Why are college students protesting?

College campuses have seen increased tension among students, faculty and administration in the months since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October. Protests have erupted across the country as campuses grapple with rising rates of discrimination and calls for universities — and the United States — to sever ties with Israel.

Antisemitism has soared nationally since the initial attack, and U.S. colleges in particular are taking the heat for their handling of both the reports of discrimination and protests, as the Israel-Hamas war drags into its seventh month.

Last month, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik and other school officials appeared before the House Education Committee to testify about their response to on-campus antisemitism. Her testimony sparked a Gaza solidarity encampment that began on Columbia’s campus the same day.

In the two weeks since, many college campuses nationwide have joined the effort with encampments of their own. Demonstrations are taking place at some of the country’s most prominent schools and small colleges in various states.

The nearly 400 campus protests in that time have accounted for one-fifth of the total protests since the war in Gaza began, according to an analysis from The Washington Post.

The protests have largely been peaceful but came to a head this week after hundreds of New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers dressed in riot gear moved onto Columbia’s campus after protesters occupied one of the campus buildings.

Protests turned violent at the University of California, Los Angeles the same night. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was called to campus after there were reported skirmishes between the encampment demonstrators and pro-Israel counterprotesters.

According to The Associated Press (AP), at least 2,000 people have been arrested at various pro-Palestinian protests since April 18.

People have been arrested at 36 universities, including the University of Texas at Austin, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and California Polytechnic University, Humboldt.

The demonstrations have impacted what remaining time in the academic year is left for many schools. Columbia moved the rest of the school year to a hybrid learning style to account for the safety of its campus community, and the University of Southern California has canceled its primary commencement event.

Different protest groups have different motivations, but here are some of their demands.

Divestment from Israel

Students across the country are calling on their universities to divest their endowments from Israeli companies or defense companies supplying weapons to Israel.

Asking colleges to divest for political or ethical reasons isn’t new. It dates back to at least the 1970s, when students asked schools to withdraw from investments that benefited South Africa under apartheid rule, the AP reported.

Students have also asked schools to divest from investments in controversial holdings like alcohol, tobacco, gambling, coal, oil and gas. Several protests have succeeded, but experts say it can take time and is a difficult process for schools to change endowments.

The AP noted that university endowments hold hundreds of billions of dollars in assets. For example, Columbia University’s total endowments reached $13.6 billion last year.

Protesters at Brown University reached an agreement with the school: They would take down their encampment and cease demonstrations, and the university’s corporate board would vote on a proposal to divest from Israeli interests.

Dozens of protesters were arrested last week at Yale University after an encampment grew to several hundred people calling for the school to divest from military weapons manufacturers.

Other protests have called on their schools for financial transparency. A common mantra maintained by protesters across the country has become: “Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest,” NPR reported.

US support for Israel’s war

A common theme of the pro-Palestinian protests since Hamas invaded Israel last fall has been opposing the United States’s support for Israel in its counteroffensive.

Since Oct. 7, Israel has conducted a deadly and destructive counteroffensive. Nearly the entire 2.3 million population in Gaza has been displaced, and more than 34,000 people have been killed, according to Hamas-run health agencies. The United Nations has warned that famine is “imminent.”

President Biden delivered remarks Thursday in which he was sharply critical of aspects of the ongoing protests, including the isolated incidents of violence or vandalism.

“In moments like this, there are always those who rush to score political points. But this isn’t a moment for politics. It’s a moment for clarity,” Biden said in prepared remarks from the White House. “So let me be clear … Violent protest is not protected. Peaceful protest is.”

His remarks come just days after the U.S. sent $26 billion in new aid to Israel, passed overwhelmingly in Congress. The package is almost entirely earmarked for defensive and offensive weapons for Israel, with some funding going to U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Biden said the security of Israel “is critical” but also underlined how the bill contains $1 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza, as the U.S. airdrops food and water and builds a port off the coast to bring in more aid.

Protesters are calling on the Biden administration to stop funding Israel, even as top officials say a cease-fire deal is close.

According to The Washington Post, Israel has received more U.S. military aid, and more U.S. aid of any kind, than any other country since World War II.

Israel’s historic occupation of Palestinian territories

Many of the protests have been focused on American influence in the war, but criticism of Israel’s historic occupation of Palestinian territories has brought another level of tension to the on-campus demonstrations.

Most protests have denounced antisemitism and have not explicitly endorsed Hamas, but a few incidents have become part of the larger controversy around the demonstrations.

Columbia banned a student protest leader from campus who said, “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” A video of a protest organizer, Khymani James, showed him saying earlier this year that people should be grateful he doesn’t go around “murdering Zionists.” James has since apologized for his remarks.

Zionism is the Jewish nationalist movement that aims to create a Jewish national state in Palestine, the ancient homeland of Jews.

Several top U.S. officials have called for a two-state solution to the conflict, if Israel can agree to allow Palestine to be its own state. In January, Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he will work to help Palestinians secure statehood.

As protests continue, calls for the Biden administration to do more to address on-campus antisemitism have risen. On Wednesday, the House approved a bill that seeks to crack down on antisemitism by requiring the Department of Education to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism when enforcing antidiscrimination laws.

Since Oct. 7, the Anti-Defamation League reported that there has been an unprecedented rise in antisemitism in the United States.

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