The College Campus Palestinian Protests: Key Issues

Social Justice Policy Brief #163 | By: Courtney Denning | May 03, 2024
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Nearly 1,000 students from more than 50 colleges across the country have been arrested for their involvement in protests over the war in Gaza.

On April 17, student organizers with the Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) set up encampments in the middle of Columbia University to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza. This movement began the same day that Columbia University’s president Nemat Shafik was called for questioning before Congress due to criticisms that she was enabling antisemitism on campus.

Likely inspired by the demonstrations at Columbia University, student groups at other colleges started gathering to protest Israel’s actions in their war with Hamas. CUAD demands that the university be more transparent with their finances, divest from pro-Israel companies and grant amnesty for protestors. The demands of related movements across the country are similar.

Protesting students have been arrested for reports of antisemitism, trespassing, and disorderly conduct amongst other related offenses. Most recently, on Wednesday May 1, violence broke out at the University of California, Los Angeles between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protesters, resulting in another wave of arrests.


American universities have long been the breeding grounds of social movements and protests. During the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was a huge leader in the movement to end segregation, hosting sit-ins, Freedom Rides, marches and voter education projects. Some of the most prominent anti-war protests during the Vietnam War were held on college campuses from Yale to University of California Berkeley.

Organizers and participants in this current wave of protests see themselves as a continuation of this legacy. “We are a continuation of the Vietnam anti-war movement and the movement to divest from apartheid South Africa,” CUAD stated in a statement to Columbia University’s school newspaper.

The Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA state that they organize based on “democratic principles to promote justice, human rights, liberation and self-determination for the Palestinian people.”

Outcries from protesting students have included claims of police brutality, suppression of the right to assembly, silencing of free speech and the targeting of minorities, specifically those who appear to be Palestinian.

One protestor at Columbia posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that police “forcibly removed hijabs from multiple muslim columbia students in jail,” violating their right to freedom of religion.

In the eyes of the organizers, this pro-Palestinian movement on college campuses carries on a legacy of peaceful protests being met with unreasonable, violent backlash from police. The arrests associated with the ongoing protests have also sparked debates over free speech and the limits of self expression on college campuses.

On May 1, the House of Representatives passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act in response to fears of rising antisemitism amongst pro-Palestinian college protesters. Main critics of the bill claim that this is an attack on free speech and could result in harsher punishments for protestors whose messages are misinterpreted.

This highlights a major conflict underlying these protests: that pro-Palestinian criticisms of the state of Israel are often conflated with antisemitic hate speech.

While the purpose of these demonstrations is to protest a war across the globe, they cannot convey this message without also tackling the domestic issues of freedom of speech and the right to assembly.

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