campus beat

Several university leaders begin cracking down on anti-Israel disruptions on campus

Administrators at Pomona, Columbia and Vanderbilt have taken a harder line in recent weeks


Vanderbilt University students forcibly enter the university’s main administration building, March 26, 2024

Last Friday, police officers dressed in riot gear arrested at least 20 masked students at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., after some 150 people stormed the university president’s office and refused to leave for more than three hours. Organized by the student-led group Pomona Divest Apartheid, the demonstrators from Pomona, as well as nearby Scripps and Pitzer Colleges, were protesting the removal of an anti-Israel “mock apartheid wall” on campus.

Earlier this month, Columbia University indefinitely suspended four students for participating in a campus event called “Resistance 101,” led by prominent Palestinian activist Khaled Barakat, who appeared by video to discuss the war in Gaza that started in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. Barakat reportedly said that “friends and brothers in Hamas, Islamic Jihad” were excited to see student groups in the U.S. protesting on their behalf.

And at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., late last month, four students were arrested after staging a sit-in at the university’s main administration building for nearly 24 hours, demanding that the Tennessee school divest from companies that operate in Israel.

Six months after anti-Israel activity began to dominate many college campuses in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks — with minimal action taken by college presidents to quell rising levels of antisemitism — administrators at schools such as Pomona, Columbia and Vanderbilt have taken a harder line in recent weeks. As a result, Jewish leaders are wondering whether these three schools’ tougher responses could represent the leading edge of a trend that takes root across the country.

Jacob Baime, CEO of the Israel on Campus Coalition, told Jewish Insider that other universities will only take similar action if they are pressured to do so. “The suspension of anti-Israel activists at schools like Vanderbilt University is a step in the right direction in addressing the campus climate,” Baime said. 

In a statement to Pomona College on Friday, the school’s president, Gabrielle Starr, warned that “any participants in today’s events… who turn out to be Pomona students, are subject to immediate suspension. Students from the other Claremont Colleges will be banned from Pomona’s campus and subject to discipline on their own campuses.” 

“I don’t see this as a victory and I don’t know if it’s going to change anything in the future,” Ayelet Kleinerman, a fourth-year Pomona student from Israel who founded the group Haverim Claremont in 2022, told JI. “There is a lot of backlash here from students, faculty and community members on the outside,” she continued. “So we will have to wait and see how things unfold, but when people are arrested I don’t see it as a victory — it’s sad that we got to a situation in the first place where police needed to be called. We shouldn’t have gotten to this in the first place.” 

Kleinerman, who started Haverim as a way for Jewish and non-Jewish students to connect and learn about antisemitism — something she felt was missing from on-campus groups in the past — said the climate on campus for Jewish students since Oct. 7 “has been hard and intimidating, [filled] with a lot of [anti-Israel] protests.” 

For months, Jewish students and alumni from the Claremont Consortium— Pomona College, Scripps College, Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College, and Pitzer College (known as the 5Cs), have urged administrators to take action in response to what they called in a Nov. 6 email “harassment of Jewish Students at Pomona College.” 

“We are particularly alarmed by the administration’s acquiescence in the face of gross violations of College policy and applicable law,” the letter, signed by a group of 5C alumni said, pointing to several incidents at Pomona, including a demonstration on Oct. 20 when “Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace held a rally at Pomona’s Smith Campus Center with several hundred attendees. At that rally, SJP and JVP members assembled, at the Smith Campus Center (a shared space intended for use by all College students), a display honoring the Hamas terrorists responsible for the genocidal attacks of October 7.”

According to a university statement, “Unidentified, masked individuals have repeatedly disrupted and/or forced the cancellation of events on our campus since October 2023, including Pomona’s Family Weekend events, a gathering for high school counselors and Harvey Mudd College’s Presidential Inauguration.”

“Our response has been graduated, with repeated warnings and reminders of policy,” the statement continued. “President Starr has repeatedly offered to meet with students and multiple dialogue sessions have been held. However, the violations from some individuals have escalated.” 

“I wish they stopped it earlier,” Kleinerman said. “I think [Friday] was just the last straw on a long list of breaking policies.” 

