According to Wiki:

An ongoing occupation protest conducted by pro-Palestinian students is occurring at Columbia University in New York City. The protests began on April 17, 2024, when pro-Palestinian students established an encampment of approximately 50 tents, calling it the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, on the university's campus, demanding the university divest from Israel. The encampment was forcibly dismantled the next day when university president Minouche Shafik authorized the New York City Police Department to storm campus and conduct mass arrests, but it has since been restored. The arrests marked the first time the university has allowed police to suppress campus protests since the 1968 demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

But... what's the point of protesting the war on the campus of Columbia University? I could understand a protest in front of the UN, in front of the Israeli consulate, or perhaps some Federal government building... but how is Columbia University at all affiliated with the war? They have ~zero connection to Israel, they're not sending arms to Israel and they're not particularly influential in the grand scheme of things. The campus is located in a (relatively) quiet part of Manhattan, so it's not even all that disruptive to most residents of the city. So, why not take the protest elsewhere?

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    Comments deleted. Please remember the purposes of comments. If you want to answer the question, please write a real answer that adheres to our quality standards. And please don't use comments to debate the subject matter of the question either.
    – Philipp
    Commented Apr 26 at 8:30
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    The university of Columbia isn't very specific here. There are protests in other universities as well. Are you interested just in this specific university or why universities in general were and still are used as places for protests? Commented May 2 at 21:12

6 Answers 6


Campuses are often hotspots of political protests.

From Mai 68 to the Vietnam War protests, this is a recurring pattern amongst countries. Students have flexible time, are very socially integrated as groups, can be - loudly - politically engaged and - some might say - like the attention. There is also a logistical and sympathy benefit from protesting at the very locations where you are a customer (of education services). This isn't to downplay the reasons why protests are happening, only to note that campuses frequently see protests. Columbia has a long history there.

Those specific students have requested that Columbia divest from Israeli interests so there is nothing all that surprising about these events taking place on campus:

In particular, students are demanding the university drop its direct investments in companies doing business in or with Israel, including Amazon and Google, which are part of a $1.2bn cloud-computing contract with the state’s government; Microsoft, whose services are used by Israel’s ministry of defense and Israeli civil administration; and defense contractors profiting from the war such as Lockheed Martin, which on Tuesday reported its earnings were up 14%.

Are some protesters Hamas apologists?

The infamous Harvard letter was dated the very day of the 10/7 attack and directly blamed Israel for the atrocities committed by Hamas. It was not that much of an outlier at the time either, as it was signed by a number of student groups.

"The apartheid regime is the only one to blame. Israeli violence has structured every aspect of Palestinian existence for 75 years," the letter added.

I don't wish to discredit protesters as a whole by quoting this. But it is a (minor?) aspect of the protest movement. And fixing this is key to having a pro-Palestine message be taken seriously.

Hopefully few student protesters will now be as vitriolically stupid as this. In April 2024, there is much to protest about. That does not excuse letting support for Palestinian rights bleed into sympathy for Hamas. However... protests, not infrequently, are organized or include, Jewish pro-peace supporters.

Are there valid reasons to be protesting?

This question is about the motivations of protesters, at this time, concerning this subject, at those locations. There is a flip side to my scrutiny, and utter dislike, of any apologism towards Hamas by protesters.

Easiest way to express that is to paraphrase a comment made under this very answer:

It's not even about Israel! They hate Jews and are antisemitic.

Much of the world reacted with great sympathy to Israel's suffering on 10/7. Six months later, with casualty rates approaching that of those of of European nations after six years of WW2, with a war being waged with controversial methods and with debatable adherence to IHL and the Geneva conventions. With no end in sight, no clear view of when Israel will stop, no insight on their post-war intentions, and with Western nations having had to resort to air drops to feed civilians at times?

Pull the other one! It's too easy, when asking about motivations, which this question does, to answer it * by blaming it on all of the protesters being somehow, solely, motivated by atavistic antisemitism. And to pretend there is nothing to protest about the Israeli government's actions.

