New York University students protest
New York University students set up a "Liberated Zone" tent encampment in Gould Plaza at NYU Stern School of Business on April 22, 2024 in New York City. Image Credit: AFP

New York: Police arrested dozens of people at pro-Palestinian demonstrations at Yale University in Connecticut and New York University in Manhattan on Monday, as the war in Gaza continued to reverberate through US university campuses.

The police crackdowns came after Columbia University cancelled in-person classes on Monday in response to protesters setting up tent encampments at its New York City campus last week.

More than 130 people were arrested at the New York University campus. The New York Police Department said 133 people had been arrested and released after being issued with court summons, as protests also intensify at Yale, Columbia University and other campuses.

Demonstrators blocked traffic around Yale’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut, demanding the school divest from military weapons manufacturers. Police arrested more than 45 protesters, according to the student-run Yale Daily News.

In New York, officers moved on the NYU crowd shortly after nightfall as hundreds of demonstrators for hours had defied university warnings that they faced consequences if they failed to vacate a plaza where they had gathered. Video on social media showed police taking down tents in the protesters’ encampment.

Demonstrators tussled with officers and chanted, “We will not stop, we will not rest. Disclose. Divest.” A New York police spokesperson said arrests were made after the university asked police to enforce trespassing violations but the total number of arrests and citations would remain unknown until much later. No immediate injuries were reported.

Protests at Yale, Columbia, NYU and other university campuses across the nation began in response to the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, following the deadly cross-border raid by Hamas militants on Oct. 7 and Israel’s fierce response in the Gaza enclave controlled by Hamas.

US protesters
Protesters gather at the corner of Grove and College Streets after an encampment at Beinecke Plaza was broken up on April 22, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

In an email to Columbia staff and students on Monday, Columbia President Nemat Minouche Shafik said the university was cancelling in-person classes and moving to online teaching to “deescalate the rancour and give us all a chance to consider next steps.” Last week, Shafik called in New York Police to clear a tent encampment protesters had set up on Columbia’s main lawn to demand the school divest from Israel-related investments, an unusual move condemned by some faculty.

The school said the encampment violated rules. Police arrested more than 100 students from Columbia on Thursday on charges of trespassing. Columbia and the affiliated Barnard College have suspended dozens of students involved in the protests.

“These tensions have been exploited and amplified by individuals who are not affiliated with Columbia who have come to campus to pursue their own agendas,” said Shafik, who last week testified before a US House of Representatives committee, defending the school’s response to alleged antisemitism by protesters.

Republicans in the House and the Senate, as well as at least one Democratic senator, demanded Shafik resign.

Donor threatens cutoff

Major university donor Robert Kraft was also unsatisfied that Columbia was protecting Jewish students. Kraft, who is Jewish and the owner of the New England Patriots, has donated millions of dollars to Columbia and threatened to cut off further funding, saying in a statement, “I am not comfortable supporting the university until corrective action is taken.”

Amid angry confrontations at Columbia between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel groups, police have received reports of Israeli students having flags snatched from their hands, but no reports “of any physical harm against any student,” Tarik Shappard, the chief police spokesperson, told a press conference.

Student protesters spent several nights sleeping in the open on the lawn, and have since set up tents again. Students have organised both Muslim and Jewish prayers at the encampment, and some have given speeches condemning Israel and Zionism and praising Palestinian armed resistance.

More than 100 Columbia faculty joined students on Monday in solidarity at the encampment, where an outdoor seder was planned to mark the first day of the Jewish Passover holiday.

US President Joe Biden, who has been criticised by the protesters for supplying funding and weapons to Israel, said in a statement on Sunday that his administration has put the full force of the federal government behind protecting the Jewish community.

“Even in recent days, we’ve seen harassment and calls for violence against Jews,” Biden said. “This blatant antisemitism is reprehensible and dangerous and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country.” Student organisers from the Columbia encampment criticised the Biden statement, noting that some of the organisers are Jewish and that news outlets had focused on “inflammatory individuals who do not represent us.” “We firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry and stand vigilant against non-students attempting to disrupt the solidarity being forged among students Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, Jewish, Black and pro-Palestinian classmates and colleagues,” they said in a statement.

“It’s very clear to us that people on the outside do not understand what this encampment is about,” said Lea Salim, a Barnard sophomore who said she was one of 15 Jewish students arrested on the Columbia lawn last week. Salim said it was not antisemitic to criticise the state of Israel.