US campus protests on Israel-Hamas war raise divestment pressure

Brown University becomes centrepiece for ending financial ties to Israel, after three Palestinian college students shot in Vermont

November 29, 2023
Sayles Hall at Brown University
Source: iStock

Pressure on US colleges over the Israel-Hamas conflict is shifting into calls for divestment, led by a confrontation in which hundreds of Brown University students shouted down their president as she condemned the shooting of three Palestinian students in the state of Vermont.

The Palestinian students – attending Brown, Haverford College and Trinity College – were shot over the weekend near the University of Vermont campus by a lone gunman as they walked along a street wearing Palestinian scarves and speaking in Arabic. All were expected to survive, although the student from Brown, Hisham Awartani, was hit in the spine, leaving in doubt his ability to walk again.

Brown’s president, Christina Paxson, addressed a vigil for the victims at her Ivy League campus, telling a gathering of several hundred students that she lamented her institution’s inability to stop such tragedies. “We are powerless to do everything we’d like to do,” she said.

That touched off loud protests in which students booed and shouted “shame on you” and highlighted their demands – overwhelmingly supported by participants in a 2019 campus referendum – that the university divest from companies associated with the Israeli military. Professor Paxson left the area without finishing her prepared remarks.

Students at several other US campuses already had been reiterating similar demands in the aftermath of the Hamas attack in early October that killed more than 1,200 people in Israel and Israel’s retaliatory killing of more than 10,000 Palestinians in the Israeli-controlled Gaza Strip.

Students from the Rhode Island School of Design, adjacent to Brown, joined a pro-Palestinian march to the Providence headquarters of the military-focused conglomerate Textron. In New York, students and faculty from New York University, Columbia University and City University of New York gathered outside the headquarters of the JPMorgan Chase bank, accusing it and other corporations of helping to supply the Israeli military.

Coming more than six weeks after the original Hamas attack in Israel, the protests stand among a series of events suggesting that the political turmoil over the conflict remains potent for US higher education. Other confrontations – coming from both sides of the Israel-Hamas divide – include institutions removing faculty over controversial comments and actions; legal filings by students and faculty; and ongoing protest letters, donor threats, and acts of partisan pressure.

Economic and political power in the US remains most clearly on the side of Israel. Republicans leading the Education Committee in the House of Representatives called the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to appear next week in Washington for a congressional hearing on antisemitism on their campuses. The three leaders agreed to come voluntarily, while Columbia’s president declined, citing a scheduling conflict.

And the Anti-Defamation League said it conducted a survey with Hillel International that found that 73 per cent of Jewish college students and 44 per cent of non-Jewish students in the US have experienced or witnessed antisemitism since the start of the current academic year. That is up from 2021, the ADL said, when a previous survey found that 32 per cent of Jewish students had experienced antisemitism directed at them, and 31 per cent of Jewish students had witnessed antisemitic activity on campus not directed at them.

The ADL makes a distinction between anti-Jewish sentiments and opposition to the Israeli government, which is not counted as antisemitism, a spokesman for the group said. “Upon analysis, however, the correlation between those things is quite high,” the spokesman said.

Among the more recent confrontations that US institutions have been having with their faculty, Darren Klugman, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, was suspended by the Hopkins medical centre after making social media posts that included calling Palestinians “blood-thirsty morally depraved animals” and “people that rape and murder civilians”.

And Benjamin Neel, a professor of medicine at NYU and former director of its Perlmutter Cancer Center, was fired after reposting social media content that criticised those “who supported the violence toward and the death of Israelis”. Professor Neel has filed a lawsuit over the matter against both the university and the hospital.

In other legal battles, a senior at Columbia, Yusuf Hafez, filed a suit against the right-wing group Accuracy in Media over his inclusion in the organisation’s campaign of using a truck-mounted mobile billboard to depict him and many other students as antisemitic. And students at the University of Florida have filed a suit against their institution over its banning of their pro-Palestinian organisation.

At Yale University, more than 100 faculty and staff members signed a letter protesting against the truck. Hundreds of faculty and staff at Penn, and hundreds of alumni of the University of Southern California, wrote letters demanding better campus protections for pro-Palestinian speech.

University of Arizona students protested in support of two professors placed on paid administrative leave after a video showed a class discussion in which they expressed understanding for Palestinian resistance. Arizona State University cancelled an event with Rashida Tlaib, the first female Palestinian-American member of the US Congress.

Yet there have been some signs of compromise. Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, home to the university’s largest faculty, published but then apparently pulled back – at least temporarily – a policy that would limit student rights to protest. And after the shooting in Vermont, Brown withdrew its request for the prosecution of 20 Jewish students arrested earlier in the month at University Hall during a sit-in protest of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

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