Last week, students at Columbia University set up an encampment on the campus green to protest Israel’s war in Gaza, kicking off what would quickly become a national mobilization of student activists.

Similar encampments and demonstrations at more than 50 other colleges erupted this week against the Israeli offensive, which has killed over 34,000 people in Gaza, caused famine and displaced most of the population.

Online, scenes of peaceful solidarity were quickly intertwined with reports of mass arrests, punditry and misinformation. More than 100 demonstrators were arrested at Columbia’s demonstration, and more than 500 have been arrested nationwide as of Friday, according to Axios and The New York Times.

Here’s a breakdown of what the pro-Palestine protesters want to see from their colleges and the response to these protests.

Divestment From Companies Funding Israel

One of the top demands that students across the country have is for their universities to divest from companies linked to Israel or businesses which profit off of its war with Hamas — and, by proxy, the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians, they argue.

“I’m a member of this community, and I don’t want this particular community to be profiting from apartheid, from war, from genocide,” Ariela Rosenzweig, a senior at Brown University, told The New York Times.

Several colleges have refused or ignored this demand.

In a statement, American University president Sylvia Burwell rejected calls to end investments and partnerships with Israel, claiming that such actions “threaten academic freedom, the respectful free expression of ideas and views, and the values of inclusion and belonging that are central to our community.”

Harvard’s interim president, Alan Garber, told student newspaper the Harvard Crimson that the university staunchly opposes calls for it to divest from Israel and “will not entertain” such demands.

Colleges and universities receive large endowments that are spread across an array of investments and assets. According to USA Today, the biggest university endowments in the U.S. total nearly $50 billion and make up thousands of funds. Columbia University holds a spot among the top 15 largest endowments in the country, with more than $13 billion.

Colleges are required to report gifts and contracts from foreign sources to the Department of Education. The department found that about 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. have reported $375 million in gifts or contracts from Israel over the past two decades, the Associated Press reported.

Students are calling for transparency on these investments, as well as divestment from Israeli weapon manufacturers and other companies that are profiting from the war in Gaza.

Some colleges, such as Brown University, say they already refuse some Israel investments, such as in Israeli arms manufacturers, though protesters there want them to divest further.

During House Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) address at Columbia University this week condemning the protests, students emphasized their commitment to the demand by chanting “Disclose, divest, we will not stop, we will not rest,” CNN reported.

Similar calls for colleges to divest from certain companies in the past have yielded results. For example, in the 1980s during the South African anti-apartheid movement, more than 150 colleges divested from companies that did business with South Africa, per the New York Times.

Transparency On Ties To Israel

Several students have called for greater transparency on their colleges’ financial ties to get a better sense of their overall investment in Israel.

BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, has been scrutinized for its holdings in weapons manufacturers by students at the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University, who believe that their colleges should divest from it, The New York Times reported.

Students are also demanding that their schools sever academic ties with Israel. For example, students from Columbia University and New York University are both demanding the end of their schools’ respective Tel Aviv programs.

Denouncement Of Genocide, Call For Cease-fire

Student protesters across the country are calling for Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory and for their colleges to show support for a cease-fire. The United States, a staunch ally of Israel, has repeatedly voted against a widely supported cease-fire resolution put before the U.N.

Israel and its allies have argued that it has the right to defend itself against Hamas through a military offensive. But a United Nations human rights report last month argued that Israel is committing a genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.

Students have called for their colleges to openly denounce the assault in Gaza as a genocide.

“We would like Northeastern [University] to denounce the genocide that is happening in Palestine. We think that would be a very powerful gesture from the university, and we think it would be very in line with the university’s values,” August Escandon, a senior at Northeastern University, told NBC Boston.

The Response

Most of the protests thus far have been peaceful, Al Jazeera and CNN reported. But colleges have cracked down hard on encampments and demonstrations, arguing the protests endanger students’ safety, particularly that of Jewish students.

Heavily armored police have been sent in to arrest the protestors on some campuses.

One video captured from the protest at Emory University shows a professor being violently arrested, as police slamming her head into the concrete while tying her hands behind her back.

And on Saturday morning, Northeastern University police and other local law enforcement officers cleared the encampments on the campus.

In a statement shared on X (formerly Twitter), the school said the student demonstration was “infiltrated by professional organizers with no affiliation to Northeastern” and that “virulent antisemitic slurs” and the phrase “kill the Jews” were used at the protest.

Video footage from the protest shows a counter-protester holding an Israeli flag saying, “kill the Jews,” as corroborated by a reporter for a local news outlet, though it’s not clear if this is the incident the Northeastern statement refers to. The crowd booed and asked the person to leave. (Northeastern did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the protests.)

Many pro-Palestine student groups — which often also include Jewish students and organizations — have come forward to denounce antisemitism and affirm that the individuals making such inflammatory remarks don’t represent their groups or their values concerning the war in Gaza, ABC News reported.

“At universities across the nation, our movement is united in valuing every human life,” Columbia University Apartheid Divest, one of the groups that protested, wrote in a statement. “As a diverse group united by love and justice, we demand our voices be heard against the mass slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Jewish students who have joined pro-Palestinian efforts have warned the dangers of conflating criticisms of Israel to antisemitism or labeling all pro-Palestinian protestors antisemitic. The progressive group Jewish Voice for Peace has argued that such assumptions are dangerous and actively harms both Palestinian and Jewish students.

“We build a new community, and as we built it, we committed to fighting all forms of oppression together, knowing that antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, in particular racism against Arabs and Palestinians, are all cut from the same cloth,” Barnard student protester Soph Askanase said at a press conference last week.

At the press conference, a Columbia student said, regarding student safety concerns, that there’s a difference between feeling unsafe and uncomfortable.

“Those two are not always the same thing,” the student said, adding that protestors have had peaceful and cordial conversations with Israeli Jewish students who don’t agree with their movement. “We open our encampment to everyone. What we don’t allow is people who are coming in who will harass people, who will spew hatred.”

Some politicians and groups, such as Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, have expressed support for students protesting on their college campuses this week, and have called out aggressive responses from police.

Johnson suggested in his address at Columbia University that the president might need to call in the National Guard to end the encampments.

The White House, for its part, has condemned antisemitic comments at protests.

But students have no intention of backing down, and have vowed to continue advocating for Palestine through demonstrations in the upcoming weeks. At institutions such as Emerson College in Boston, the student government also voted for their president to resign due to encampment arrests, as did California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt’s senate of faculty and staff.

Meanwhile, administrators and protesters at some colleges began negotiating demands, and students are refusing to leave until they’re met.

“We have amazing students who support the Palestinian liberation movement and want to see a free Palestine. This movement is very big and it’s only growing every day,” one Columbia protestor said at a press conference. “We are not going anywhere until our demands are met.”

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