbia University, located in Harlem, New York, has become ground zero in the campaign to divest funds supporting the apartheid Israeli regime.  

The students at this Ivy League university established a Gaza Solidarity Encampment at 4 a.m. on April 17, Palestinian Prisoners Day, on the main lawn to demand Columbia divest funds from Israel. They pitched over 60 tents with an ample supply of food, water and other necessities. Unionized graduate student workers, some of whom have been arrested, are in solidarity with the encampment

April 17 was the same day that Columbia President Minouche Shafik testified before Congress in Washington, D.C., to answer questions over handling of demonstrations organized by Students Voices for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. Her administration ordered New York Police Department surveillance against pro-Palestine students, who had been slandered and doxxed for being “antisemitic” for their anti-Israel stances.  

Like college presidents at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, Shafik was also grilled by right-wing politicians on why she allowed “antisemitic” protests to take place. 

As it turns out, Shafik is not just any run-of-the-mill university president. Shafik, who is of Egyptian ancestry, is a former World Bank vice president, former International Monetary Fund [IMF] deputy managing director, former British Department for International Development permanent secretary and former Bank of England deputy governor, and is presently a 2022-appointed Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Board member.  

With these banking and corporate ties, Shafik was chosen by the Columbia Board of Trustees to defend the university’s financial ties to Israel. Columbia’s total endowment is $14 billion. 

Columbia students, faculty in solidarity with encampment for Gaza. New York, April 22, 2024.
Credit: Bassam Khawaja

Once the encampment was set up and thousands of other activists, along with faculty and campus unions, descended on the campus to show their solidarity, Shafik authorized the NYPD, equipped with riot gear, to physically dismantle this encampment and to carry out mass arrests of around 100 protesters. For a short time, activists supporting the encampment outside the campus blocked police buses carrying the arrestees to the jail at 1 Police Plaza.

These police arrests, however, did not deter other student activists from occupying the west lawn of Columbia and setting up a new encampment April 18, which is still going strong as of April 22. These students have vowed on their Columbia Encampment Telegram thread that they will remain “steadfast until the demand of FULL DIVESTMENT is met.”  

It was just announced on April 21 that all classes at Columbia will be conducted virtually and there will be no rehearsals for graduation due to the school being shut down, which the activists say is a victory for their cause.

Weaponizing the right to free speech

The defiant resistance exhibited by Columbia University students against the Zionist college administration and the police spread like wildfire over social media both here and worldwide, including on the Resistance News Network, the main voice for the Palestinian resistance.  

This action inspired students to set up their own Gaza solidarity encampments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Charlotte; Washington University in St. Louis; Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; University of Maryland in College Park; Cal Poly Humboldt and UC Berkeley in California; The New School and New York University in New York City; Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee; University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; Tufts University and Emerson College in Boston; and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. 

Nine students from University of Minnesota freed after their arrests at Gaza solidarity encampment, April 23, 2024.
Credit: UMN SDS

In response to Yale University students being arrested April 21 in New Haven, Connecticut, for setting up an encampment demanding “no tuition for genocide,” hundreds of supporters have taken to the streets blocking intersections in solidarity with the arrestees.  

The encampment at MIT on Kresge Lawn has been named “Scientists Against Genocide Encampment.” MIT has received over $11 million in research funding from Israel’s Defense Ministry since 2015.

More such solidarity actions are sure to spring up in the coming days and weeks.    

Student walkouts, inspired by the Columbia struggle, have taken place at Boston University, Harvard University and elsewhere, also with their own demands that their universities divest from Israel.  

This struggle over the right to free speech is nothing new for college campuses, which have come under the intense scrutiny by right-wing forces that defend a terrorist regime now isolated and ostracized in every corner of the world. When it comes to defending Palestinian liberation, these attacks have reached a fever pitch.  

Whenever pro-Palestine sentiments have been the center of protests, the right wing has used the false narrative of “antisemitism” to attempt to silence the protests, but they are losing this battle on ideological grounds.   

Crying antisemitism is a desperate cover for the Zionists’ white supremacist, settler-colonial ideology, which is denounced by many anti-Zionist Jewish people who say “not in our name.” Many progressive Jewish students are participating in these encampments.

The current campus actions confront the right wing’s fascistic ideology, which has been the cornerstone of anti-Arab genocide, ethnic cleansing and displacement of the Palestinian people from their homeland for almost 76 years.  

The racist ideology that the U.S. and Western imperialism has used for decades to defend Israel’s “right to exist” and its “right to defend itself” has been the basis for arming Israel’s occupying forces with the most sophisticated weaponry to oppress the Palestinians and threaten their allies, such as Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Israel could not exist for one day without the financial and military aid supplied by the U.S. and other Western powers.

As the Biden administration continues to sign bills giving away more billions of dollars in arms to Israel, the White House issued an April 20 statement condemning the Columbia University protests as being “blatantly antisemitic, unconscionable and dangerous.”  

That statement called October 7 “the worst massacre committed against the Jewish people since the Holocaust.” There was not one word about the more than 34,000 Palestinian civilians, mainly children, who have been slaughtered over the past six months by the U.S.-backed Israel regime.  

As pro-Palestine students have rightfully raised, your right to free speech depends on which side you are on. Asna Tabassum, a Muslim student who was named valedictorian at the University of Southern California, was banned from making a speech during her graduation for her pro-Palestinian views. There is a struggle to win her the right to give her speech and not silence her.   

The heroic students at Columbia and elsewhere have shown that no matter the verbal abuse and physical repression hurled their way, the deeper will be their resolve to continue their campaigns until the genocide stops once and for all, and Palestinians inevitably kick out their colonial oppressors in order to reclaim their land, resources and their freedom. This is what real solidarity looks like.   

The UC Berkeley Divest Coalition stated: “For Palestine, we must fight. For Gaza, we must win. For all of us, and because of the Palestinian resistance, we will win.

Glory to the martyrs, glory to our noble resistance, and glory to the people.” (Resistance News Network, April 23, 2024)

Monica Moorehead

Monica.Moorehead@workers.org

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Monica Moorehead

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