On Thursday, November 30th, members of the coalition Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) engaged in two demonstrations in reaction to a University-held event and the annual Tree Lighting ceremony.

On Thursday afternoon, members of the Columbia University Apartheid Divest coalition gathered on Low Steps, lining the staircase leading to Low Library’s main entrance. The protesters locked hands and chanted slogans such as “We will free Palestine within our lifetimes,” echoing those heard in earlier pro-Palestine protests on campus this semester. They formed what they called a “Hall of Shame” for the speakers and attendees of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) event titled “The War in Gaza: Constructive Campus Conversations:” 

The protest on Low Steps.

The SIPA event was set to commence at 3:30 pm, about 45 minutes after the start of the protest. The event featured Columbia President Minouche Shafik, SIPA’s Dean Yarhi-Milo, and Dean Amaney from Princeton SIPA, all of whom have close ties to the Israel-Palestine conflict. President Shafik has worked extensively on the economics of the Oslo Peace Process, while Professor Yarhi-Milo is a distinguished researcher in political psychology and a former member of the Israeli Defence Forces. Dean Amaney is from a Palestinian background and has researched and taught extensively on Arab political development. In President Shafik’s words, the discussion centered around the “importance of conversation rooted in scholarship and the value of dialogue.”

The Thursday protest on the steps of Low Library followed the November suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and BC/CU Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), student groups that led numerous campus protests throughout the semester. The organizers of Thursday’s protest, Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), have a mission that aligns closely with their peer organizations. CUAD, which is made up of at least 80 Columbia student groups, has said it is committed to the “continuation of the Vietnam Anti-War movement and the movement to divest from apartheid South Africa.” The organization’s demands center around institutional divestment from the state of Israel. During the demonstration, they called on Columbia to discontinue its dual degree program with Tel Aviv University and cancel the opening of Columbia’s new Global Center in Tel Aviv, whose mission, according to the Vice President of Columbia Global, is to “build on Columbia’s long history of scholarly engagement with Israel and the region overall.” In solidarity with their suspended peer organizations, the demonstrators on Low Steps chanted, “We are all SJP.”

In the minutes leading up to the start of the panel discussion, Public Safety officers blocked the main entrance to Low Library. In response, protestors marched around the building as their chants echoed across the main campus. Attendees of the event were asked to enter through a side entrance to the building. The protest soon shifted to face this entrance. One demonstrator stood at the entrance, holding a sign that read “Ivy League Funds Genocide.”

Protestors march around Low Library.

Meanwhile, inside Low, the Deans discussed their commitment as administrators to ensure that “all voices are heard” and to foster “safe spaces for conversations to happen.” Throughout their conversation, the Deans touched upon the difficulties of teaching about the Arab-Israeli dynamic on US campuses, the hurt that Arab and Israeli students are feeling at the moment, and the importance of challenging a “zero sum” narrative about this historical conflict. 

Towards the end of the event, Claire Shipman, the moderator of the discussion, made reference to the protest brimming outside. “We have a lot of fans outside,” she said to the Deans. “I know they’re all there, cheering for you.” Dean Amaney responded, “I look forward to having a conversation with every single student…the students are our future.” 

Outside, the demonstrators chanted, “While you’re talking bombs are dropping” and “there are no two sides.” Students plastered the doors of Low Library with stickers of the Palestinian flag. On the University’s Instagram page, students cited the suspension of pro-Palestine advocacy groups and criticized the administration’s alleged hypocrisy in the comments section of a post summarizing quotes from the event.. 

Later that evening, CUAD staged a second protest in the midst of the annual Tree Lighting ceremony. Just after the trees were lit, protesters waved a Palestinian flag and held signs that read “Joy is Canceled,” a reference to Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s prohibition of celebrations of the release of Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank. Protesters stood silently behind the stage on Low Steps facing the audience and Butler Library and holding signs and banners. They chanted in between each a capella group’s performance, calling for divestment and Palestinian freedom, but remained silent during the performances themselves. Members of the demonstration subsequently walked up and down throughout the crowds on College Walk, engaging in chants such as “Free Palestine” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” 

Protests at the Tree Lighting.
Protestors held signs that read “Joy is Canceled”.
Members of the demonstration walking through the crowds on College Walk.

Images via Bwog Staff
Low Steps via Bwog Archives