Anti-Israel Protests Roiled Campuses in May — and Led to Dangerous Concessions

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The academic school year ended with the anti-Israel movement making significant gains on and off campus. The most visible development was the appearance of protests, encampments, building takeovers, and marches at numerous universities across the US.

An analysis revealed that between October 2023 and May 2024, more than 300 protests were held and more than 120 encampments were created. The distribution, however, was strongly correlated with the status of institutions, with protests most common at highly selective or elite institutions where fewer students received Federal aid.

The implication is that pro-Hamas protests are largely an upper class and not a working class phenomenon. Notable encampments and takeovers occurred at Columbia University, UCLA, Portland State University, the University of Chicago, and elsewhere. In these and other cases, police intervention was required after lengthy negotiations with students broke down. Encampments were established and then cleared, either by police or by agreements, with many being reestablished within days and then cleared once again.

With few exceptions, mainstream media depictions of the May protests emphasized Israeli violence and student non-violence, the participation of Jewish students, and the purity of protestors’ motives and spontaneous actions.

Actual reporting noted the national plans to create encampments had circulated in the fall semester, and extensive training was provided to students on tactics such as seizing and securing buildings, and on strategic goals including recreating the widespread unrest of 2020.

Review of social media postings also revealed frequently antisemitic and violent rhetoric, such as the threat to “guillotine” George Washington University president Ellen Granberg. The damage caused to university property by encampments was considerable, but damage to occupied buildings was profound. Damage to the Portland State University library amounted to at least $1 million and at least $3 million at City College of New York, while extensive damage was also done to the University of California system headquarters in Oakland.

The May campus protests also highlighted the role of professional agitators in organizing anti-Israel protests and their links to earlier Black Lives Matter and other protests. Training materials provided by National Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to encampment organizers also contained a variety of practical manuals for urban insurgency, as well as materials glorifying the Palestinian “resistance” and other violent revolutionary movements.

Commencement disruptions were frequent in May, with many graduates costuming themselves in keffiyahs, with bloody hands, and holding banners and signs. One notable example was at Duke University, where some 30 protestors walked out prior to an address from Jerry Seinfeld. Reports claim that 1,000 people walked out of the Harvard commencement, in part over the university’s decision not to award degrees to 13 protestors who had been suspended.

The clearing of encampments by police prompted backlash from faculty but also additional protests by students including a strike by the UAW affiliated academic workers union at the University of California system. Strikers alleged “unfair labor practice charges based on the way the university reacted to protesters,” and threatened to withhold all “academic labor,” including grades, until their demands for divestment were met.

Jewish students at many institutions continue to document harassment and intimidation by pro-Hamas protestors, deepening exclusion from campus life after accusations of being “Zionists.”

Hillels have been subjected to pro-Hamas protests at Baruch College, while at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the local SJP chapter demanded Hillel be closed for its support of Israel. The university dismissed the demand.

More explicit threats of a US terror campaign to “bring the intifada home” appeared in a manifesto from protestors who seized a building at the University of Chicago, which stated “We embrace many methods of attacking our enemies. Whatever is effective, destructive, fun, creative, creates leverage, disrupts power, or changes minds is welcome. We refuse to police and surveil each other and remember the enemies are the state, the pigs, and the war profiteers.”

In response to protests, encampments, and building takeovers, most university administrations were anxious to negotiate with protestors and to accede to their demands, thereby incentivizing future protests.

  • At Northwestern University, concessions included a promise to reveal its investments and to establish an investment advisory board with student participation, as well as two professorships and five scholarships for Palestinians, and a “Middle Eastern and North African” residential unit.
  • Brown University promised protestors that after a student presentation, divestment would be voted on by trustees. The students identified a number of aerospace and defense companies they alleged were complicit in “grave human rights violations” including Northrup Grumman, Boeing, and General Dynamics.
  • At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, administrators agreed to permit anti-Israel students to present the case for divestment to trustees, called the situation a “plausible genocide,” condemned destruction in Gaza, and demanded a ceasefire. The chancellor later apologized for weighing in on “deeply complex geopolitical and historical issues.”
  • Within the University of California system, the Berkeley administration agreed to a divestment task force and the chancellor called for a “permanent ceasefire.” The Riverside administration agreed to similar terms and also terminated a variety of overseas programs including in Israel, which had been the target of long term pressure.
  • Union Theological Seminary announced that it would “identify all investments, both domestic and global, that support and profit from the present killing of innocent civilians in Palestine” in order to “withdraw support from companies profiting from the war.”
  • Bard College announced an agreement with protestors that included disclosure of investments, strengthening ties with a branch campus in eastern Jerusalem, and “support of appropriate challenges — political, social, and legal— to Executive Order 157,” banning investments in institutions or companies that boycott Israel.

The most significant and real Israel boycotts have emerged in the Netherlands. Ghent University severed ties with three Israeli research institutions on the grounds they are “problematic according to the Ghent University human rights test,” while Leiden University has put exchange programs with Israeli universities on hold and “will assess all our current ties with Israeli institutions and joint research projects.” The university also stated it will also not admit Israeli students from Tel Aviv University or Hebrew University “until after an evaluation.”

Overall, the universities appear to have provided a mixture of performative and real concessions. Some appear to be simply using delaying tactics, or postponing confrontations until the fall semester. Funding Gazan students and creating “Palestine studies” centers, however, guarantees future campus radicalization by introducing anti-Israel extremists.