Are these protests being policed even-handedly? Competently?

Last, but not least, the heavy-handedness displayed lately at Columbia, with hundreds of arrests, will, to anyone familiar with the historical record of protest movements, seem to carry the risk of inflaming matters and protests further. As another answer pointed out, the way these matters have been handled by universities so far seesaws between extremes, without much political savvy. It is hard to balance between freedom of expression and freedom from harassment for students whose course-taking is impacted (so far, the First Amendment seems to be a distant consideration for some, while others struggle to figure out if calls for genocide would be against their universities' codes of conducts).

* Well, no, nobody actually answered this question that way. That well-trod argument has been confined to - numerous - comments.

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    This answer seems to be more about why protest at a college campus in general, and not specifically why they chose the University of Columbia. I suggest adding more specific information from Ahmed's answer.
    – trlkly
    Commented Apr 26 at 13:24
  • @trlkly I am not sure what you mean. By now I've broken it down to a number of sections. The short first section notes that universities are often places where protests get started (factories, for worker and economic concerns might be another type of location, but not relevant here). Then I stated what the students are demanding in the very next section. Then, 4th section, I go back to the point that, well, there are issues to protest about. Commented Apr 30 at 23:24
  • To address your remark: I assume "they chose Columbia" because "they" study there (yes, I am aware the administration tried to highlight the participation of outsiders). Other protests are taking place at other campuses, Columbia is either more active, the administration has been more confrontational (seems to be somewhat the case) or it gets more news coverage, but it's not like this is isolated to just Columbia and "they" picked Columbia out of 20-odd universities that "they" could have flocked to. So what extra info are you asking about? Commented Apr 30 at 23:27

The real answer is that it is easy. Columbia University is not unique or special, there are hundreds of campuses where these protests have been organized.

It doesn't matter what the protests are about. Organizing a protest at a university is generally much easier than elsewhere because:

Easy to gather participation:

  • Students are more politically active
  • Students have very strong opinions (on many different issues, not just this)
  • Students are also very impressionable and idealistic, and want to change the world (nothing bad in that, that's a general characteristic of youth)
  • Students have free time on their hand (flexible schedules, can skip classes, no work/family commitments)

Easy to find space:

Little repercussions:

  • Universities are generally more tolerant with regards to student activities, than, say, employers or the affected general public.
  • In case of public universities, e.g., UC Berkeley, a first amendment claim can be made. However in other cases, trespassing charges may be brought (by private universities or employers).

All this is true for any student political activity. A separate question may be why there's so much violence when it comes to the pro-Palestinian protests, but that's not relevant to this question.

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    This answer seems to be more about why protest at a college campus in general, and not specifically why they chose the University of Columbia. I suggest adding more specific information from Ahmed's answer.
    – trlkly
    Commented Apr 26 at 13:25
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    Edited/reposted comment: This answer doesn't answer the question. It posits that "it's easy" which first doesn't provide motivation and second is easily rebutted by mentioning the arrests and violence by police against those protestors. This answer shows bias by ignoring the real, mentioned motivation for the protestors. This answer should be changed. Commented Apr 26 at 13:27
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    The answer is conjecture. Answers about people's motivations should at least cite some evidence and not be based purely on speculation. For example, the groups protesting at Columbia university have stated why they protest there. That is an important piece of evidence not discussed in this answer. Commented Apr 26 at 13:29
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    I would add that there is also a low barrier of entry for those not closely associated with the core protest. A lot of student protests have a non-insignificant number of normally disinterested people joining friends that are active participants. There is a far lower requirement than even being a member of a group or organization.
    – David S
    Commented Apr 26 at 23:07
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    @DavidS oh, yeah, that's true. I've seen an interview with one of the Stanford protesters on yesterday's local news. It was some Palo Alto resident who basically said "I saw students protesting, thought it was so nice, and joined them".
    – littleadv
    Commented Apr 26 at 23:10

None of the existing answers provide a real answer.

