Students at dozens of universities across the U.S. have started encampments in the last two weeks to pressure administrators to divest from companies enabling Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

On April 17, while Columbia University President Minouche Shafik traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify on antisemitism in front of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, hundreds of students set up tents in the heart of Columbia’s campus, calling on the university to divest from companies with ties to Israel. On April 18, Shafik called the police to clear the encampment, leading to the arrest of more than 100 students. The mass crackdown prompted students at several other universities to join the cause at their schools.

“As students, we refuse to be complicit while our university remains complicit in genocide,” said a student protestor at the Tufts University encampment, who asked to be kept anonymous. “Until our institutions disclose their investments and divest from all companies that aid and abet the genocide in Palestine, we will continue organizing to disrupt business as usual.”

The mass crackdown prompted students at several other universities to join the cause at their schools.

While specific demands from college campuses differ, the most common ask is that universities disclose financial ties to Israel and divest from companies complicit in ongoing violence. While the amount of money universities invest in such companies is largely unknown, a database from the U.S. Department of Education shows that American colleges and universities reported about $342 million in gifts and contracts from Israel from 2014-2024.

The impact of financial investments and contracts with the Israeli government may be significant. Reporting from The Harvard Crimson in 2020 found that the Harvard Management Company, which manages the Harvard endowment’s investments, had more than $194 million invested in Booking Holdings, a company the United Nations listed as having ties to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Pro-Palestinian students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that the university has accepted more than $11 million from Israel’s defense ministry.

Divestment usually has a minimal impact on companies’ bottom lines as sold shares are transferred to other investors. But students are pushing their universities to divest on moral grounds, arguing that continuing to fund Israel makes these universities complicit in genocide.

“We think that the bare minimum for the university to do is divest, and even if they’re not sending riot cops to remove us from the space, they’re still invested in an ongoing genocide, and they need to divest, and that is the bottom line,” said the anonymous Tufts student.

Protests have been almost entirely peaceful, with rare exceptions usually prompted by the arrival of counter-protestors or police. At the University of Texas at Austin, President Jay Hartzell worked with Gov. Greg Abbott to call on Texas state troopers to make arrests. The troopers arrived in riot gear, with some on horseback, making dozens of arrests and pinning several students and a journalist to the ground.

“I’ve protested here as a student, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Roger Reeves, a professor of English at UT Austin. “It was unnecessary, and I was really surprised that the administration had done something like that and called for such a violent repression of a peaceful protest.”

Administrators have used school rules governing public spaces to discipline students and call for police action. Administrators have suspended hundreds of students from their universities, and in many cases, students have lost access to their on-campus housing and dining services. Police have also arrested hundreds of protestors at schools such as Yale University, New York University, Arizona State University, Emerson College, and several other college campuses.

“This [protest] escalation is long overdue,” said another student protestor at Tufts University. “Students should be putting everything on the line. We are willing to risk our educations, our futures, everything, because people in Palestine have not been given the opportunity to see theirs realized.”

Administrators have suspended hundreds of students from their universities, and in many cases, students have lost access to their on-campus housing and dining services.

While encampment occupations have taken place outside, allowing classes and indoor activities to largely continue, some universities have treated the protests as disruptions. The University of Southern California canceled its university-wide commencement ceremony in response to protests against its decision to prohibit a pro-Palestinian valedictorian from speaking at the graduation ceremony. On April 22, Columbia University announced that its Morningside main campus would hold hybrid classes for the rest of the semester with few exceptions.

“By moving classes online, the university is buying into the narrative that the campus is not safe and secure for students and especially for Jewish students, which actually is not the case,” said Marianne Hirsch, an English professor at Columbia University.

Several university professors and alums, including Hirsch, have publicly expressed their horror at the decisions of university presidents to arrest students. On April 22, members of the Barnard chapter of the American Association for University Professors unanimously issued a vote of “no confidence” in Barnard College President Laura Rosenbury for a “lack of care for students” in the context of pro-Palestinian activism on campus. A Columbia University senate vote on a similar resolution is expected to face Shafik for her response to the encampment protest, although it is expected to fall short of censure.

“To bring in police and make arrests so fast without even a chance at negotiation, surrounding the campus with armed police in riot gear, shutting off the campus from the community and erecting barriers, I think that has just created fear and intimidation and has actually produced the threat of violence that wasn’t actually happening at all in the encampment protest,” Hirsch said.

Professors have also been targeted by the police. Police handcuffed Emory University philosophy department chair Noëlle McAfee after just observing the demonstration and the police crackdown. Police threw Emory economics professor Caroline Fohlin to the ground and arrested her after she expressed concern about police violently arresting a student. The faculty senate at Emory University is holding a no-confidence vote concerning President Gregory Fenves.

Some university staff have resigned in protest of their university’s behavior. Three head tour guides at Barnard College resigned after Barnard suspended and evicted at least 53 student protestors. Dr. Tao Leigh Goffe, a professor at Hunter College, resigned from an artist-in-residence position in protest of what she described as Columbia’s “totalitarian actions,” praising the protestors in a note on Twitter.

“The students are giving a masterclass in what it means to apply to the core values,” Goffe wrote. “Protect privacy. Protecting one another by masking outdoors during the ongoing pandemic. Mutual aid. Leading by example. And studying for finals!”

Despite the crackdowns, students have continued encampments planning robust programming from Palestinian history teach-ins to tutorials in dabke, or traditional Levantine folk dance. At Tufts, Harvard, and other schools, protestors have posted daily schedules full of events to attract students to the encampments and encourage solidarity building with Palestine. The programming is also designed to reorient attention to what students believe matters more than their protest activities—the killing of more than 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza.

Students told Prism that the best support is turnout. With higher numbers of participants, it becomes more difficult for the university to crack down on encampments. Students also said they prefer financial donations go to direct relief in Gaza, but students could use contributions for extra supplies like tents and blankets. While student encampments that have not yet been repressed are settling in for the long haul, hopeful for the possibility of negotiations, students also are prepared.

“Divestment may not happen while I’m at Tufts, but I do think there is awareness spreading in the U.S. about the reality of the Zionist occupation of Palestine and people are starting to become willing to put themselves on the line in the U.S.,” said the first anonymous Tufts student protestor. “I think the movement to divest from apartheid South Africa took 12 years at Tufts and who knows how long it will take for this movement.”

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