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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

College students are telling you exactly how they feel about the Israel-Hamas war. Listen.

What university administrators across the country need to realize is that time isn't on their side. History will remember the way school officials called the police on their students.

I took the train up to Columbia University last week to see the "depraved" New York college students everyone keeps saying are taking over their college campuses.

According to social media and news coverage, these students are singlehandedly driving our country into chaos by protesting – something that college students have done for decades.

Behind the gates and in pockets along the campus perimeter, pro-Palestinian students wore keffiyehs, the traditional Palestinian scarves, and waved the Palestinian flag. There was a group of interfaith believers huddled and chanting just off the sidewalk. Nearby were members of Neturei Karta, an Orthodox Jewish group that opposes the state of Israel.

Pro-Israel counterprotesters were marching down the streets, making their presence known to the students behind the gates.

At one point, I watched as a group of students waved the Palestinian flag over one of Columbia’s gates and argued with pro-Israel demonstrators. 

“You’re a Nazi!” one pro-Israel protester yelled. “You’re all Nazis.”

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators have been accused of antisemitism. On April 21, the Sunday before Passover, a rabbi who works for Columbia told hundreds of Jewish students via WhatsApp that the university had failed to guarantee their safety and urged them to return home. The following day, Columbia moved classes online.

But I didn't see violence, out-of-control students or chaos on my visit. What I saw were people on either side of the argument saying exactly how they felt about the Israel-Hamas war and an Ivy League school that doesn't know how to deal with it aside from militarization.

What's happening at Columbia and campuses across the country?

For months, there have been protests calling into question U.S. support of Israel. Across the country, demonstrators have blocked roadways, disrupted speeches and boycotted products. Some of the most vocal dissidents have been on college campuses. 

Over the past two weeks, students at more than 30 campuses have held demonstrations. This has led to hundreds of arrests across the country.

Earlier in April, Columbia University called the New York Police Department on demonstrators who had set up an encampment. More than 100 people were arrested. Since then, protests at Yale University, the University of Minnesota and New York University have led to mass arrests. Police have shown up at multiple schools in riot gear. At the University of Texas at Austin, the administration called in state troopers.

This has not stopped students across the country from creating encampments, both in solidarity with the students at Columbia and in protest of the ongoing conflict that has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians after more than 200 days of war. Instead of focusing on the destruction we're witnessing in real time, the administrations of these universities are choosing to reprimand students for practicing their right to protest.

On Monday, Columbia announced it began suspending students hours after demonstrators defied a deadline for clearing the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” at the center of campus.

At the University of Texas at Austin on April 29, 2024, police arrest a protester at an encampment where students called attention to the war in Gaza.

Law enforcement was everywhere at the Columbia protests I visited, with NYPD officers and private security guarding the entryways. I understand that they are expected to be there – I’m just not sure it can lead to any genuine resolution.

Nothing will escalate a situation more than introducing police in riot gear with zip ties at the ready. Nonviolent protest does not need to be met with weaponry. I don’t know why university administrations continue to act as if this will accomplish something, considering there have been so many times before this where it hasn’t.

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Creating an unsafe environment for the protesting students

The Columbia administration's response harkens back to its actions in 1968 during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, when the NYPD arrested and violently removed more than 700 protesters who had seized university buildings and temporarily took a dean hostage.

The university eventually ceded to the demands and severed ties with a Pentagon institute, but it did not change what these students endured to get their message across.

What university administrators across the country need to realize is that time isn’t on their side. History will remember the way school officials called the police on their students. 

It's wild to see a group of people be so committed to villainizing themselves in the eyes of their students and the general public.

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I have repeatedly said that this will be one of the top issues of the presidential election. What we’re seeing on college campuses is proof of that. It is consistent with the polling we’ve seen that shows Generation Z is sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle, and it is consistent with the surge of uncommitted votes we've seen in the Democratic primaries.

It shouldn't be surprising that this generation is mobilizing against a war that, in part, is funded by U.S. tax dollars.

An entire generation is telling you exactly how they feel about financially supporting war, and I don't think they'll be backing down any time soon.

Follow USA TODAY elections columnist Sara Pequeño on X, formerly Twitter, @sara__pequeno and Facebook facebook.com/PequenoWrites.

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