Answer: To get Columbia University to divest from its business with Israel-affiliated companies

From a Guardian article:

At Columbia, students are demanding the university drop its direct investments in companies doing business in or with Israel, including Amazon and Google, which are part of a $1.2bn cloud-computing contract with Israel’s government; Microsoft, whose services are used by Israel’s ministry of defense and Israeli civil administration; and defense contractors profiting from the war such as Lockheed Martin, which on Tuesday reported its earnings were up 14%.

Other groups, such as Yale University’s Endowment Justice Coalition and student groups at Cornell University, are pushing administrators to drop investments in weapons manufacturers specifically.

Students at the University of California, Berkeley, have similarly called for divestment of Israel across the board, as have student groups at New York University.

The protestors have identified links between Columbia University (and other universities) and companies doing business with or in Israel.

This isn't the first time such a campaign has happened. It also was done against Apartheid South Africa (from the same Guardian article):

In 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Congress of Racial Equality held a New York City sit-in calling for Chase Bank to stop financing apartheid in South Africa. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, many campus organizers also successfully pressured their schools to cut financial ties with companies that supported the apartheid regime, including Columbia, which became the first Ivy League university to do so.

Finally, in the past such action has had some limited success:

In 2009, Hampshire College divested from a mutual fund with Israeli holdings after facing pressure from BDS activists. (Administrators officially denied the decision was boycott-related.)

Other colleges have been forced to consider the issue: in 2019, for instance, a Brown committee recommended the university divest from companies linked to human rights violations, said Olivia Katbi, organizer with the BDS movement.

Additionally: motive is not anti-semetic

From an Independent article:

Mr Ben-Menachem is one of many Jewish students who joined the protests at Columbia and other universities across the US calling for their institutions to cut ties with companies linked to Israel over the war in Gaza.

He said he has watched with amazement as the media and political figures have attempted to characterise the protests as antisemitic and dangerous, despite Jewish student organisations playing a central role in them.

Additionally (from the same article):

While Mr Ben-Menachem said there had been credible reports of antisemitism in and around the campus, they were not representative of the hundreds of protesters who had camped out to protest against Israel’s war. What concerned him more than outside agitators was the university’s attempts to crack down on the protests — including the rumours that it may soon enlist the National Guard to intervene.


“It’s absurd to say that they are gonna bring in the National Guard and the NYPD to protect Jews when it’s actually Jews who are being arrested,” he added.

Sarah, a Jewish student at Columbia who asked for only her first name to be published, was among those arrested for taking part in the encampment. She was held by the NYPD for eight hours, with her hands in zip ties, after they moved in on the camp on Thursday. She was suspended the next day, but snuck back onto campus a few days later to take part in a Passover Seder celebration with fellow protesters. --

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    Since even the article quoted in the original question mentions that they are "demanding the university divest from Israel" I think this is the only correct answer, and also one of the few that doesn't appear to have been written in bad faith.
    – A N
    Commented Apr 26 at 14:54
  • Arguably, Sarah at Columbia isn't "anti-Semitic" or "anti-Jewish", but -- for a similar reason -- a non-management worker who ignores a strike against his/her employer and continues to do paid work for the employer could deny being "anti-Worker." In the case of labor relations, we don't have to restrict ourselves to an oversimplified vocabulary inventory that offers only three options: "pro-Worker", "Neutral", and "anti-Worker." Instead, we have the word "scab." Arguably, "scab" indicates that some workers won't tolerate neutrality from even a single fellow worker. Commented May 1 at 10:46

It has become a focal point

3 university leaders were interviewed by Congress on their stance on anti-jewish sentiments and anti-jewish language use by student and employees in protests. 4 were originally planned to adress congress, the leader of Colombia was on travel. Expedient, many claimed, and she was also called by Congress to answer questions albeit later. She did so, and with the previous interviews in mind took a much stronger stance, even to the point of promising to sanction a tenured professor based on statements made in an opinion piece.

