Pro-Palestine Campus Encampments and Israel’s Targeting of American Students

On at least 80 college and university campuses across the United States, students formed encampments demanding that their universities disclose their investments in Israel and divest from entities, financial and cultural, that support the occupation of Palestine. The demand, made in the context of an ongoing genocide in Gaza and the continuation of the violent ethnic-cleansing of Palestinians from their lands, heeds a call from Palestinian civil society for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) of Israel.

The peaceful encampments looked similar across the country, with students wearing kuffiyehs, hoisting Palestinian flags, cooking, renaming a library after slain poet and academic Refaat Alareer and a hall after six-year-old Hind Rajab who was deliberately targeted by Israeli fire in Gaza City along with the paramedics who came to her rescue. Students reported feeling the warmth of community and camaraderie in a period of tumult and months of targeting on their campuses.

In dominant media coverage, however, the encamped students were cast at best as naïve and uneducated, followers of a trend; and at worst ‘outside agitators’ and terrorists. Their forcible and violent removal by police, which resulted in arrests and injuries, was an escalation that to many echoed the Kent State massacre of May 1970. This use of force, called for by the students’ own administrators, and some of their own faculty, was met with bipartisan applause including from President Joe Biden who said “order must prevail.”

The encamped students were cast at best as naïve and uneducated and at worst “outside agitators.”

The campus encampments and their removal must be understood within both the history of the decades of student activism for Palestine as well as Israel’s years-long war on pro-Palestine student activists, intended to have a “chilling effect” of silencing activists through psychological intimidation and threats to their futures and livelihoods. The encampments are a testament to the fact that these strategies of repression and targeting have been woefully unsuccessful in silencing students or faculty on campus. Instead, activists have gotten louder, their protests have gotten bigger, and their demands have gotten braver and more urgent. They show no signs of stopping.

A History of Palestinian Activism and Pro-Israel Repression on Campus

While those who are against the student encampments have pointed out how well organized and well-funded they are as evidence of some kind of sinister backing, this organization speaks to the fact that the encampments are the culmination of decades of organizing. Student activism today is led by organizations including Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) which has been on campus for at least two decades and that has focused on BDS since at least 2005, or Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which has also taken up the BDS call. Other organizations leading the charge, such as Within Our Lifetime, created by City University of New York (CUNY) students, are grassroots and especially well-versed in mutual aid and support.

Palestinian students in the United States have been organizing against Zionism even before the formation of the Israeli state. Student activists from all walks of life, organizing in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, marching and encamping for an end to American racism, the war on Vietnam, and South African apartheid, also held up flags and placards in support of Palestine. In every sense, today’s pro-Palestine encampments are continuations of that activism. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—a movement of Black college students that CUNY students have emulated— issued a “Statement on the Middle East Crisis” outlining their rejection of Zionism, and the US-funded dispossession of “the Arabs of their homes, land and livelihood.”

However, the targeted repression of pro-Palestine students and faculty on campus by administrators is not new. Palestine Legal, a nonprofit advocacy group supporting Palestinian activism, published a study almost a decade ago that showed that the vast majority (over 80 percent) of incidents of censorship or punishment of people advocating for Palestine occurred to students and scholars. The study documented accusations similar to those levied at today’s student activists, of antisemitism and support for terrorism, as well as sanctions of official denunciation, lawsuits, and legal threats.

Over 80% of incidents of censorship or punishment of people advocating for Palestine occurred to students and scholars.

This targeting is deliberate by supporters of the Israeli state, which has for years waged what James Bamford termed “Israel’s War on American Student Activists.” In a recent article, he elaborates on how organizations like the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), with suspected ties to Israeli intelligence and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), incentivizes pro-Israel students to inform on pro-Palestine students. The article references reporting for Al-Jazeera conducted by Tony Kleinfeld in 2016 when he went undercover for a four-part docuseries called “The Lobby-USA” which was produced but ultimately never shown due to reported pressure from the pro-Israel lobby. In it, Lila Greenberg, a senior field organizer at AIPAC told Kleinfeld that “The ICC pools resources from all of the campus organizations. So that they’re tapped in on all angles.” Jacob Baime, the ICC’s chief executive officer, also boasted “We built up this massive national political campaign to crush them.” He describes how students are targeted through doing “opposition research” and putting them on an anonymous website, “Canary Mission is a good example. It’s psychological warfare” he said.

Moreover, the Israeli government is reported to have adopted a renewed strategy of conducing “shaming and pressuring” operations of pro-Palestine students at American universities since Oct 7, 2023. A taskforce set up by the Israeli ministries of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora Affairs describes these pressuring actions which “should not have the signature of the State of Israel” as having the goal of inflicting “economic and employment consequences on antisemitic students and compelling universities to distance them from their campuses” with “antisemitic” being an accusation leveled at anyone holding a position that is pro-Palestinian.

