Columbia protesters chant, “No More Money for Israel Crime”

By Bill Simons

Yom Hashoah, Monday, May 6, 2024, was a day of Holocaust remembrance. My destination was Columbia University. As the train headed uptown, I reviewed recent events at Columbia.

The Columbia Daily Spectator, the university’s student newspaper, collaborated with New York Magazine to publish a detailed account of the student protests. Over the years, other student protests have roiled the Columbia campus, notably in 1968 when claims that university policies lent support to the Vietnam War and institutional racism spurred students to seize control of several buildings, leading to their removal by a forceful police response.

On October 4, 2023, Columbia University inaugurated a new president, Minouche Shafik, an economist and a Muslim. The advent of her presidency coincided with events in the Middle East that would throw the Columbia campus into turmoil. On October 7, Gaza-based Hamas terrorists slaughtered approximately 1,200 people in southern Israel and seized around 250 hostages. Israel then launched a retaliatory offensive against Hamas. Large anti-Israel protests and smaller pro-Israel counter-protests soon followed at Columbia, accompanied by rising campus antisemitism and Islamophobia. 

As Shafik prepared to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce on April 17 concerning unrest on campus, anti-Israel students erected an encampment, marked by tents and provisions, on Columbia’s South Lawn. A few months before, the presidents of Harvard, Claudine Gay, and the University of Pennsylvania, Liz Magill, resigned, under duress, from their positions for failing to make clear that calls for genocide against Jews were not protected by free speech. Shafik, however, took a hard line against protesters encamped on Columbia’s South Lawn. New York City Police were called into the campus to physically remove the squatters, who were then suspended. 

Unrest at Columbia, however, did not end with the removal of the first encampment and student suspensions. Campus antisemitism and Islamophobia intensified, and the boundaries between free speech and intolerance blurred. Columbia emerged as progenitor and epicenter of unrest on campuses across the United States. 
By April 18, hundreds of protesters formed a second encampment on another portion of Columbia’s South Lawn. Grandstanding politicians from the left and the right came to Columbia, issuing bromides that further escalated tensions. Protesters refused to dismantle the encampment unless Columbia pledged to disinvest from Israeli enterprises and to sever ties with Israeli universities. Protest leaders and the Columbia administration entered into negotiations, but those talks faltered. Some Jewish students supported the encampments. Many more Jewish students reported feeling threatened by antisemitic barbs aimed at them. 

A third encampment rose on April 30, followed by protesters invading and taking over Hamilton Hall. NYPD officers returned to campus, retaking Hamilton Hall and clearing the encampments. The Columbia Daily Spectator reported the assertion of a student identified as Jillian that echoed venerable tropes about a powerful international Jewish cabal: “The violence student protesters experienced at the hands of the police is connected to the violence Israel is carrying out. We know that police are sent from the United States to be trained in Israel by IDF soldiers...” Unlike the tragic Ohio National Guard fatal shootings of four Kent State protesters on May 4, 1970, no serious injuries were reported as a result of police action at Columbia.

Formal disciplinary measures against those who had not heeded the warning to leave Hamilton Hall and the encampments ensued. Columbia cancelled commencement, although individual schools and department would hold ceremonies. 

On May 6, I deboarded the train at 116th Street and Broadway in the comfortable Morningside Heights section of Manhattan and walked over to Columbia University’s main entrance, where a NYPD officer informed me that the gated passage was limited to those with official identification. Nonetheless, I would spend a few hours just outside the substantial walls of Columbia. I took a slow walk around the rectangular parameters of the formidable campus – Broadway, West 120th, Amsterdam and West 114th. During the course of my observations, I was able to engage protesters, non-protesting students, visitors, NYPD officers, private security guards and journalists in conversations of varying length and significance. A young, uniformed Apex Security guard was particularly friendly after I informed him that at his age I had worked as campus security at Boston College and Simmons College. He informed me that, at the height of the protests, NYPD and private security were first brought to the university to supplement Columbia’s own Department of Public Safety, but that the campus was now quiet.

I spent most of my time at Columbia perched outside the back entrance on Amsterdam Avenue a few feet from 20-25 protesters who marched in a continuous loop as they chanted. Some carried signs and wore masks. As required by law, an appropriate distance between protesters allowed pedestrians to walk through the demonstration without obstacle or harassment. An Australian tourist took photos, telling me that it was good that students were not apathetic. A kippah-wearing protester flashed a benign smile and a peace sign in my direction, which I reflexively returned. Collectively, the police and media outnumbered the protesters. Most pedestrians, primarily students, gave no evident reaction to the protest. Accompanied by drumbeat, protester chants – synchronized, repetitive and clear – included: “We Will Not Stop,” “Free, Free Palestine,” “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” “No More Money for Israel Crime,” “Don’t Suspend Our Students,” “Get the Cops Off Campus” and “Intifada! Intifada! Long live the intifada!”

Friendly, forthcoming and polite, a marcher – “Free Puerto Rico” emblazoned on his shirt – acknowledged that he was not a Columbia student. To my query as to whether he supported the freedom of all people, including Ukrainians, he responded, after a quizzical pause, “Yes,” and then stated that he and other protesters were headed to Hunter College for a similar demonstration. 

Observing the protest, Associated Press reporter Cedar Attanasio shared context, sources and encouragement, telling me that local journalism was an essential counter to the ubiquitous echo chamber of national media. In that spirit, I report what I saw, no more, no less.