This was well received by congress... but very much worse received by the students and academic employees. It was a fine line to thread, and she missed it on the other side.

Colombia University has tried to be tough on protesters but it is becoming increasingly apparent that the leadership has limited options and backing. And, since the eyes of the world is now on the protestors camp; media, congress, activity groups... It has become the focal point of the culture war. One side believes that the freedom to express themselves should be ignored and that academia is a waste of time altogether. The other side thinks it is a good idea to profane, harass and threaten a particular ethnic group based on events happening half a world away.



But... what's the point of protesting the war on the campus of Columbia university?

Short Answer:

The protesters aren't just targeting Columbia University they are targeting Universities across the United States.

Columbia University has an endowment of $14 Billion dollars. The total size of all University endowments in the United States is $839.090 billion. In doing so they are seeking to begin to deny Israel access to important investment funds. If successful, the divestment agenda will expand to corporations. Spreading awareness and support as they go. At least that is what occurred in the 60s and 80s against Vietnam war and South Africa Apartheid. The harder the police crack down the greater the support. Such movements have been very effective historically. Israeli PM Netanyahu has long stated an bds movement is an existential threat to Israel.

The protests over the Israel-Hamas war put a spotlight on college endowments


The organizers of the Israeli Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement are mirroring the similarly named movement which successfully targeted and ended South Africa's Apartheid regime June 17, 1991, leading to multiracial elections in April 1994. They did so by targeting the regime's finances.

South Africa being a much larger and significantly more diverse economy under Apartheid than the Israeli economy. University endowments in the United States being a huge pot of investment dollars and a stepping stone to greater public awareness of their issue.

The South Africa BDS movement Protested Universities until they publicly divested. They also eventually targeted multi national companies. Together these actions denied South Africa's any significant international funds and ultimately lead to the end of the regime as financially unviable; even in the face of oppositions to the BDS movement from many of the worlds governments at the time including the United States.

The Israeli BDS movement has a long way to go to achieve the success which the South Africa Movement achieved. But this movement has long been considered by Israel an existential threat.

  • It's why 48 U.S. states have laws which penalize companies who join any divestment campaign against Israel.

Wielding Antidiscrimination Law to Suppress the Movement for Palestinian Rights

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    What % of university endowments are invested into Israel? Commented Apr 26 at 18:11
  • @JonathanReez: As JMS already commented, that's probably hard to tell. It also depends heavily on your definition of "invested into Israel". Another answer lists a couple of companies that the university has invested in: Amazon and Google, who provide the majority of cloud services to the Israeli government. Microsoft, who provide the OS and office / productivity software running on practically every desk in every large organization on the planet, which of course includes the Israeli Defence Ministry and the IDF. The university is also invested in several US weapons manufacturers, including … Commented Apr 28 at 9:59
  • Lockheed-Martin, of whom the IDF operates the F-35, C-130 and C-130J, and the KC-130. Commented Apr 28 at 10:04
  • Some others I found: JPMorgan Chase, who advise pretty much everybody everywhere, so likely also have advised the IDF or MoD at some point or another. Merck, where I wouldn't be surprised to find one of their products in some soldier's medical bag. AT&T and Verizon, both of which operate in Israel. Commented Apr 28 at 10:24

Columbia University is located in New York City, a major city and financial center. Protests at such a visible location can attract attention from local and national media outlets. This can help amplify the protesters' message and reach a wider audience. Furthermore, the university employs many intellectuals and so it can potentially mobilize support or provoke discussion within the academic community. While the university is not affiliated with the war, some of its individuals may be affiliated in some way. This can help put pressure on the people and organizations who are supporting the war.

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    This is true, but the first point applies to the United Nations building, too.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Apr 25 at 22:03

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