Anti-Israel protests on college campuses drive calls for increased safety

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NEW YORK — Friction is continuing on college campuses a day after a tense moment between Jewish students and participants in a pro-Palestinian rally at Cooper Union, heightening safety concerns amid ongoing clashes over the Israel-Hamas war.

Jewish leaders and students gathered Thursday afternoon on the Manhattan campus to condemn the college’s handling of the incident. Advocates said several Jewish students in the campus library felt threatened by protestors who shouted pro-Palestine messages and appeared to be intent on breaking into the library room.

“This school is in violation of the civil rights of these students,” said New York City Council Member Inna Vernikov — who was recently charged with gun possession after she protested against a pro-Palestinian rally.

“It is their job to protect Jewish students. Could you imagine this happening to any other ethnic minority in New York City?”

The clash at Cooper Union is the latest example of conflict between students and faculty on college campuses. Anxiety surrounding campus safety has been growing as protests erupt across the country over the conflict in the Middle East.

Columbia University earlier this week postponed a major fundraising drive following an assault on an Israeli student after he confronted a woman for tearing down posters with names of photos of Israelis that Hamas took as hostages and dueling demonstrations on campus.

And following an anti-Israel protest at Binghamton University, a student declared that “Israel is worse than Nazi Germany.” Jewish students, faculty and alumni at New York University, meanwhile, signed onto a letter this week condemning the institution’s lack of response to the rise in antisemitism.

Students at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., also projected pro-Hamas messaging onto campus buildings at night, with one reading “Glory to our Martyrs.”

And officials at Drexel University are investigating whether a Jewish student was the victim of a hate crime after the student’s dorm room door was set on fire.

Gerard Filitti, an attorney with the Lawfare Project — a group that defends Jewish people’s rights — wants to press criminal charges against the pro-Palestinian protestors at Cooper Union for menacing, as well as rioting and incitement charges. Students did not speak during the rally for safety reasons.

Cooper Union’s president, Laura Sparks, is now facing calls from advocates and students to step down.

Vernikov brought a pre-written resignation letter for Sparks to Thursday’s rally outside the library.

“We will demand the prosecution to the fullest extent of the law,” Filitti said. “We need to send a message in New York City and elsewhere that there are consequences for threatening and intimidating Jewish students or any other students.”

A spokesperson for Cooper Union said staffers remained with students in the library and Sparks was in the building until after the protesting students dispersed.

The school is reviewing reports and footage from the incident, boosted security and is contacting affected communities, the spokesperson said.

“The devastation and loss of life in Israel and Gaza are a cause of deep pain and anger for people around the world and in our own community,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “While we support our students’ right to peacefully protest and express themselves, a walkout on Wednesday reached an unacceptable level when protesting students entered a campus building and disrupted the learning environment.”

Sari, the mother of a Cooper Union graduate student who was in the library, said her daughter recounted the experience to her.

“She’s frightened,” Sari said during the rally, asking for her last name to be withheld for safety reasons. “She’s frightened to be on this campus.”

Several NYPD officers were on site at Cooper Union the day of the protest at the behest of school officials and accompanied roughly 20 pro-Palestinian protesters who made their way through the building, eventually arriving at the library.

NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell on Thursday morning said that the doors to the library were closed, but not locked — contradicting reports from shaken students who said school administrators battened down the room as pro-Palestinian protesters banged on doors and large glass windows.

Officers later asked some of the Jewish students in the library if they needed assistance getting home, according to Chell, which they declined.

“There [were] no direct threats, there was no damage, there was no danger to any students in that school,” he said during a press briefing.

Mayor Eric Adams on Wednesday evening said his administration has been in contact with the school as well as law enforcement.

“While the students at Cooper Union have a right to peacefully protest, hate has no place in our city,” Adams said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. Gov. Kathy Hochul also shared a similar message of support.

The City University of New York has deployed public safety officers to spaces on campus where Jewish, Muslim and Arab students gather, CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez said in a letter to students and staff on Wednesday. A CUNY spokesperson referred POLITICO to the letter.

Matos Rodríguez noted that while the university is committed to free speech, students are prohibited from using university property and platforms, including computers or email addresses, to promote political activities or agendas.

When asked about the incident at Binghamton, a SUNY spokesperson declined comment. Earlier this month, SUNY Chancellor John King expressed support for the Jewish community and said resources are available for all students that request it. A Binghamton spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Students, staff and politicians implored school leaders to do more to safeguard students from hate speech and violent protests on campuses.

David Greenfield, a Brooklyn College adjunct law professor and CEO and executive director of the Met Council — the country’s largest Jewish charity dedicated to combating poverty — said institutions are not doing enough to draw the line between protecting free speech and ensuring students’ safety.

“These protests start as peaceful protests, but what ends up happening is more times than not, they end up as violent protests,” Greenfield said in an interview. “They start from a place of free speech and end in a place of hate speech and intimidation. And that’s a line that we cannot allow them to cross.”

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) — an outspoken pro-Israel supporter — is holding a press conference Friday morning with Jewish students, parents, faith leaders and advocates to condemn antisemitism incidents on college campuses.

Assemblymember Nily Rozic, the first Israeli-born state assemblymember, blasted rampant antisemitism on campuses.

“The reality and illusions of safety on campus have almost completely disappeared — what a frighteningly dangerous time to be a Jewish student on any campus in New York,” Rozic, a Democrat, said in a statement. “There needs to be accountability from university and college presidents, particularly for any college or university that receives public funding. Antisemitism on campus cannot be tolerated — full stop.”

GOP Rep. Marc Molinaro — who authored legislation to promote the teaching of accurate Holocaust history in schools — said he was “deeply disturbed” by the Binghamton student’s invoking of Nazi Germany.

“Let me speak directly to the students who have launched these anti-Israel protests at colleges across America,” Molinaro said in a statement. “We will always respect — and fight — for your right to free expression. But we will never accept bigotry or outright idiocy. Please take the time to learn history, remember the past and open your eyes and minds to truth. We will not forget.”

New York GOP Chair Ed Cox said he would like to see the expulsion of students who resort to violent or threatening activities.

“Any foreign students participating in such activity should be deported from the United States,” Cox said in a statement.

Joe Anuta contributed to this report. 

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