Columbia cancels in-person classes as demonstrations sprout up on US campuses to protest Israel war

israel palestine campus Columbia
Several hundred students and pro-Palestinian supporters rally at the intersection of Grove and College Streets, in front of Woolsey Hall on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn. April 22, 2024.
Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP

By NICK PERRY and DAVE COLLINS Associated Press

Columbia University canceled in-person classes on Monday and new demonstrations broke out on other U.S. college campuses as tensions continue to grow over Israel’s war in Gaza.

Protesters rallied throughout the weekend at the Ivy League school’s New York City campus, where police last week arrested more than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had set up an encampment.

Since those arrests, pro-Palestinian demonstrators have set up encampments on other campuses around the country, including at the University of Michigan, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University, where several dozen protesters were arrested Monday morning after officials said they defied warnings to leave.

The developments came hours before the Monday evening start of the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Columbia President Minouche Shafik said in a message to the school community Monday that she was “deeply saddened” by what was happening on campus.

“To deescalate the rancor and give us all a chance to consider next steps, I am announcing that all classes will be held virtually on Monday,” Shafik wrote. She said faculty and staff should work remotely, when possible, and that students who don’t live on campus should stay away.

Protests have roiled many college campuses since Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, when militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. In response, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the local health ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between combatants and non-combatants but says at least two-thirds of the dead are children and women.

The demonstrations on U.S. campuses have tested the line between free speech and inclusivity. They’ve also stoked friction, with some Muslim students and their allies calling for schools to condemn the Israeli assault on Gaza and some Jewish students saying they no longer feel supported or safe on campus, with antisemitic sentiment running high.

Prahlad Iyengar, an MIT graduate student studying electrical engineering, was among about two dozen students who set up an encampment of more than a dozen tents on campus Sunday evening to call for a ceasefire and to protest what they describe as MIT’s “complicity in the ongoing genocide in Gaza.”

“MIT has not even called for a ceasefire, and that’s a demand we have for sure,” he said.

Iyengar also said the Cambridge, Massachusetts, school has been sending out confusing rules about protests.

“We’re out here to demonstrate that we reserve the right to protest. It’s an essential part of living on a college campus,” he said, adding that they have received support from both graduate and undergraduate students.

On Sunday, Elie Buechler, a rabbi for the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative at Columbia, sent a WhatsApp message to nearly 300 Jewish students recommending they go home until it’s more safe for them on campus.

Nicholas Baum, a 19-year-old Jewish freshman who lives in a Jewish theological seminary building two blocks from Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, said protesters over the weekend were “calling for Hamas to blow away Tel Aviv and Israel.” He said some of the protesters shouting antisemitic slurs were not students.

“Jews are scared at Columbia. It’s as simple as that. There’s been so much vilification of Zionism, and it has spilled over into the vilification of Judaism,” he said.

The protest encampment sprung up at Columbia on Wednesday, the same day that Shafik faced bruising criticism at a congressional hearing from Republicans who said she hadn’t done enough to fight antisemitism. Two other Ivy League presidents resigned months ago following widely criticized testimony they gave to the same committee.

In her statement Monday, Shafik said the Middle East conflict is terrible and that she understands that many are experiencing deep moral distress.

“But we cannot have one group dictate terms and attempt to disrupt important milestones like graduation to advance their point of view,” Shafik wrote.

Over the coming days, a working group of deans, school administrators and faculty will try to find a resolution to the university crisis, noted Shafik, who didn’t say when in-person classes would resume.

Several students at Columbia and Barnard College said they were suspended for taking part in last week’s protests, including Barnard student Isra Hirsi, the daughter of Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar.