Minnesota college students use encampments, protests to pressure universities on Israel, Gaza

Theology student June Gromis entered Hamline University’s Old Main administrative building around 1 p.m. last Friday on a mission to shut it down.

Gromis and five other student protesters occupied the functional center of the oldest university in Minnesota — the building that houses the university president’s and provost’s offices — through Saturday evening, only agreeing to leave once officials promised to open talks about the school’s ties to Israel, in light of the military strikes that have claimed the lives of upwards of 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza.

“Our demands have not been met, but they entertained the possibility of bringing issues to the relevant university committee,” said Gromis on Tuesday, after his first overnight stay in a student encampment composed of six tents assembled just outside Old Main’s front doors, on the lawn near the corner of Snelling and Hewitt avenues in St. Paul. “To me, it’s really an issue of morality. We do not want our money, whether it’s our tax dollars or (tuition), to perpetuate the murder of civilians, and war crimes.”

The students’ demands include getting the university to publicly disclose how much money Hamline has invested in Israeli companies and American military contractors that do business with Israel, and then ultimately divesting from them. They’ve also called for Hamline to recognize a “social responsibility committee” to monitor such investments and serve as a student voice to the administration.

Similar scenes have played out at campuses across the country over the last week, sometimes far more dramatically, with violence erupting late Tuesday night between pro-Palestinian demonstrators and counter-protesters on the University of California-Los Angeles campus. Also Tuesday, New York City police officers swarmed through a Columbia University building in riot gear to clear out demonstrators who have been occupying the site across multiple nights.

50 tents on mall of University of Minnesota

At the University of Minnesota, dozens of students in the past week have moved into some 50 tents along the Northrop Auditorium mall green on the school’s East Bank campus in Minneapolis, at times linking arms to refuse police dispersal orders that tend to come late at night.

The U has kept 13 buildings along the mall closed this week, including Coffman Union, the Weisman Art Museum and Murphy Hall, forcing some classes to relocate or go online during the final exams of the semester. Nine U of M students were arrested April 23 as the encampments first emerged.

Donia Ab, a Palestinian student at the U majoring in psychology, said the cause for her was deeply personal. A member of Students for Justice in Palestine, Ab said that she lost 12 members of her extended family, including a cousin and her cousin’s four daughters, to Israeli military strikes.

“We had family members who were on a rooftop that got bombed,” said Ab on Tuesday, standing in front of tables set up with snacks for protesters, while a dancer carrying a large Palestinian flag on a pole performed to music. “We are here for Palestine. We are here to demand that the University of Minnesota divest from Israel.”

At the U, student protesters have demanded that administrators publicly acknowledge that the Israeli-Hamas war has caused pain and hardship for Palestinians and others on campus, a freeze on study abroad programs in Israel and divestment from Israeli companies and military contractors that do business with Israel.

Student organizers reportedly met with interim U President Jeffrey Ettinger on Wednesday morning. Ettinger said the planned half-hour meeting stretched for 90 minutes. But while both sides described the talks as positive, no breakthroughs were immediately announced.

At Hamline, communications director Jeff Papas said university board chair Ellen Waters and acting President Kathleen Murray met with student protesters on Monday and “we will continue to meet with students on areas where we feel we can work toward positive outcomes.”

He said Hamline’s investment advisers have reported that 0.1% of the school’s holdings are with companies based in Israel.

Jewish voices, college administrators respond

Across the country, administrators also are under pressure from pro-Israeli donors, students and alumni to stay clear of the topic.

The bombardments of Gaza have followed the events of Oct. 7, when some 1,200 Israelis and foreigners were killed by Hamas and other pro-Palestinian militants in the worst attack on Israeli soil since the nation’s founding in 1948. More than 240 people were taken hostage. Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada and the European Union.

Some Jewish students quoted in the national press said they have felt uncomfortable on their campuses, or pointed out protest chants that had turned explicitly violent and anti-Semitic.

Rabbi Yitzi Steiner, who is active with the U of M Chabad House and the Rohr Center for Jewish Student Life on campus, said he planned to lead a handful of Jewish students in prayer outside the encampments on Wednesday afternoon, “to show the Jewish students they shouldn’t be afraid, that this is their campus like anybody else’s. I am not declaring the encampment an anti-Semitic encampment … but Jews are not going to go away.”

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Steiner said the mood has been peaceful overall, but he felt one chant in particular the other day — “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — was clearly intended to antagonize.

“They’re talking about from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean sea, Palestine will rule,” he said. “What that is referring to is the entire state of Israel.”

Still, some Jewish groups have called for an end to the siege on Gaza.

On April 23, as the encampment formed at the U of M mall, the pro-Palestinian advocacy group Jewish Voice for Peace hosted a Passover seder on the mall, which was attended by some 200 students, faculty and staff.

“To me, the only way to honor Passover this year is by joining my community in organizing for the end to this genocide and a future where Palestinians can be free,” said Imogen Page, a graduate student in the School of Social Work, in a written statement at the time.

Macalester College

Some colleges appear to have at least partially defused tension on campus through quick acknowledgement of the strong feelings on all sides.

On March 6, after “Mac for Palestine” protesters occupied a floor of Markim Hall at Macalester College in St. Paul, President Suzanne Rivera issued a statement saying the college believes “in the importance of free expression, and we support students who express themselves through non-violent demonstrations. … Students who protest peacefully will not be punished by the college for doing so; employees who state their support for student protesters will not be punished for doing so.”

Rivera promised at the time to meet with student protesters after returning from representing the college in Asia. In April, she announced the formation of a social responsibility committee composed of students, faculty, staff and alumni to examine questions raised about the college’s investments and relationships to universities in Israel.

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“The work of that committee is underway and a report will be produced this summer,” said Macalester spokesperson Joe Linstroth, in an email Wednesday.

In an opinion column published in Inside Higher Ed in February, Rivera said that college presidents were under unprecedented and undue pressure to take sides on global conflicts, a carry-over from the increased visibility of college leaders on social media during the pandemic and the riots and protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020.

Accustomed to seeing top administrators communicate online, sometimes daily, students, parents and alumni have expected more of the same during the Israel-Hamas war.

“We are viewed as cowards if we stay silent and criticized for supporting the ‘wrong side’ or being too neutral if we speak up,” wrote Rivera.