From Columbia to Paris: Why Students Demand Divestment from Israel






Altaf Moti




In recent weeks, university campuses across the United States have become battlegrounds for a cause that transcends borders and ignites passionate activism: the war in Gaza. Hundreds of students and faculty members have taken to the streets, their voices echoing in protest encampments, demanding justice for Palestinians. But what drives these students to stand up, to risk arrest, and to raise their voices against the backdrop of ivy-covered walls? Our focus here is to explore the motivations behind the student protests and the implications they hold for both the Middle East and the American educational landscape.

The Genesis of Campus Protests

The spark that ignited this wave of demonstrations can be traced back to Israel’s military offensive in Gaza which began in October. As the conflict escalated, so did the urgency felt by students across the US. The 7 October Hamas-led attack on southern Israel triggered a devastating response, resulting in the loss of over 34,000 Palestinian lives, predominantly women and children. Universities, once bastions of intellectual pursuit, transformed into epicenters of activism, their campuses echoing with chants for justice.

The Campus Encampments

The movement found its genesis at Columbia University in New York City, where students erected around 50 tents on the campus’ south lawn. Their message was clear: reclaim this space as a liberated zone, renaming it the “Popular University for Gaza.” But the flame did not stop there. Solidarity spread like wildfire, with encampments sprouting up at more than 30 universities nationwide. These tent cities symbolize resilience, community, and defiance. They are spaces where students gather not only to protest but also to build connections, fostering a sense of purpose beyond the classroom.

The Global Ripple Effect

While the epicenter of these protests remains in the US, the movement is not confined to American soil. Students worldwide have joined the chorus, demonstrating in support of Gaza since the outbreak of the war on October 7. Inspired by the Columbia encampments, universities across the globe are witnessing similar acts of defiance. From France to Canada, from the United Kingdom to Australia, students are raising their voices, demanding justice, and challenging the status quo.

The Label of “Antisemitic Protests”

Critics have labeled these demonstrations as “antisemitic protests.” US President Joe Biden and some American lawmakers have echoed this sentiment. However, the students vehemently reject this characterization. Their cause, they emphasize, is rooted in humanitarian concern, not religious bias. They stand in solidarity with Palestinians, advocating for their rights, dignity and freedom from oppression.

Demands and Divestment

The protesters’ demands are clear and resolute:

1. Divestment from Israel and Profiting Companies: One of the major demands of these protesters is for their respective schools to divest investments from Israel or from companies that are profiting off of Israel’s war in Gaza and Israel’s wider abuses against Palestinians. They argue that these investments perpetuate a cycle of violence and suffering.

2. Cutting Ties with Israeli Academic Institutions: Another demand is for schools to cut ties with Israeli academic institutions, which they say have played a key role in Israel’s occupation of Palestine. For instance, Pfizer College in California recently shut down its study abroad program with the University of Haifa after concluding that the partnership did not align with the college’s core values.

Transparency and Accountability

In terms of divestment, students at these demonstrations have called for their university administrations to divulge their finances and be more transparent about their investments in weapons manufacturers and Israeli companies profiteering from Israel’s occupation and war in Gaza. While available data is limited, some information exists surrounding the investments that schools have in Israel-linked companies.

– Columbia University: Students at Columbia are demanding the university end its investments in businesses linked to Israel, including tech giants Amazon and Google. Google, for instance, has a $1.2 billion cloud-computing contract with Israel’s government. The students have also demanded an end to investments in US defense contractors profiting from Israel’s war such as Lockheed Martin.

– Yale University: Students at Yale are demanding the institution divest from “all weapons manufacturing companies contributing to Israel’s assault on Palestine.” Yale has student exchanges and collaborations with seven Israeli universities whose presidents signed a letter accusing US university students and faculty of supporting terrorism.

– Harvard University: Harvard has programs with three of these Israeli universities, while Columbia has longstanding relations with at least four of them.

University Responses

How have universities responded to these protests? Here are some notable examples:

– Columbia University: The faculty senate is expected to vote on a resolution admonishing the school’s president, Minouche Shafik over several of her decisions. Shafik has faced criticism for authorizing police to shut down student protests on campus.

– University of Southern California (USC): The university canceled its main commencement ceremony next month, citing “new safety measures in place.” Nearly 100 people have been arrested on the campus.

– Emory University: Twenty-eight people were arrested, including 20 Emory community members, during a protest at the school. Troopers deployed pepper balls “to control the unruly crowd” during the protest.

– Brown University: The university identified about 130 students who it alleges violated a school conduct code that forbids encampments on campus. Students found responsible will be disciplined depending on their behavior and other factors, including any prior conduct violations.

– Emerson College: More than 100 people were arrested and four police officers injured during an encampment clearing at the Boston liberal arts college.

– Indiana University: Thirty-three people were detained on campus following encampment protests.

– George Washington University: DC Metropolitan Police were asked to assist in relocating an “unauthorized protest encampment” on campus. The decision came “after multiple instructions made by GWPD to relocate to an alternative demonstration site on campus went unheeded by encampment participants.”

As the sun sets over these encampments, the voices of students rise, echoing through history. They carry the weight of a conflict that spans generations, a conflict that transcends borders and ideologies. Their protests are not mere acts of defiance; they are acts of hope. In the hallowed halls of academia, they write a new chapter—one that speaks of justice, compassion, and unwavering resolve. The war on Gaza may rage on, but these students stand firm, their voices echoing across campuses, demanding change and refusing to be silenced.



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