Students Across the U.S. and Europe Demand Justice in Palestine
Student encampments Pro-Palestinian protests

More than 2,000 students have been arrested at their university and college campuses for protesting in support of Palestinian people’s right to life, freedom, and their homelands.

After nearly 7 months since the start of the Israel-Hamas War in Gaza, students across the United States began mass sit-ins on their campuses, demanding an end to the violence. These sit-ins included occupying public spaces like university squares and, in some cases buildings on campus. Many sit-ins became overnight encampments, with students setting up tents and making plans to occupy these public spaces until their universities responded to their demands to support a ceasefire in Palestine.

Students, faculty, and staff at universities have chosen to shine the light on their own institutions and places of work because university endowments are major sources of investment into the war on Palestine. These peaceful protests have spread not only across the United States, but across the world, with students in England, Germany, France, Australian, Japan, and Lebanon also taking action.  Demonstrators have also come from off campus to take part in demonstrations and even exacerbate tension at times.

University Students Call for Ceasefire

On April 17, 2024, Columbia students began this wave with one of the first student encampments on U.S. campuses this year. Columbia’s undergraduate student body had previously voted in 2020 to pass a Boycott, Sanction, Divest (BDS) referendum which was ignored by the university’s president. At the time, more than 250 other institutions had also voted on BDS campaigns, many of which were successful at changing university investment policies.

BDS campaigns represent students’ early attempts to get their universities and colleges to advocate for peace and justice in Palestine. When administrators disregarded their demands and with violence in Gaza escalating, students have taken more visible action.

Universities Respond to Student Protesters

Universities have responded in different ways. Many university administrators support their students’ right to free speech and have allowed the protestors to continue occupying space. However, a few colleges have responded to their peaceful students with police intervention and sometimes violence.

Still others seem to outwardly support their students’ calls for justice. Universities like Northwestern and Rutgers, as well as colleges like Evergreen State College in Washington, did not destroy their student encampments. Administrators and students at these campuses negotiated agreements that would meet some student demands, often including some agreement:

  1. Disclosing endowment histories so students can track the university’s investments
  2. Making commitments to divest from corporations that arm Israel
  3. Protecting and speaking up for Arab and Palestinian students

The University of California, Riverside administrators reached understandings with students that led to a voluntary end to their student encampments. For UCR students, this included the university’s public disclosure of their endowment investments.

Are Pro-Palestine Students Antisemitic?

A few politicians and university administrators have accused student protests of being antisemitic and stoking fear on campus. However, many Jewish students and scholars have responded to these university encampments with support.

Stephen Kapos and his community of Holocaust survivors regularly attend pro-Palestine protests. Often, they don signs that say, “this Holocaust survivor calls for an end to genocide.” Kapos and many other Jewish people argue that protests against Israel’s violence are not antisemitic but against expelling peaceful Palestinian families from their homes.

In addition to Holocaust survivors, religious leaders, teachers, and students have also spoken out against Israel’s killing of Palestinian people. A group of nearly 90 American rabbinical and cantorial students wrote a public letter calling on the Jewish-American community to hold Israel accountable for its human rights abuses.

Media Coverage of Student Encampments and Protests

A reporter at The Nation, Hadas Thier, wrote about the atmosphere at Columbia’s student occupation. He described seeing “students sitting in study circles, making art, and working on laptops.” Contrastingly, the university administrators and media “depicted the encampments as unruly, hateful, and antisemitic.”

A Jewish student at Columbia University critiqued the “smears from the press” as well as his university’s violent repression of student voices.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem, a PhD student at Columbia, argued that the media “would have you believe that the Columbia University campus has devolved into a hotbed of antisemitic violence.” However, he points out that Jewish groups at Columbia helped organize the student encampments and support them.

Many encampments include both educational and community-building resources. From teach-ins to free libraries, these liberated spaces create a “sense of community” that reflects the values of the young thinkers and activists who created them.

Thier argues that “the story of protesters endangering and threatening Jewish students has been used to justify the brutal repression that they’ve been met with.” However, as the article states, when SWAT teams and the NYPD were called to Columbia University to destroy the student’s encampment, many students were injured.

Jewish Students Stand with Palestine

Individual students have made statements opposing the violence seen against student protestors. Five Jewish students from different universities across the U.S. wrote a letter in solidarity with Palestinian people. The open letter has garnered more than 750 signatures from other Jewish students around the world.

At McGill University, Jewish students and faculty wrote an open letter to support the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Palestine Solidarity Policy, advocating for freedom and peace in Palestine and on their campus.

Students’ Call to Action

While each student encampment has different demands for their college or university, most begin with asking for transparent endowment investment information. This is the first step to divesting from stocks and companies that support Israel’s violence in Gaza and Palestine.

Given the tremendous backlash against students at some universities and government officials comparing students to terrorists, many students are simply advocating to be heard. Lastly, students are calling for a ceasefire in Gaza;; they believe an end to violence is the only way start to peace.

Find out how you can support Palestinian people at the Promised Land Museum.

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