The privileged admission of Palestinian students also appears to be in violation of Title IV of the Higher Education Act, while the creation of residential and Muslim-only spaces reinforces campus identity politics.

Faculty remain at the forefront of anti-Israel and pro-Hamas protests in the aftermath of encampments and building takeovers, in many cases joining protests, conducting classes within encampments (where “Zionist” students were prohibited), staging walkouts and “die-ins,” acting as human shields, and being arrested.

Faculty members have been especially vocal expressing outrage over the rare suspensions of students involved in campus takeovers and other hostile activities. One example of that emerged at Harvard University, where 500 faculty members signed a letter complaining that the “unprecedented, disproportionate, and arbitrary” sanctions “undermine trust” and demanded that suspended students be awarded their degrees. The demand was rejected by the Harvard Corporation, who barred 13 protestors from receiving degrees.

Faculty unions with longstanding animosity towards Israel have used the campus violence as a pretext to propose increasingly severe and illegal measures, such as the notoriously anti-Israel union at the City University of New York, which demanded the administration ban all faculty and student trips to Israel. The resolution was voted down.

Northwestern University faculty and staff signed a resolution accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing and genocide,” and demanding the administration condemn “targeted harassment of students and the disproportionate censorship of pro-Palestine speech,” end partnerships with Israeli institutions, and “disclose and divest” from “all companies that support Israeli apartheid.” Similar demands were made by faculty groups at Princeton UniversityAmherst College, and elsewhere.

Anti-Israel activities also continue to rile the K-12 sector. Reports indicate that dozens of Jewish families in the Oakland, California, school district have begun to withdraw their children after repeated anti-Israel and antisemitic incidents.

Walkouts from public schools were reported at a number of school districts including in Chicago and Princeton, New Jersey, while Berkeley middle school students were led by administrators to a local Jewish Community Center, then occupied by preschoolers, for an anti-Israel protest. Video also emerged of a pro-Hamas protest inside a Bronx high school during which Jewish students and teachers locked themselves in classroom.

Teachers unions continue to be at the forefront of anti-Israel activity. One recent example is a call by the Maine Education Association demanding that the state pension fund divest from companies “complicit in the violation of the human rights” of Palestinian civilians. A “spontaneous” student walkout in Washington, D.C. was apparently also organized by a teachers’ group with connections to American Muslims for Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Palestinian Youth Movement.

The systematic indoctrination of students by teachers and their unions into anti-Israel bias represents a long-term threat to Jews and to American society that has yet to be addressed.

Anti-Israel protests continued around the world in May including London and New York, and vandalism of Jewish and Jewish-owned sites also continued in May, including three restaurants in Manhattan. Several Jewish children were assaulted in New York, in addition to an attempted car ramming attack against Hasidic Jews, and there were two incidents of shots fired at a Jewish school in Montreal.

The larger goals of the protestors remain downplayed by the media but are stated clearly in left wing and pro-Palestinian media. The anti-Western slogans include “There is only one solution, intifada revolution!,” “abolish the university,” “from turtle island to Palestine, solidarity forever,” along with demands that Jews “go back to Europe.”

Congressional investigations of K-12 schools and universities over their treatment of Jews, Israelis, and pro-Hamas protestors expanded in May. Presidents of universities again testified before a House subcommittee investigating campus antisemitism, a development that was condemned in advance by members of the higher education industrial complex. The presidents of Rutgers, Northwestern, and UCLA largely avoided the calamitous outcome of earlier hearings but could not easily explain sweeping concessions to protestors.

The major development in the arts and cultural sphere in May was the Eurovision song contest. After efforts to bar Israel altogether from the competition, and to force venues showing the competition to boycott it, Israeli entrant Eden Golan was restricted to her hotel and escorted by by police for fear of angry mobs in the streets.

She was also heckled by the audience members and by other contestants. But large number of votes from European residents rather than official judges enabled her to finish in fifth place.

Finally, writers in particular have been subjected to ideological tests and harassment regarding Israel. Blacklists of writers and musicians alleged to be “Zionists” continue to be circulated. A major corporate sponsor of a literary festival was dropped after a number of writers, including a Member of Parliament, threatened to boycott literary festivals across Britain. An effort to condemn Israel through a motion in the British Society of Authors failed by a narrow margin, but the writers’ group PEN American has been in the news over complaints it has failed to offer sufficient condemnations of Israel.

The author is a contributor to SPME, where this op-ed was adapted from.

Anti-Israel Protests Roiled Campuses in May — and Led to Dangerous Concessions

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Alex Joffe

Editor SPME / BDS Monitor

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. He received a B.A. in History from Cornell University in 1981 and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States. Joffe taught at the Pennsylvania State University and Purchase College, and has been Director of Research for Global Policy Exchange, Ltd., and The David Project, Center for Jewish Leadership.

Joffe's work is uniquely broad. Since 1991 he has published dozens of studies on the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and is a leading figure in contentious debates over the relationship between archaeology and politics in the Middle East. He has also authored numerous works on contemporary issues, including Middle Eastern environmental security threats from pollution and weapons of mass destruction. His work on the problem of dismantling intelligence agencies is widely cited by experts and democratic reformers alike.

In the past decade Joffe has written and spoken on topics as varied as the future of American Jews, the Palestinian refugee problem, and nationalism. During that time as well he has been deeply involved with combating the problems of campus antisemitism, the ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions' movement against Israel, and in educating Jews and others about threats to Israel and the West. His current projects include a biography of a British World War II general and several novels. He and his family reside near New York City.

Read all stories by Alex Joffe