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The university protests against Israel’s action in Gaza are a defining moment for Gen Z

What makes a generation? It’s not their mercurial takes on jean length and rise, what corny emojis they choose, or even what they eat, drink, and watch—at least that’s not the main gist of it. Rather, it’s about how a cohort of like-aged people choose to respond to the sociopolitical events around them. 

And Gen Z are in such a defining moment, as thousands of college students protest against the institutional backing of Israel, which continues to strike Gaza, causing devastation and killing more than 30,000 people, mostly women and children. After decades of occupation, Israel launched its current campaign in Gaza after a Hamas-led militant group attacked several Israeli bases and civilian communities on October 7th, which resulted in over a thousand deaths and hundreds of people captured.

Recently, the pressure between U.S. school administrations and students has come to a head after Columbia University president Minouche Shafik authorized the NYPD to clear out the campus’ encampment of students protesting the war in Gaza. Last week, hundreds of students began to camp out on the university’s main lawn, calling for it to divest from Israel. 

“I took this extraordinary step because these are extraordinary circumstances,” Shafik said in a statement. “The individuals who established the encampment violated a long list of rules and policies.” She claimed that the demonstration “severely disrupts campus life, and creates a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students.”

Known as the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment,” the sit-in is still taking place despite Shafik’s recent involvement of the police, which led to the subsequent arrest of 100 people. And as the semester winds down, protestors don’t seem to be going anywhere—and Columbia instead has since implemented a hybrid model for the remainder of the school year, so students can avoid the demonstrations if they so choose. 

“Columbia has shown over and over again that they don’t care about student rights, they don’t care about student voices, they don’t care about student safety,” Aidan Parisi, a pro-Palestianian protesters, told CBS

Columbia’s administration has issued a deadline for protestors in the encampment to leave the premises and has since pushed it back by 48 hours to speak with campus representatives. 

“I felt like I had to take a stand,” Isra Hirsi, daughter of Ilhan Omar and student at Barnard College who was arrested and barred from campus after protesting, told Time. “It’s a moment for everybody. It’s important for all of us as students at prestigious universities to really shed light on what is going on.” 

Similar demonstrations have cropped up across the country in response to Shafik’s actions against what the NYPD itself called peaceful protests. While clashes might be centered at Columbia, the whole unfolding has caused a ripple effect. Students from Yale, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and other universities have set up similar encampments and some, like Harvard University and Miami University are staging walkouts. Dozens of students have been arrested at Yale and hundreds of protestors, both faculty and undergrads, were arrested at New York University. 

The pot continues to boil as barricades that impede protestors from gathering crop up at NYU—and California State Polytechnic University students create their own barricade inside a campus building. It’s gone global, as Australian students at Sydney University join in on calling their institution to divest.

Some counter-protests have also cropped up as well. Outside the gates of Columbia, alumni, people not related to the campus, and even Rudy Giuliani have made their opinions about the on-campus protests known. But as students note, what’s happening on the inside is a more peaceful representation of discourse than the cultural war that is forming over the Ivy Leagues ‘ actions.

Many say administrations’ actions are encroaching on free speech, while others claim they’re enabling anti-semitism. “What we are witnessing in and around campus is terrible and tragic,” said Elie Buechler, rabbi for Columbia and Barnard’s Hillel, who directed students to go home and claimed Columbia and the NYPD “cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety in the face of extreme antisemitism and anarchy.” 

Despite allegations to the contrary, many of the protestors have expressed that their desire to fight for divestment is not attached to anti-semitism. Many protestors who are Jewish have pushing back against the conflation of Zionism and their religion. Demonstrators have distanced their cause from anti-semitism, as Columbia University Apartheid Divest and Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine released a statement that non-student protestors at the campus door are “inflammatory individuals who do not represent us,” adding, “We firmly reject any form of hate or bigotry and stand vigilant against non-students attempting to disrupt the solidarity being forged among students.”

“What’s clear from spending time at these protests is that there isn’t one unified, monolithic Jewish voice,” said NPR’s reporter Jasmine Garsd after speaking to Columbia students.

It’s become an issue of free speech, as academics have become involved. More than 1,400 academics issued an open letter that stated they would boycott future Columbia events if top officials like Shafik did not resign and remove NYPD from campus. Some faculty walked out in support of protestors with signs that called for “hands off our students.”

“I think we all have to speak out because none of us are safe until all of us are safe,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, associate professor at the University of New Hampshire told the Columbia Spectator. “And the tactics that are being used at Columbia University can very well be used at any of our institutions, so we need to defend academic freedom right now because it’s on the line at Columbia.” 

At an Earth Day event, President Biden touched on the concentric circles of protests. “I condemn the antisemitic protests,” he said. “I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

College students protesting against institutions is by no means a new story. But now, it’s Gen Z’s turn to carry the torch, passed on by advocates from generations before them. Youth activism is baked into the nation’s democracy, especially in colleges. It has led to important, notable events like the Fisk University protests, wherein students pushed back against Jim Crow-era racial discrimination, or the Kent State University protests, where students’ rallying against the Vietnam War led to Ohio’s National Guard killing four students and wounding nine others.

Columbia itself has a history of student advocacy that stretches back decades, CBS News points out. Boomers mobilized as part of the 1968 Vietnam War protests, which police disbanded after a week. Gen Xers held anti-apartheid protests in 1984 where students also called for divestment from South Africa. And millennials and older Gen Zers pushed back on the university’s policy on sexual assault in 2014 and climate change in 2019. 

“Protests have a storied history at Columbia and are an essential component of free speech in America and on our campus,” said Shafik, who recently has received pressure regarding an Congressional investigation of antisemitism on campus. But she claimed that the protest policy the campus made was not being upheld by those in the encampment. “The current encampment violates all of the new policies, severely disrupts campus life, and creates a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students.”

Even so, the NYPD seems to offer a different account of said demonstrators. “To put this in perspective, the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner,” Chief John Chell told the Spectator

Pro-Palestine Gen Zers seemingly remain resolute despite their institutions’ pushback. “It’s easy to look back at history and look back at the moral and political conflicts that have gripped the country and the world throughout history and discern what side you would have liked to have been on,” Elijah Bacal, a student and member of Yale Jews for Ceasefire, told ABC News. “But the hard thing is to, in the moment, seize on those opportunities to do the right thing and have the courage to stand up for what you think and know is right. I think we are on the right side of history here.”

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