Later this month, the Associated Students of Pomona College are slated to vote on a non-binding student referendum that calls for an academic boycott of Israel and divestment from companies with ties to Israel. 

In a campus-wide email, a copy of which was obtained by JI, Starr wrote that “the referendum raises the specter of antisemitism.” 

In an open letter sent Monday from Pomona College tour guides and admissions interns, dozens of students wrote that “the school’s decision to call in over 30 militarized police officers to arrest 20 unarmed, peaceful student protesters… was an egregious violation of students’ safety at their place of living and learning.” The signatories threatened to “strike [giving campus tours] until our student demands are met” and “will begin every tour, webinar, and information session introduction with an overview of what happened on April 5th. Specifically, we will make it clear that this institution suppresses student voices.” 

Also on Monday, Pomona faculty met to vote on a resolution created by several faculty members regarding the arrests. According to The Student Life, the campus newspaper, the meeting was centered around a resolution that condemned Starr’s handling of the demonstration and called for the removal of the suspensions on arrested students. Faculty are expected to reconvene later in the week to finish the discussion and to vote on the resolution.

At Columbia, students identified as participants in the “Resistance 101” meeting were dismissed from their campus housing on Wednesday and given 24 hours to vacate, according to the campus newspaper, the Columbia Spectator

Columbia conducted an investigation into the meeting using an outside firm, university President Minouche Shafik said in a statement, and charged the four students found to have participated in the event with violating campus policies, endangerment, disruptive behavior, among other charges, according to the Spectator.

“On March 24, an event took place at a campus residential facility that the University had already barred, twice, from occurring. It featured speakers who are known to support terrorism and promote violence,” Shafik said in a statement. “I want to state for the record that this event is an abhorrent breach of our values.”

Shafik, as well as Columbia’s board chairs, are slated to testify next week at a congressional hearing on campus antisemitism. The suspensions were a contrast from several other “unauthorized” events that were allowed to take place with little response from the administration. While the groups Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace remain suspended as official student groups, neither organization has ceased organizing on-campus events.

According to witnesses, some of the unauthorized events by the anti-Israel groups have included holding protests featuring chants of “Intifada, Intifada, long live the Intifada” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Deans have done nothing to stop the events the school claimed were canceled, students on campus told JI in December

Vanderbilt is among several universities that have traditionally been quiet regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but are suddenly seeing their first-ever anti-Israel activity, including Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns, in the months after the Oct. 7 terror attacks and the start of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

The late March demonstration, organized by the Vanderbilt Divest Coalition, was a response to the administration’s move to quash a first-time BDS referendum, scheduled to take place in March; administrators said that a boycott of Israel would violate Tennessee state law and jeopardize the state and federal funding the school receives. All of the protest participants who breached the building will be placed on interim suspension, a Vanderbilt spokesperson told JI at the time. 

“It’s too soon to tell whether the way these university administrators handled these situations is an indication of a strong trend, but their responses are certainly encouraging,” Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, told JI. 

“Clearly conveying and enforcing reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on student protests and demonstrations is sound policy and practice,” she continued. “These measures are critical and will greatly improve the campus climate for everyone. This applies also to the suspension of student organizations that disobey the rules.”

Elman said that university leaders are “typically hesitant to weigh in on student speech and free expression.”

“But given the egregiousness of recent incidents and conduct, including students blocking access to and commandeering school buildings and disrupting events and normal university operations, they really have no choice,” she continued. 

James Pasch, the Anti-Defamation League’s senior director of national litigation, called it “refreshing to see some college presidents stepping up to enforce campus policies.” 

“It is incumbent on all university administrators to put an end to the escalation of antisemitic discrimination and harassment on their campuses,” he told JI, adding that, “one vital way to do that is to implement robust enforcement of applicable campus rules and policies, including but not limited to the Code of Student Conduct and University Space Rules for antisemitic harassment, demonstrations, and signage on campus.” 

The ICC’s Baime, while hailing the moves by the three universities, said, “The Jewish community must continue to pressure universities to protect Jewish students by enforcing their codes of conduct. While Vanderbilt’s response should be applauded, it’s not nearly enough. We must continue to press universities to stand up for what is right.” 

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