we explain the tensions in several American universities after pro-Palestinian demonstrations

American campuses are ablaze due to the conflict between Israel and Hamas. At New York University, 120 people were arrested, then released, on the night of Monday April 22 to Tuesday April 23, police said. Since the start of the conflict, universities have been the scene of sometimes heated debates between students in the United States. Franceinfo tells you more about these tensions which caused reactions even at the White House.

A tense hearing before Congress for the president of Columbia

The recent wave of protest started from Columbia. Nemat Shafik, president of the prestigious New York university, defended on April 17 before parliamentarians her action to fight against anti-Semitism on her campus. In December, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Magill, and her Harvard counterpart, Claudine Gay, also had to answer questions from Congressional parliamentarians. These hearings led to their resignation.

Columbia is “a cradle for anti-Semitism and hatred”attacked the elected Republican Virginia Foxx, president of the education commission, at the origin of the parliamentary hearing. “Anti-Semitism must find no refuge in American universities”, she added. Nemat Shafik argued that 15 students, out of the 37,000 in the establishment, have been suspended and several professors are subject to disciplinary procedures. It is “tiny numbers”she commented

“Columbia strives to be a space free of hatred and discrimination in all their forms, and we condemn the anti-Semitism that has become pervasive today.”

Nemat Shafik, president of Columbia University

during a hearing before the US Congress

This hearing was eagerly awaited by certain pro-Palestinian students at the university, since demonstrators had “built a camp in the hours preceding the hearing”Write the New York Times. On site, in the middle of the tents, the demonstrators called on their university, which notably has an exchange program with Tel Aviv, to boycott any activity linked to Israel.

Around a hundred arrests on the Columbia campus

Twenty-four hours after his hearing before Congress, Nemat Shafik requested, in a letter on April 18, the intervention of the police to dislodge the demonstrators installed on the campus, judging that the organizers had “broke a long list of rules” relating to security. This action constitutes a first since 1996, specified a columnist from the The New York Times. “Police officers (…) made more than 108 arrests and ensured that there was no violence or injuries”declared on April 18 the Democratic mayor of New York, Eric Adams, who authorized the intervention.

Dozens of students continued to demonstrate on campus, setting up tents there to avoid being evicted. On Monday, the university decided to carry out all its courses remotely. “We need to put things back in order”declared its president in a press release.

The decision angered teachers, both those defending the protesters and their opponents. The Israeli-American professor Shai Davidai thus protested against the social network : “Today, Columbia University refused to let me on campus. Why? Because they cannot protect my safety as a Jewish professor. “The year is 1938, [période où les Juifs étaient persécutés par les nazis].”

For her part, Marianne Hirsch, a professor at Columbia and herself of Jewish faith, says “extremely shaken at the moment by seeing how anti-Semitism is exploited, and misused (…), to put an end to academic freedom, free debate, critical thinking”. Sarah Borus, a pro-Palestinian Jewish student, agrees: “My university administration, my elected representatives in Congress, and even the president behave as if they were spokespersons for the Jewish community, equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. They silence us, suspend us .”

The movement reaches other universities

Tensions increased on other campuses. During the night from Monday to Tuesday, 120 people were arrested in front of the premises of New York University (NYU). To dislodge the demonstrators who had settled there, the management, like that of Columbia, asked the police to “clear out”. “If they refuse to leave, we will ask the NYPD [la police de New York] to take coercive measures accordingly, up to and including arrest.”was written in a letter published by the police.

The university claimed to have observed behavior “hostile and disruptive to public order”. “We also learned that there were intimidating slogans and that several anti-Semitic incidents had been reported”, reported an NYU spokesperson. In a statement, the American Association of University Professors strongly denounced the decision “unjustified” of the university to call the police, arguing, furthermore, that “no one in the square had been, at any time, violent or anti-Semitic”. All those arrested were then released, an NYPD spokesperson told AFP.

At Yale, a prestigious university located in the state of Connecticut, around forty people were arrested in similar circumstances, according to a spokesperson for the establishment cited by the New York Times. Peter Salovey, president of the university, said Monday that those arrested had “rejected the final request that had been made to them to leave the premises voluntarily”, reports the American daily. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators had been on campus since Friday.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump react

A few months before the presidential election (November 5), these events shook the American political world. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican Mike Johnson, announced that he would meet with Jewish students at Columbia on Wednesday to discuss “the worrying rise of virulent anti-Semitism” on campus.

Before entering the courtroom for the resumption of his trial in New York, Donald Trump, leader of the Republicans for the presidential election, estimated Tuesday that “very radical people want to dismantle the universities” and that this “what is happening at the university level, at Columbia, NYU and others, is a shame”.

The situation is complicated for President Joe Biden, caught between his support “unshakeable” to Israel and the support for the Palestinian cause of part of the Democratic electorate. He returned to the demonstrations on Sunday, the eve of Jewish Passover. “In recent days we have witnessed harassment and calls for violence against Jews”he said. “This blatant anti-Semitism is reprehensible and dangerous, and it has absolutely no place on college campuses or anywhere in our country.”added the tenant of the White House.

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