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Gaza War Invades the Ivy League

A coalition of students demanding Yale divest from the weapons manufacturers and end their complicity with the genocide in Gaza. (Photo/Instagram/@yalejewsforceasefire)

By Lee G. Bolman

Since war broke out between Israel and Hamas, universities across America, including every Ivy campus, have been convulsed by pro-Palestinian protests. Appalled by the violence in Gaza, students rallied in hope of convincing their universities to do something to stop it. Their most common demand, that the institutions disinvest from businesses that in any way support Israel’s war, may have been fueled more by passion than nuance, since the universities’ investment strategies are unlikely to be a speedy or potent lever for bringing peace to the Middle East. The drama has taken different turns in different universities depending on the demonstrators and on how the campus administration responded.

Protest season began almost everywhere shortly after Israel invaded Gaza. The protests invariably produced deep polarization, hostile exchanges, and occasional physical altercations between supporters of Israel and the Palestinians, but were mostly non-violent. Most students remained focused on more mundane concerns of academic and career success, and only a small minority became active protestors. A report in the New York Times underscored that on many campuses, support for the Palestinian cause became a litmus test for political correctness, and many Jewish students felt ostracized by friends and campus organizations unless they disowned any support for Israel’s right to exist. Some activists made liberal use of violent rhetoric, which triggered intense criticism and scrutiny from outsiders. In December, a Congressional committee invited three presidents, all women who were relatively new to their jobs, to defend their handling of the protests. The three did not fare well, struggling to defend free speech without sounding as if they condoned antisemitic rhetoric. Two of the presidents, Claudine Gay at Harvard and Liz Magill at Penn, soon left their jobs under a hail of criticism.

The protests climaxed nationally in April, when students across the country encamped in prominent campus locations–in Yale’s case, Beinecke Plaza on a first round, the Cross-Campus on a second. In response, universities usually brought in police, who arrested students and carted them off in buses. Among the Ivies, only Cornell and Harvard avoided police intervention. Both adopted a patient approach, threatening students with discipline and potential expulsion, but waiting until the semester was over to ramp up the pressure. By then, students had other plans for the summer and were more persuadable.
American universities have been heavily criticized in recent years, and this year’s turmoil further eroded public confidence. Some institutions fared worse than others. Columbia had a disastrous year—student encampments, occupation of the administration building, massive arrests by NYPD, a faculty vote of no confidence in the president, widespread rage, all culminating in cancellation of the university-wide commencement. Brown was chaotic in December, when students occupied the administration building, but more peaceful in the Spring when the university negotiated an end to the protests by agreeing to take a vote on divestment. Dartmouth, on the other hand, was comparatively quiet until May 1 when students erected tents on the campus Green. Within two hours, Dartmouth’s President called in police, who arrested 65 students and 5 staff members. Many students and faculty were aghast at what they viewed as a heavy-handed intrusion on the “right of the people to peaceably assemble,” but others passionately defended the president.

Harvard’s Fall was a PR disaster as president Gay muffed her Congressional testimony and responded awkwardly to the protests. The resulting damage to Harvard’s image was likely one reason that Yale had more applicants than Harvard for the first time in memory. Under interim president Alan Garber, Harvard rebounded with a calmer Spring. Garber made his university one of only two Ivies to bring April’s pro-Palestinian encampment to a peaceful conclusion without police intervention.

Prospects for a peaceful commencement were dashed two days in advance when the Harvard Corporation (“The President and Fellows of Harvard College”) overruled the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and blocked 13 pro-Palestinian protestors from receiving their degrees. That decision ensured high-drama on commencement day. Two student orators sharply criticized the corporation to thunderous applause, and President Garber was booed. Perhaps a thousand students and some faculty walked out of the ceremony, many relocating to a “People’s Commencement” at a nearby church to honor the 13 students who were denied degrees. Outside Harvard Yard were doxing trucks displaying names and photos of “Harvard’s leading antisemites,” and in the air above were planes trailing banners proclaiming, “Jewish Lives Matter.” The tragi-comic quality of the event as well as the frayed nerves and depth of polarization across America were epitomized in a moment when Harvard’s Chabad Rabbi confronted the principal commencement speaker, a Nobel-winning journalist, as she concluded her address for a remark that he believed was antisemitic.

