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On Columbia’s Campus, a Protest Encampment Grows and Tensions Flare

With a light blue academic robe tucked under her arm, Professor Marianne Hirsh hurried to get through a security line at a Columbia University entryway on Monday morning. To pass the gates, everyone had to scan IDs, in compliance with an announcement from the university’s administration that only students and faculty would be allowed on campus.

Dr. Hirsh was not on her way to a graduation ceremony, however, but to protest the university’s president, Nemat Shafik. Last Wednesday, Dr. Shafik testified at a tense congressional hearing about antisemitism on college campuses, and the next day she called in the police to empty an encampment of demonstrators protesting the war in Gaza and the university’s ties to Israel. More than 100 students were arrested.

“I am here because of her infringement on academic freedom in the congressional hearing and because of her decision to bring police on to campus to arrest students,” said Dr. Hirsh, a professor emerita in the English and Comparative Literature Department.

Around and on Columbia’s campus on Monday — as protests unfolded under perfect blue skies, just hours before the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover — there was one sentiment shared by nearly everyone, no matter their viewpoint on the war: anger at Dr. Shafik.

Students have been sleeping in tents on campus for several nights, and confrontations between protesters and counterprotesters have occasionally broken out both inside and outside Columbia’s gates. On Monday, the action on Broadway began at about 9:30 a.m., when several dozen people, several wrapped in Israeli flags, listened to a speech from Professor Shai Davidai, who has been a vocal critic of Columbia’s response to antisemitism on campus.

A trio of women who live nearby saw Dr. Davidai’s posts saying he would be at Columbia and felt an urge to attend, despite needing to prepare Passover meals for dozens of guests.

Another woman, Peggy Sarlin, attended the rally swaddled in an Israeli flag. She said she was reminded of a 2004 documentary called “Columbia Unbecoming,” about antisemitism on campus, which was hotly debated at the time of its release.

“No one has done anything to address the problem since then,” she said.

Caroline Bissonnette, a graduate student studying journalism and international affairs, was waiting in the security line to get on campus. She said the protests had been peaceful and any escalation in tension had come as a result of the university’s response. “The biggest disruption has come from the police,” she said.

By 10:30 a.m. a throng of N.Y.P.D. officers began to mass on Broadway, some in riot gear. “Is this necessary?” asked Rabbi Michael Feinberg, who runs an nonprofit that supports worker rights and economic justice, as he walked to an interfaith Earth Day celebration. “I think it’s distressing that things have reached this point where there is this kind of police presence. It is especially sad that this is happening as we prepare to celebrate Passover.”

As the police kept watch, the verbal rancor and tension escalated.

A man holding a sign that said, “Israel Kills 14,000 Kids!” shouted antisemitic slurs at onlookers. A woman who was holding a poster of an Israeli hostage engaged in a shouting match with the man until she began to cry. A man shouting, “Palestine will be free,” was escorted by police officers toward a mobile command center.

A student dressed in a graduation gown and Birkenstocks sipped a coffee as she walked down Broadway. Graduation ceremonies are on May 15, but she was dressed for a photo shoot with her sorority sister. She said she was upset at the restrictions set up so close to graduation, but also at the way students had been treated.

Within the campus itself, workers had already set up chairs for graduation ceremonies. On a lawn nearby, student protesters and reporters milled around a large encampment of about 70 tents decorated with signs and Palestinian flags.

Shouts from the crowds on Broadway could be heard on campus, but inside the gate, the tenor was quieter and less intense. A large crowd of faculty members held a walkout and news conference, then migrated across Broadway to Barnard College to continue their protest over the arrests and suspensions of students.

Groups of students took in the scene. A second-year student who asked to be identified by only her first name, Linda, hung out with friends. She said was pleased to see professors speak out against the arrest of students. She said she supported the protesters’ right to gather and also said she understood why some Jewish students felt unsafe.

Nearby, two Barnard students wearing kaffiyehs — one carrying a large Palestinian flag — made their way toward the encampment after attending a Zoom class in their dorms. They said they did not feel any regret that the end of their school year had been dominated by unrest and protest. One said the cause was more important than their education.

Inside the campus gate near West 117th Street, a mother and son hugged goodbye. They did not share their names, citing safety concerns. She had stopped by to assess his safety, after he told her he no longer felt safe at school.

He has applied to transfer to another university in the fall.

Karla Marie Sanford contributed reporting.

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