University of Michigan computer science junior Josh Brown, center, hands...

University of Michigan computer science junior Josh Brown, center, hands out miniature blue and white flags of Israel while standing Wednesday, April 23, 2024, in front of a banner reading “LONG LIVE THE INTIFADA," in Ann Arbor, Mich. The banner is part of a protest by students and groups demanding the Ann Arbor school divest from companies that do business with Israel. Credit: AP/Corey Williams

Students at a growing number of U.S. colleges are gathering in protest encampments with a unified demand of their schools: Stop doing business with Israel — or any companies that support its ongoing war in Gaza.

The demand has its roots in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a decades-old campaign against Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. The movement has taken on new strength as the Israel-Hamas war surpasses the six-month mark and stories of suffering in Gaza have sparked international calls for a cease-fire.

Inspired by ongoing protests and the arrests last week of more than 100 students at Columbia University, students from Massachusetts to California are now gathering by the hundreds on campuses, setting up tent camps and pledging to stay put until their demands are met.

“We want to be visible,” said Columbia protest leader Mahmoud Khalil, who noted that students at the university have been pushing for divestment from Israel since 2002. “The university should do something about what we’re asking for, about the genocide that’s happening in Gaza. They should stop investing in this genocide.”

Campus protests began after Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, when militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. During the ensuing war, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the local health ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between combatants and noncombatants but says at least two-thirds of the dead are children and women.

WHAT DO THE STUDENTS WANT TO SEE HAPPEN?

The students are calling for universities to separate themselves from any companies that are advancing Israel's military efforts in Gaza — and in some cases from Israel itself.

Students protest at an encampment on the campus of the...

Students protest at an encampment on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Cambridge, Mass. Credit: AP/Charles Krupa

Protests on many campuses have been orchestrated by coalitions of student groups, often including local chapters of organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. They're banding together as umbrella groups, such as MIT's Coalition Against Apartheid and the University of Michigan's Tahrir Coalition.

The groups largely act independently, though there has been some coordination. After students at Columbia formed their encampment last week, they held a phone call with about 200 other people interested in starting their own camps. But mostly it has happened spontaneously, with little collaboration between campuses, organizers said.

The demands vary from campus to campus. Among them:

— Stop doing business with military weapons manufacturers that are supplying arms to Israel.

Students protest at an encampment on the campus of the...

Students protest at an encampment on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in Cambridge, Mass. Credit: AP/Charles Krupa

— Stop accepting research money from Israel for projects that aid the country's military efforts.

— Stop investing college endowments with money managers who profit from Israeli companies or contractors.

— Be more transparent about what money is received from Israel and what it's used for.

Student governments at some colleges in recent weeks have passed resolutions calling for an end to investments and academic partnerships with Israel. Such bills were passed by student bodies at Columbia, Harvard Law, Rutgers and American University.

HOW ARE COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES RESPONDING?

Officials at several universities say they want to have a conversation with students and honor their right to protest. But they also are echoing the concerns of many Jewish students that some of the demonstrators’ words and actions amount to antisemitism — and they say such behavior won’t be tolerated.

Sylvia Burwell, president of American University, rejected a resolution from the undergraduate senate to end investments and partnerships with Israel.

“Such actions threaten academic freedom, the respectful free expression of ideas and views, and the values of inclusion and belonging that are central to our community,” Burwell said in a statement.

Burwell cited the university's “longstanding position” against the decades-old BDS movement.

Protesters in the movement have drawn parallels between Israel’s policy in Gaza — a tiny strip of land tucked between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea that is home to about 2.3 million Palestinians — to apartheid in South Africa. Israel imposed an indefinite blockade of Gaza after Hamas seized control of the strip in 2007.

Opponents of BDS say its message veers into antisemitism. In the past decade alone, more than 30 states have enacted laws or directives blocking agencies from hiring companies that support the movement. Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called it a “pernicious threat” in 2019, saying it fueled bias against Jews on U.S. campuses.

Asked this week whether he condemned “the antisemitic protests,” President Joe Biden said he did. “I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians,” Biden said after an Earth Day event Monday.

At Yale, where dozens of student protesters were arrested Monday, President Peter Salovey noted in a message to campus that, after hearing from students, the university’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility had recommended against divesting from military weapons manufacturers.

President Minouche Shafik at Columbia said there should be “serious conversations” about how the university can help in the Middle East. But “we cannot have one group dictate terms,” she said in a statement Monday.

MIT said in a statement that the protesters have “the full attention of leadership, who have been meeting and talking with students, faculty, and staff on an ongoing basis.”

HOW MUCH MONEY ARE THE SCHOOLS RECEIVING?

On many campuses, students pushing for divestment say they don’t know the extent of their colleges’ connections to Israel. Universities with large endowments spread their money across a vast array of investments, and it can be difficult or impossible to identify where it all lands.

The U.S. Education Department requires colleges to report gifts and contracts from foreign sources, but there have been problems with underreporting, and colleges sometimes dodge reporting requirements by steering money through separate foundations that work on their behalf.

According to an Education Department database, about 100 U.S. colleges have reported gifts or contracts from Israel totaling $375 million over the past two decades. The data tells little about where the money comes from, however, or how it was used.

Some students at MIT have published the names of several researchers who accept money from Israel’s defense ministry for projects that the students say could help with drone navigation and missile protection. All told, pro-Palestinian students say, MIT has accepted more than $11 million from the defense ministry over the past decade.

MIT officials didn't respond to an emailed request for comment.

“MIT is directly complicit with all of this,” said sophomore Quinn Perian, a leader of a Jewish student group that is calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war. He said there’s growing momentum to hold colleges accountable for any role they play in supporting Israel’s military.

“We’re all drawing from the same fire,” he said. “They’re forcing us, as students, to be complicit in this genocide.”

Motivated by the Columbia protests, students at the University of Michigan were camping out on a campus plaza Tuesday demanding an end to financial investments with Israel. They say the school sends more than $6 billion to investment managers who profit from Israeli companies or contractors. They also cited investments in companies that produce drones or warplanes used in Israel, and in surveillance products used at checkpoints into Gaza.

University of Michigan officials said that they have no direct investments with Israeli companies, and that indirect investments made through funds amount to a fraction of 1% of the university's $18 billion endowment. The school rejected calls for divestment, citing a nearly 20-year-old policy “that shields the university’s investments from political pressures.”

WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE STUDENTS?

Students at Harvard and Yale are demanding greater transparency, along with their calls for divestment.

Transparency was one of the key demands at Emerson College, where 80 students and other supporters occupied a busy courtyard on the downtown Boston campus Tuesday.

Twelve tents sporting slogans including “Free Gaza” or “No U.S. $ For Israel” lined the entrance to the courtyard, with sleeping bags and pillows peeking out through the zippered doors.

Students sat cross-legged on the brick paving stones typing away on final papers and reading for exams. The semester ends in a couple of weeks.

“I would love to go home and have a shower," said Owen Buxton, a film major, “but I will not leave until we reach our demands or I am dragged out by police.”

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