Despite periodic demonstrations, rhetorical battles and a student hunger strike, Yale remained an oasis of comparative calm for much of the year. A tolerant approach kept the peace until April when students erected tents on Beinecke Plaza. Unable to negotiate a peaceful resolution, the university brought in police who cleared the demonstration and arrested forty-five students. Two weeks later, Yale faced the challenge anew as protestors set up a new encampment on the cross-campus. Stung by criticism of the prior police action, the university shifted to a version of the strategy that worked at Cornell and Harvard: be patient, escalate gradually, and hope that the protestors will decide to move on at the end of the semester. They did, and the campus was mostly calm for graduation. Peter Salovey’s last baccalaureate address was interrupted by cries of “Shame!” to which he responded, “I hear you. Let’s get started together.” He was applauded at the end. There were scattered protests during the commencement ceremony and about 150 of the more than 4,000 graduates walked out, but commencement ended on a high note when Salovey was surprised to receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

Across America, the fallout from the year of protests is pervasive. Deep divisions among students, faculty, administrators, governing boards, and other stakeholders. Students (and sometimes faculty) arrested at six of the eight Ivy schools. In the Ivy League as in much of America, many presidents suffered reputational damage, two lost their jobs, and two more (Minouche Shafik at Columbia and Sian Leah Beilock at Dartmouth) were hit with faculty votes of no-confidence: Major donors at multiple Ivies, including Brown, Columbia, Harvard and Penn, publicly announced they would stop giving. Yale’s presidential search committee has just today announced Yale’s new president, but it is plausible that the campus controversy contributed to delays in announcing Peter Salovey’s successor. The good news for embattled university administrators is that summer is here, the students are mostly gone, and there’s time to prepare for whatever the Fall will bring.

We welcome your comments below.

6 comments to Gaza War Invades the Ivy League

  • thomas triplett

    In 1965 we had protests and sit ins in response to the war in Vietnam. But we did not have the destruction of property that accompanied the Gaza protests.
    In my opinion, a key difference is that today’s students lack adequate grounding in classical civilization and in studies of religion. Without historical context and with the concomitant loss of societal civility, the conduct was predicable. Perhaps these young people should have lived a year in Israel, and experienced the nightly missile attacks.
    In great measure I fault our high schools for failing to provide a fulsome education; the parents for lack of discipline; and damnable emails which facilitate hateful messages that would never be delivered face to face

  • Ken Merkey

    The following article explains a lot:
    Knowing that almost all institutions of higher learning are managed by liberals, the initial response is always to be accommodating. Pitching a tent on common ground is criminal trespass. When the first stake is driven in the police need to stop it and tear it down. Early response is always better than late response.

  • Bill Weber


    Thanks for such a concise review of the campus reactions to the war in Gaza/Israel.

    I wonder what happened on some other university campuses that we have not seen on the national news?

    It seems to me Cal Berkely should have been a hot bed of protests, but I have not seen any news on it.

  • Lee Bolman


    Berkeley upheld its reputation for student activism. There were pro-Palestine protests for much of the year, with occasional incidents of violence between protestors and counter-protestors. One of the most serious incidents of violence came in February when protestors managed to shut down a planned appearance by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who had been invited by campus Republicans. One of the largest and longest encampments was broken up by mutual agreement in mid-May when Berkeley’s chancellor agreed to initiate a review of Berkeley’s investments. But shortly thereafter, a group of protestors took over a campus building, and police were called to clear the building. At least 12 people were arrested.


  • STeve Howard

    Lee, Thanks so much for your wonderful essay–well written, thorough, and clear. As a confirmed lefty, I, of course, believe that Yale should never have called in the police. Student protests are a part of great universities. The fact that the students in this instance pitched tents on the campus hardly endangered anyone and certainly did not warrant any police intervention.

  • Ken Merkey


    Where do you draw the line or do you not have one?