A coalition of 185 social justice and religious groups published an open letter Monday expressing support for the campus protest encampments sweeping the country in opposition to Israel’s siege of Gaza, and calling on university administrators to end the brutal crackdowns of the student-led demonstrations.

“We commend the students who are exercising their right to protest peacefully despite an overwhelming atmosphere of pressure, intimidation and retaliation, to raise awareness about Israel’s assault on Gaza — with U.S. weapons and funding,” the letter states. “These students have come forth with clear demands that their universities divest from corporations profiting from Israeli occupation, and demanding safe environments for Palestinians across their campuses. ”

Groups that signed the letter include Gen-Z for Change, Working Families Party, IfNotNow Movement, Young Democrats of America Black Caucus, Movement for Black Lives, Sunrise Movement, MPower Change, Jewish Voice for Peace, Palestine Legal, and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Some 900 students have been arrested during anti-war encampments and demonstrations at American universities in the last 10 days, per a tally from Al Jazeera — a tumultuous period that mirrors volatile demonstrations against the Vietnam War in 1968, when police arrested at least 700 students.

The open letter Monday represents one of the largest shows of support among progressive groups for the burgeoning student protests, and makes clear the divide between establishment Democratic figures and social justice groups when it comes to U.S. support for Israel. President Joe Biden has refused so far to condition the sale of weapons to Israel.

“Our communities have been horrified to see the militarized and violent response to students protesting an ongoing genocide funded and supported by our government, and our coalition of organizations join millions of our members across the country in standing in solidarity with the students’ efforts in support of the people of Gaza,” Yasmine Taeb, one of the main organizers of the letter, told HuffPost. Taeb is a human rights lawyer and political director at MPower Change, a Muslim social justice group.

“Instead of attacking young people mobilizing for Palestinian human rights, President Biden needs to listen to the majority of Americans who have been calling on him to stop funding and supporting the atrocities committed against the people of Gaza,” Taeb said.

People listen to a speaker at a pro-Palestinian encampment advocating for financial disclosure and divestment from all companies tied to Israel and calling for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza at Columbia University on Sunday.
People listen to a speaker at a pro-Palestinian encampment advocating for financial disclosure and divestment from all companies tied to Israel and calling for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza at Columbia University on Sunday.

Elise Joshi, executive director at Gen-Z for Change, another signatory to the letter, said that “in a time where all universities in Gaza are destroyed, it is our moral obligation to stand with youth in Gaza and all of Palestine. Students are using theory and philosophy from lectures for their intended purpose: collectively dismantling systems of oppression. Free Palestine.”

Israel has killed over 33,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7, when the Gaza-based militant group Hamas launched an attack in which nearly 1,200 Israelis were killed. In January, the International Court of Justice ruled that Israel’s siege of Gaza — which has displaced 85% of the population and put the occupied territory on the cusp of famine — left Palestinians at risk of experiencing a genocide. Last week, health officials in Gaza said medics had discovered mass graves at hospitals raided by Israeli troops.

“We join [the students] in calling for an immediate and lasting ceasefire and an end to the U.S. government’s and institutions’ role in the ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza,” Monday’s letter states.

“As we stand in solidarity with the students protesting in encampments across the country, we reaffirm our commitment to amplifying their voices, condemn the university administration officials’ violent response to their activism, and demand that universities remove the presence of police and other militarized forces from their campuses,” it continues.

In the early hours of April 17, students at Columbia University set up tents on the Ivy League institution’s neatly manicured lawn, promising not to leave until the school divested its endowment funds from companies and weapons manufacturers that have business with the Israeli government. The next day, university president Minouche Shafik summoned the New York Police Department to raid the encampment, with officers throwing away tents and arresting over 100 students. Some students were also suspended and evicted from their housing.

But Columbia students defiantly reestablished an encampment not long afterward, inspiring students at dozens of universities across the U.S. to establish their own. These encampments have also faced police crackdowns, including at Emerson College in Boston, where police arrested 108 protesters; at Emory University in Atlanta, where disturbing videos emerged of police using pepper spray and Tasers to arrest students, as well as a few professors; and at University of Texas in Austin, where state troopers in riot gear arrested nearly 60 students.

Meanwhile, Republican Party officials and right-wing media figures have accused the demonstrations of antisemitism, falsely equating criticism of Israel with bigotry towards Jews. Although there have been scattered reports of actual antisemitic incidents at or near the encampments, many were not perpetrated by students but by interlopers. Many of the student protesters across the country are Jewish.

Far-right agitators, including Christian nationalist activists, have also targeted the encampments, with MAGA pastor Sean Feucht leading hundreds of Christian and Jewish Zionists on a march around the Columbia campus on Thursday. The rally ended with pro-Israel demonstrators yelling through the gate at pro-Palestinian Columbia students. “Go back to Gaza!” they screamed.

On Monday, Shafik, Columbia’s president, gave student protesters a 2 p.m. deadline to leave the encampment or face mass suspensions and evictions.

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