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What is Happening at College Encampments Across USA & Canada?

Since the war in Gaza began on Oct. 7 following Hamas’ brutal terrorist attacks on Israel, we have witnessed protests erupt across the world.

Before Israel had even struck back, there were mobs on the streets outside Israeli Embassies, cheering on and screaming for the “resistance”. While some were calling for global Intifada, most people have remained peaceful, in action at least, if not in rhetoric. Protests have been going on globally for months, reaching new levels of notoriety through the massive spreading of these events on social media. Although many protests have been peaceful, there have also been chilling scenes of hate and violence. Due to the scale of these protests and counter-protests, there will inevitably be a wide spectrum of political beliefs, which means extremism can be present on both sides.

University campuses across North America have become hotspots for anti-Israel protests. What started out at Columbia University as an anti-Israel protest movement has now spread to over 40 university campuses, where encampments have been reported. The vast majority of these protests are taking place in the U.S., with only two such events occurring in Canada thus far: one at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the other at McGill.

Columbia University in New York has come under particular media scrutiny as the size and scope of the protest quickly evolved from a small student movement to a gathering that drew residents from across the city. Moreover, as negotiations between faculty and staff broke down, the situation on the ground rapidly escalated, eventually requiring the New York Police Department (NYPD) to intervene at the behest of the school’s administration.

In the shadow of ongoing protests, Columbia University students began setting up the first known student encampment on April 17. This was the same day that Columbia University President Nemat Shafik was being grilled by Congress over the college protests, and where she acknowledged and denounced the ongoing antisemitism in these protests, saying it “has no place on our campus.” Yet the following day, the university was forced to call the NYPD to arrest protesters and try to disperse the encampment. The more than 100 protesters arrested notably included the daughter of Rep. Ilhan Omar (Dem).

These arrests enraged the crowd, only strengthening their numbers and resolve, and outsiders increasingly became involved with the protest as it gained national spotlight and momentum. Over the following days, as the arrests of students spread on social media, the School cancelled classes for all students. As the situation escalated, the School also attempted to set multiple deadlines for students to vacate the premises, all of which failed, as well as initiating student-led negotiations.

Clearly unable to deter the protesters with mere words, the Columbia administration escalated the situation. On April 29, they made good on their promise to suspend students who remained on its campus illegally after 2 p.m. In turn, the protesters escalated as well. The following day, they stormed Hamilton Hall on campus, barricading themselves inside and vandalizing the property, renaming it Hind Hall in honour of a young girl who died in Gaza. This, however, was short-lived. The occupation and destruction of a Campus building was seemingly a ‘step too far’ for the University administration. Moreover, with some politicians murmuring about deploying the National Guard, it was imperative to move quickly.

So the NYPD quickly entered Hamilton Hall with riot gear, clearing protesters from the building in which they had barricaded themselves, as well as dispersing the encampment protest that was still ongoing.

Hundreds of protesters were arrested. New York City Mayor Eric Adams claimed that many of those arrested were not actually Columbia students and that a small group of professional activists had infiltrated themselves into the Columbia protest. “Approximately 300 people were arrested at Columbia and City College,” Mayor Adams said in a statement. He continued, “We are prosecuting arrests to see who were actually students and who were not supposed to be on the grounds.”

University administrations throughout the United States have chosen a variety of approaches toward conflict resolution with the anti-Israel protesters, often in coordination with local government officials, with the ultimate goal of dismantling their encampments.

For example, at Brown University the administration chose to negotiate with the protesters. They engaged in a relatively quick and simple bargaining process between staff and students which led to the student protesters dismantling their “free-Palestine” encampment when the University agreed to hold a vote on divesting from Israel-linked businesses in October. Despite the success of Brown University in quelling these protests, not all administrators are willing to cede ground to the mob so easily. Many have rightfully pointed out that official university channels exist to deal with school investments – these would be the proper forum in which to promote divestment. Furthermore, some feel that acquiescing to the mob sets a dangerous precedent in which students may unduly leverage their position to shut down universities and seek concessions from the administration.

In contrast to Brown, the University of Southern California (USC) saw hundreds of arrests as police cracked down on protesters. This came after the University chose to cancel the valedictorian speech of a Muslim student, thus enflaming tensions and eventually escalating to the cancellation of the entire graduation ceremony.

Other protests, such as that at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), have gone on for weeks, largely peacefully, yet still at bitter odds with their University heads. Despite the administration’s pleas and a formal petition for their removal, those in the encampment have remained adamant about staying. Addressing the students, Interim Penn President J. Larry Jameson issued a stern warning to protesters, saying, “We have notified the protestors of their legal and policy violations. Failure to disband the encampment immediately and to adhere to Penn’s policies will result in sanctions consistent with our due process procedures as they apply to students, faculty, and staff.” Furthermore, he noted that antisemitic graffiti on a prominent campus statue would be investigated as a hate crime.

In contrast to our American compatriots to the south, the protest movement in Canada has been much calmer and smaller in scope. As previously mentioned, only McGill and UBC have encampments set up on their campuses. It seems that the “pro-Palestinian” protest movement on Canadian campuses has much less influence than in America, failing to gain momentum before many students finished their term. As an aside, if the success or failure of a protest movement is dependent upon the resumption or cessation of summer vacation, that seems to be indicative of the protesters’ commitment to the cause – at best, it’s seasonal.

At the McGill encampment, a court rejected a student injunction request as the standoff continued. Students are demanding the school implement the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) policy against Israel. Although protesters claim, rightfully, that BDS has been a longstanding campaign across university campuses, the University has counter-claimed that there are official channels to follow. The protesters have not adhered to these.
Ontario universities issued a stern warning that any attempt to erect encampments was against their policies and would be taken down.

Despite their limited size, especially in comparison to those in the U.S., these Canadian campus protests have been adequately newsworthy to warrant a political response. As a result, several prominent Canadian politicians have denounced antisemitism on campuses, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said, “Right now, right across the country, Jewish students do not feel safe.” Anthony Housefather, a Jewish Liberal MP, went so far as to call on McGill to request the aid of the Montreal Police Department.

McGill University eventually declared the protests illegal and released a statement saying, “We saw evidence of appalling antisemitic rhetoric and behaviours from some at the encampment, which now includes many people from outside McGill. We cannot and will not tolerate this.” Furthermore, McGill University released a video of pro-Palestinian students shouting antisemitic slogans at Jewish students.

The situation on some campuses has been resolved. However, active protests continue, and it remains to be seen whether or not they have reached their zenith. As a result, it’s hard to properly conclude an ongoing story. Protests could continue to escalate over the summer or fizzle out as students disperse from campus to return home, travel, or work, a fact which undoubtedly limited the scale of Canadian protests as many students finished their semester before the protests and the encampments could really take off and escalate.

*Due to the rapidly developing situation by the time of publication, some information may become out-of-date.

About the Author
I did my BA at Mount Allison University in Canada, studying History & Political Science. Thereafter, I began to pursue a degree in Journalism but took a hiatus from school to accept numerous job offers. I got my start in writing working for ERETZ: the Magazine of Israel in Tel Aviv, Israel. From my homeland Canada I have been published by both the National Post, and Jewish Post & News. The paper I currently write for and help publish is The Jewish Post -the successor to the now defunct paper: The Jewish Post & News. As a researcher and writer, I believe that applying historical context along with an in-depth knowledge of regional identity and political ideologies is the best way to identify and explain current geopolitical trends as well as forecast growing tension and unrest in future areas of conflicts -militarily, politically, and economically.
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