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Columbia University alumni pledge to withhold financial support over Gaza war

Alumni demand the removal of the university's president as well as targeted economic divestment from Israel
Pro-Palestinian protesters occupy a building where they had established an encampment at Fordham University Lincoln Center campus on 1 May 2024 in New York City.
Pro-Palestinian protesters occupy a building where they had established an encampment at Fordham University Lincoln Center campus on 1 May 2024 in New York City (Spencer Platt/AFP)

Columbia University alumni have signed a letter pledging to withhold "all financial, programmatic, and academic support" to the university until a list of 13 demands is met. 

"Columbia University maintains an undisclosed number of investments with entities known to fund or profit from the Israeli military occupation, meaning that Columbia is financially and morally enabling the ongoing indiscriminate killing of Palestinians," the letter, addressed to President Nemat Minouche Shafik and the Trustees of Columbia University, begins. 

Over 1,600 alumni had signed the letter at the time of writing. The website where the letter is posted updates new signatories and has a financial contribution ticker at the bottom, which at the time of publishing, reads: $68,354,601 financial contributions at risk. Just hours earlier, the number was around $41m.

In the letter, the signatories demand divestment from "all companies and institutions that fund or profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide, and occupation in Palestine", the release of a statement calling for a permanent ceasefire, and that all charges against student activists are dropped. 

The signatories also demanded the university finance the healthcare needed for the students "brutalized by the NYPD on April 30, 2024" and the removal of Shafik from her position as university president.

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Within the context of the months-long Gaza solidarity protests and encampments at US universities, Columbia University has faced some of the most extreme measures, with law enforcement forcefully entering parts of the campus, tearing down encampments and assaulting protesters. 

"Students - who paid $1.53 billion in tuition last year alone - are rightfully demanding that they have a say in where that money goes. We are in full support of Columbia University divesting from Israel, and we are beyond appalled at how far University administration has gone to protect their investments at the expense of student safety and intellectual inquiry," the letter reads. 

'The University must now act boldly in support of Palestinian life and liberation'

- Alumni letter

The letter reminds the administration that the student body "overwhelmingly" passed a divestment resolution earlier this year with over 70 percent of voter support, and how the university has a history of protests reaching back to Apartheid-era South Africa and the Vietnam War. 

The alumni initiative isn't the first or only such initiative to pressure universities in the US with alumni contributions. At New York University earlier this year, hundreds of alumni pledged to withhold more than $3m worth of potential contributions from the institution's largest fundraising day over its suppression of students and faculty organising against what they called Israel's "genocide" in Gaza.

"We launched this campaign as a signal to the administration to drop its repression on campus," a spokesperson for NYU Alumni for Palestine told Middle East Eye in a previous article.

"We will hold [NYU President Linda Mills] accountable through public, financial, and other pressures until we see that all suppressions are dropped and all individuals who have been terminated or expelled are reinstated," the spokesperson said.

The Columbia alumni letter concludes with: "The University must now act boldly in support of Palestinian life and liberation - a sentiment echoed throughout Columbia’s own Core Curriculum, scholarship, and purported values. Anything less is a betrayal of the core lessons we were taught at Columbia University."

Violence against protesters

Middle East Eye revealed earlier this week through testimony from several witnesses that the New York Police Department assaulted a number of students and then blocked those injured students from accessing medical assistance at two New York university campuses where hundreds were part of Gaza solidarity encampments.

Evidence of police violence emerged after university administrators ordered a sweep on the evening of 30 April local time at two New York City campuses, Columbia University and City College of New York (CCNY), in what has now become a nationwide story of police repression of student protests for Palestine. 

At CCNY in West Harlem, students were sprayed with mace and pepper spray. Others were beaten with batons and were tackled to the ground. Student protesters suffered burns, broken bones, concussions and broken teeth.

One medic, who asked not to be named, told Middle East Eye for an earlier article that police blocked them from offering assistance to the injured. 

A notoriously violent counter-terror battalion of the NYPD, padded in riot gear and known as the Special Response Group (SRG), entered the campuses and beat protesters.

The SRG's role in the disbanding of student protests at Columbia and CCNY is likely to raise eyebrows, given that it came just days before City Hall was to hold a hearing about breaking up the unit. 

"Established in 2015, the unit is known for its misconduct, racial bias, and abuse of protesters. Initially created for counter-terrorism, the SRG quickly morphed into the violent protest policing unit it is today," the New York Civil Liberties Union said in 2023.

At CCNY, a college associated with the City University of New York (Cuny), the largest urban public university in the country, the SRG were sent to the campus to raid and dismantle the encampment after the college's president, Vincent Boudreau, declared a state of emergency.

In response to the violence last week, Cuny's pre-law clinic released a statement on Sunday in which it described the police action as "unrelentless violence, with chemical irritants being aimlessly sprayed, people being tasered while handcuffed, elderly women being hit with batons, hundreds of people being 'kettled' and pressed against store fronts and scaffolding ... Muslim women having their hijabs ripped from their hair, a Jewish man had their kippa knocked off their head, and over 170 arrests were made by NYPD and the Goon Squad, to name a few," the statement read.

"There was literal blood and broken teeth on the ground," said the statement.

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