It is impossible to know what the strategies of the Israeli government are. A recent investigative report by the Washington Post revealed that a WhatsApp chat began by a group of billionaires after October 7 focused on shaping US opinion of the Israeli assault on Gaza and specifically exerted pressure on New York City Mayor Eric Adams to use the police against protesters at Columbia University. The group chat reveals that its members were acting with briefings from the highest levels of the Israeli government, including war cabinet member Benny Gantz, Israel’s former prime minister Naftali Bennet, and ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog, with the zoom logs shared on the group chat. The zoom chat also showed conversations with Adams himself, including on April 26, and a summary of the conversation on the chat that described how the group members could donate to Adams, potentially pay for private investigators to support the New York City police department (NYPD), and be used as “leverage” to convince Columbia University president Minouche Shafik to let police back on campus.

Activism Since October 7 and the Encampments

This Israeli attack on college students coincides with a concerted right-wing attack on colleges and universities against academic freedom, and particularly the centering of racial inequalities in campus pedagogy. It also coincides with the increasing financialization of universities that have become “billion dollar hedge funds with schools attached” that are unaccountable to students or faculty. These together have created a very dangerous environment on college campuses for all minoritized people, and particularly, of course, for pro-Palestine student activists.

It is perhaps all these factors together that resulted in the forcible removal of encampments from over scores of campuses across the United States by security services, including state troopers in Texas and New York’s terrorist-fighting Strategic Response Group. On a single night, the NYPD cleared encampments at Columbia University and City College of New York, arresting an estimated 300 people, injuring 46 Columbia students, including fracturing eye sockets and concussions. At Emory University, police “threw tear gas [and] fired pepper balls” at the encampment. At Dartmouth College, where there was only an encampment of five tents, police and state troopers were invited by administrators to arrest 89 protesting students and faculty. Scenes of students and faculty being body slammed and bloodied filled social media.

The encampments themselves are the product of the repression that immediately preceded them. On October 7, when Israeli authorities promised to “open the gates of hell” on Gaza in the wake of the Hamas attacks, students across college campuses, already active in organizing for Palestine, sprung to action. At Harvard, students signed a statement that began “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” It continued “For the last two decades, millions of Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to live in an open-air prison.”

The Israeli attack on college students coincides with a concerted right-wing attack on colleges and universities against academic freedom.

While prior statements from these students had gone largely unnoticed, by October 11, trucks were circulating around campus with student faces emblazoned on LED screens headlined “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites” in Gothic script. The same strategy would be used to target faculty and students at Columbia, Yale and CUNY. By November, students belonging to SJP and JVP were suspended by Columbia University for protesting against Israel, with the accusation that they were spreading fear.

Meanwhile, accusations against student protesters have gone largely unsubstantiated. In a case against Columbia, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) argued that the university had violated the policies implemented in the aftermath of 1968 to protect students’ rights to protest. It also argued that Columbia had violated its own policies in sanctioning SJP and JVP, stating that “Columbia was facing intense public pressure to crack down on pro-Palestinian advocacy on its campus, including specific demands that it punish SJP and JVP.”

When asked to identify which student actions qualified as “threatening rhetoric and intimidation,” NYCLU reports that Columbia Executive Vice President Gerald Rosenberg said that students saying that Israel is “an Apartheid state” and “a racist state committing genocide” “could upset some people and seem like an incitement of violence.” Leaked emails from the Columbia Antisemitism Taskforce revealed that the entire endeavor did not have a definition of antisemitism.

Simultaneously, Harvard University President Claudine Gay, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Sally Kornbluth were grilled before the House Education Committee over how they handled antisemitism on campus amid the Israel-Hamas war. Soon Gay and Magill resigned from their positions.

The crackdowns, arrests, and congressional investigations were coupled with firing of faculty, particularly those without permanent appointments across college campuses. Simultaneously, hate groups like Canary Mission and Stop Antisemitism have made an effort to dox faculty and students for statements on social media, or in their classrooms. This systematic targeting of freedom of speech and pedagogy, a part of a strategy of silencing, has resulted in high levels of tension on college campuses. And as administrators acquiesce to the emails and calls of these groups that are aiming to silence them, students feel unheard.

“We Will Not Stop, We Will Not Rest” 

Despite the crackdown and slander that students face, they have not stopped protesting across the country. Student graduation photos have featured Palestinian flags, the Valedictorian of Morehouse called for a permanent ceasefire in his commencement speech with President Biden sitting behind him on stage, New School faculty launched their own encampment, and CUNY Graduate Center has mobilized to demand that CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez listen to student’s five demands and push the NYPD to drop charges against CUNY students, which were harsher than those meted against Columbia students, a discrepancy tied to the racial makeup of the student bodies.

While commentators have questioned whether the protests will continue into the summer, student activism is part of a decades-long advocacy campaign for Palestine, and has shifted the public consciousness around it. An independent study showed that the majority of students on campus support pro-Palestine protests. A Pew study shows that younger Americans have a more favorable view of Palestinians than Israelis, and are likely to oppose military aid to Israel. Student movements are a part of a perceptible yet unprecedented shift in the discourse on Palestine over the last few decades of activism which, despite their best efforts, Israeli authorities and their supporters in the United States have failed to quash.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors. 

Featured image: Shutterstock/Ringo Chiu