As police officers guarded the wrought iron gates protecting Columbia University’s main campus on Tuesday evening, checking for student identification cards, a group gathered around a stone dais at the center of the quad.
Roughly 400 students held Palestinian flags and handmade signs. Protesters took turns speaking into a microphone, criticizing the Israel-Hamas war, but also their own school over its decision to suspend two pro-Palestinian student groups through the end of the semester.
“We’ve said it before, that our voices are louder and more powerful than the money that you receive, Columbia,” said Mohsen Mahdawi, a student and Palestinian refugee. “We won’t be silenced.”
It was a scene that has become increasingly common in New York City and across the country as college campuses grapple with the fallout from the war. Divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have existed on campuses for generations, but as the war continues, colleges have faced growing blowback over efforts to contain the discord.
Columbia suspended the groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, last week, saying they had violated university policy, including by holding “unauthorized” events that “included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.” In addition to the student rally on Tuesday night, dozens of faculty members said they would walk out on Wednesday to protest the decision.
Following their suspension, the groups released a joint statement on Instagram, accusing the university of “selective censorship” of pro-Palestinian groups and calling the ban “an attack on free speech to distract from and enable Israel’s genocidal campaign against the Palestinian people.”
Some pro-Israel donors have pressured institutions to respond more forcefully in condemning Hamas and pro-Palestinian student protests on campuses.
In response to the banning of the two groups, students at Columbia on Tuesday announced a new coalition, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a collection of 40 student organizations representing a range of racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds that have called on Columbia to divest from Israel.
Deen Haleem, 24, a law student and the son of a Palestinian refugee who is part of the new coalition, said that Columbia’s decision to ban the two groups sent a loud message to its students.
“To me as a Palestinian, it says that your tragedy doesn’t matter,” he said. “It says that when your people die, you don’t get to speak about it.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Maryam Alwan, 21, a Palestinian-American student, said that she was afraid to go to class because fellow students had followed her, recorded her and harassed her on campus. She said she had received numerous graphic death threats.
But when the university sends emails regarding the conflict, Ms. Alwan said, they rarely mention the plight of the Palestinians.
“My friends are losing family members. I see my little brother in every photo of a traumatized child who looks like him,” Ms. Alwan said at the demonstration, speaking from the dais. “And here I am begging my university to at the bare minimum use the word Palestinian in its emails.”
Columbia did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.