Columbia University cancels in-person classes to quell pro-Palestine campus protests

Pro-Palestine demonstrators gather outside Columbia University
Pro-Palestine demonstrators gather outside Columbia University - Anadolu

The president of Columbia University in New York moved all classes online on Monday in an attempt to calm students after a weekend of pro-Palestine protests.

Baroness Shafik, a former Whitehall mandarin and deputy governor of the Bank of England, has intervened in a bitter campus row that has left Jewish students fearing for their safety.

Pro-Palestine demonstrators erected dozens of tents on the university’s lawn last week, demanding that Columbia support a ceasefire in Gaza and divest from Israeli funds.

Lady Shafik called in police to deal with the protest after some students were filmed shouting anti-Semitic abuse, and officers made more than 100 arrests.

Footage taken last week shows a pro-Palestine demonstrator holding a sign near a Jewish counter-protest that said “Al-Qassam’s Next Targets”, a reference to the armed wing of Hamas.

In another incident, Jewish students were told to “go back to Poland”. Some chants of pro-Palestine protesters expressed open support for Hamas’s terror attack on Israel on Oct 7.

Baroness Shafik, the president of Columbia University, called in police to deal with the pro-Palestine protest and officers made more than 100 arrests
Baroness Shafik, the president of Columbia University, called in police to deal with the pro-Palestine protest and officers made more than 100 arrests - Anadolu

On Monday, Lady Shafik called for a “reset” on campus in an attempt to bring the tensions under control, moving all classes online.

She said there had been “much debate about whether or not we should use the police on campus”, and that she was “happy to engage in those discussions”, but that it was important to take the heat out of the protests.

“There have been too many examples of intimidating and harassing behaviour on our campus,” she said, adding that the “decibel of our disagreements has only increased in recent days”.

“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,” she said. “We need a reset.”

The announcement came after Elie Buechler, a rabbi, urged Jewish students to go home and protect themselves from the protesters.

“It deeply pains me to say that I would strongly recommend you return home as soon as possible and remain home until the reality in and around campus has dramatically improved,” he said in a text message.

“It is not our job as Jews to ensure our own safety on campus. No one should have to endure this level of hatred, let alone at school.”

Pro-Israel demonstrators  chant 'shame' in support of Columbia University assistant professor Shai Davidai, who was denied access to the main campus to prevent him from accessing the lawn occupied by pro-Palestine protesters
Pro-Israel counter-demonstrators at the university - STEFAN JEREMIAH/AP

A group of university dons have convened a crisis group to resolve the tensions. The protesters claim they were unfairly targeted by police, and that their demonstration was peaceful.

The demonstrators drew the attention of the White House on Sunday evening, as Joe Biden issued a statement indirectly condemning their protest.

In a statement to mark the start of Passover, Mr Biden warned of an “alarming surge of anti-Semitism”, arguing that “silence is complicity”.

“Even in recent days, we’ve seen harassment and calls for violence against Jews,” he said. “This blatant anti-Semitism is reprehensible and dangerous — and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country.”

Kathy Hochul, the New York governor, visited the campus on Monday to convene a meeting between City Hall, Baroness Shafik and the NYPD on “the need to fight anti-Semitism and protect public safety”.

The protests have sparked student safety concerns
The protests have prompted safety concerns for Jewish students - Anadolu

Lady Shafik, who has become one of the most high-profile university academics in the US, graduated from the London School of Economics and Oxford University in the 1980s, before rising to prominence at the World Bank and becoming the deputy governor of the Bank of England in 2014.

She also served as the permanent secretary of the now-defunct department for international development, and was awarded a damehood and a life peerage in 2015 and 2020, respectively.

She became the president of Columbia in July 2023 and holds dual British and American citizenship.

Her tenure at Columbia has been dominated by fierce debates on campus about the war in Gaza and the limits of free speech on campus.

A day after the Hamas attack, in which about 1,200 people were murdered, a coalition of 24 student groups at Harvard  University released an open letter blaming Israel for the attack and expressing no sympathy for the victims.

In December, the presidents of Harvard, UPenn and MIT – three of America’s top Ivy League universities – were criticised by Congress after refusing to say that calling for the genocide of Jews constituted harassment.