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Culture > News

Why College Campuses Are The Epicenter For Protests Over The Israel-Hamas War

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Recently, many universities have been struggling to handle the tensions on their campuses as protests surrounding the Israel-Hamas war continue to wage on. The protests have been happening for months, ever since Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. But voices have grown especially loud, and atmospheres have grown increasingly fraught, in the spring 2024 semester. Many Jewish students have reported on-campus antisemitism and fears for their own safety, while student protesters have faced arrests and disciplinary actions.

The conflict between supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestine is incredibly complicated, with a history that spans decades. If you’re interested in understanding the roots of the conflict and the various historical moments that led us to where we are today, consider reading books on the subject or engaging in conversation with those who have knowledge on the subject. (Just keep in mind that many people have their own opinions on the topic, and to be respectful of others’ backgrounds and points of view.)

But if you’re curious about why the current protests seem to be happening specifically on college campuses across the United States — and why they have gotten more intense as of April 2024 — we’ll break it down for you.

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Why have on-campus protests gotten more intense in spring 2024?

Protests happen on college campuses all the time; colleges have long been seen as havens for free speech and the sharing of differing ideas and opinions. When the Israel-Hamas war first broke out, it was unsurprising that college students would have a lot to say. Unfortunately, with a conflict so politically, religiously, and emotionally charged like this one is, students on both sides of the issue almost immediately began experiencing distress and harassment — specifically in the veins of antisemitism and Islamophobia — in relation to these protests. With the majority of protesters being students with pro-Palestine sentiments, Jewish students in particular reported feeling unsafe at their own schools.

This all reached a fever pitch around Columbia University’s April 17 hearing about on-campus antisemitism and the pro-Palestine encampment that began on the same day. On April 18, over 100 student protesters were arrested while participating in the pro-Palestine encampment on Columbia’s campus. University president Nemat (Minouche) Shafik said she called for the arrests due to safety concerns; many Jewish students at Columbia and its sibling school Barnard College reported experiencing increased antisemitic threats and harassment on campus since the encampment was set up.

Since then, and largely in response to these arrests, universities all around the country have been dealing with their own heightened protests — bigger, louder, and more visible than the ones they’ve been dealing with since last October — as pro-Palestine student protesters are standing in solidarity with the students who were arrested from Columbia’s encampment. Due to similar concerns over safety, many schools and cities also took action against these protests.

On April 22, dozens of protesters were arrested at New York University and Yale University. On April 24, over 108 people, many of them students, were arrested near Emerson College’s campus. On April 25, the University of Southern California announced it was canceling its main graduation ceremony, following the on-campus arrests of more than 90 students in conjunction with the protests. On April 27, about 100 people were detained at a pro-Palestine protest at Northeastern University. (Per the school, students who had a valid school ID were released and will face disciplinary action within the school; those who didn’t were arrested). Similar scenes have been reported all over the nation.

There are no signs of tensions easing as the semester nears its end. As of May 1, many schools — including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Arizona, the University of Florida, Tulane University, and so many more — have seen increased police presence as well as arrests of student and non-student protesters on campus. On May 1, violence erupted at the University of California, Los Angeles, when counter-protesters attacked a pro-Palestine encampment.

At Columbia — which is seen by many as the epicenter of college campus protests — unrest escalated significantly after encampment protesters defied the school’s orders to disperse by April 29. Since then, a group of protesters — at least half of whom are not actual Columbia students, per CNN — entered Columbia’s Hamilton Hall and barricaded it, which prompted school officials to once again call in the NYPD. This led to the arrest of over 100 protesters from campus on May 1.

According to AP News, the past two weeks have seen more than 1,000 campus protest-related arrests across the country. This remains a developing situation.

Why are pro-Palestine protests happening specifically on college campuses in the first place?

A common sentiment coming from the pro-Palestine student protests is a call for schools to “divest from Israel.” If you’ve been hearing that phrase on your own campus — or if you’re seeing it written on signs in the photos and videos shared on social media — but you’re unsure what it means in the context of these on-campus protests, here’s a rundown:

In the general sense, to call for divestment means to call for an organization to sever financial ties with an entity. Per NPR, protesters have succeeded in pushing higher education institutions like Columbia, Harvard, and more to sever financial ties with fossil fuel companies as well as companies with business in South Africa during the apartheid era. 

Disinvestment from Israel, in particular, is an initiative from pro-Palestine groups that aims to pressure the government of Israel to halt its occupation of Palestine. When students are calling for their schools to divest from Israel, they are asking the schools to end any institutional support for Israel and to stop accepting funds from organizations with ties to Israel.

This isn’t the first time students have called for schools’ divestment from Israel. These calls for divestment from Israel are part of the well-known but controversial movement called BDS — aka “boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel.” The BDS movement, which is made up of groups including unions, churches, and grassroots movements, originated in July 2005, when a statement by Palestinian civil society organizations called on the international community “to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel.”

Many people — particularly those who are Jewish and those who support Israel — view this call for divestment as inherently antisemitic. According to the Anti-Defamation League (aka ADL, an organization dedicated to fighting antisemitism), many BDS initiatives can “result in the isolation and intimidation of Jews and supporters of Israel.” The ADL’s website also states, “ADL believes that many of the founding goals of the BDS movement, which effectively reject or ignore the Jewish people’s right of self-determination, or that, if implemented, would result in the eradication of the world’s only Jewish state, are antisemitic.”

Since the Israel-Hamas war has started, universities have been struggling to find the balance between ensuring individuals’ safety and protecting students’ free speech rights. While many schools have tolerated protests on campus, the recent outbreak of larger protests and reports of antisemitism during these gatherings may affect whether these protests will continue.

Lexi Williams is the Senior Editor at Her Campus, where she spearheads the site's Life and News coverage — including academics, national news, digital news, and viral news. She also oversees our Gen Leaders and Dream Jobs franchises, and works with the national writer team, interns, and freelance writers. Dedicating her career to helping college students, teens, and twentysomethings live their best lives, Lexi became obsessed with all things Gen Z through her previously held editorial positions at Elite Daily and Dorm Therapy. Before that, she dabbled in the food and wine space at Wine Spectator magazine, where she learned to balance her Champagne taste with her Two-Buck-Chuck budget. Lexi's bylines have also appeared in Cosmopolitan, InStyle, Bustle, StyleCaster, and Betches, among others. She graduated magna cum laude with her bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Miami in 2016. Originally from Florida, Lexi currently lives with her husband in Brooklyn, New York, where she spends her days scouting the best pizza spots, working on her debut novel, perpetually redecorating her apartment, and taking too many photos of her yappy little rescue dog, Benji. For pitches, contact Lexi at lexiwilliams@hercampus.com. For a healthy dose of Millennial cringe, follow her on Instagram at @lexi___williams.
Addie Whightsil is a Public Relations student at the University of Oklahoma. Beyond academics, Addie's interests extend to the simple pleasures in life. She has an undeniable affection for juice, savoring every drop of its fruity goodness. Her fondness for Jellycats, those irresistibly huggable stuffed animals, adds a touch of whimsy to her daily life. However, what she really loves is sharing personal stories and life lessons for the internet to read.