Pro-Palestinian Protests at DMV Colleges

Tents from the GW Encampment. Photo Courtesy of Rabbi Levi Shemtov.

Several DMV area colleges have seen pro-Palestinian protests on their campuses in recent months, including an encampment at George Washington University that was cleared by police in the early hours on May 8, as the tension around the Israel-Hamas war has escalated dramatically.

Schools including the University of Maryland, Georgetown University and GW have seen continued protests since Oct. 7, with things coming to a head at GWU on April 25. That’s when the university released a statement saying that approximately 50 students had created an encampment with around 20 tents on the University Yard.

That same day, the university requested police assistance to relocate the protest, saying it was disruptive to the school community and noting that some people in the encampment were not GW students.

“Today, we requested the assistance of DC Metropolitan Police to relocate an unauthorized protest encampment on the University Yard. The encampment, unlike some demonstrations in the past, is an unauthorized use of university space at this location and violated several university policies,” GW President Ellen Granberg wrote in a statement.

But despite the request from the university on the day the encampment went up, MPD didn’t deploy until sometime after 3 a.m. on May 8, with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser telling the media in the days leading up to the encampment’s removal that the MPD was taking a more hands-off approach.

This led to Bowser being called to a hearing before Congress over the inaction, as some members were concerned with the reported vandalism of GW property, including a statue of George Washington, and projections on campus buildings with some that said, “Glory to the martyrs of Palestine,” and “Gaza lights the spark that will set the empire ablaze,” according to the campus newspaper GW Hatchet. The hearing was canceled following the MPD’s action on May 8.

But the weeks of inaction allowed the situation to get out of hand and left Jewish students at the university feeling unsafe and unwelcome, according to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) and founder of Chabad GW.

“The students are very emotionally disheveled. Because here they are building their lives and [they’re] seeing those who should easily be protecting them abandoning them,” he said.

Shemtov added that he feels Granberg has been a strong supporter of the GW Jewish community to the extent that she could, noting that she’s been to several Chabad GW events, including visiting the Chabad GW Townhouse at Washington Circle to meet students and participating in the recent “Mega Shabbat” event on the GW campus.

Shemtov said the situation was exacerbated by the presence of outside protesters not affiliated with GW, as the school wasn’t able to lay down consequences while the MPD was taking a back seat.

He added that with the removal of the encampment and many students going home at the end of the spring semester, things on campus have died down significantly from where they stood a week ago, but he felt there could be a lasting effect on Jewish students.

“Jewish students are traumatized … and in the short term it might affect Jewish enrollments and Jewish attendance,” Shemtov said.

“We say unequivocally that no student’s rights to be safe, to pursue their education, and to be proud Jews should be compromised in response to another student’s actions,” GW Hillel wrote in a statement posted to its Instagram account.

In contrast, Georgetown University has had calmer campus protests than GW, but there have still been plenty of demonstrations there that are impacting Jewish students, according to Rabbi Menachem Shemtov, co-founder and co-director of Chabad Georgetown.

Rabbi Menachem Shemtov said that there hasn’t been an encampment on Georgetown’s campus, as some students were going to GW to participate in their encampment, but he stressed that the situation was far from calm.

“It’s not a good environment for Jewish students on any campus right now. But the fact that some campuses have gone totally crazy — that’s putting the spotlight there and making everything else, everywhere else, a little bit more normal and it’s not,” he said.

Rabbi Menachem Shemtov added that protests have increased in volume for months, with some “die-ins” where students lay down on the ground in a central location on campus and act as dead bodies symbolizing Palestinians killed, and students painting their hands red, a reference to the Second Intifada.

He noted that he feels that part of the reason why there wasn’t an encampment at Georgetown was the centralization of protests at GW, where there’s more visibility, being several blocks away from high-profile government buildings.

“It’s almost as if they feel that by coming together from multiple local universities and making one stand at GW as a more effective form of protest, it makes more noise and disruption than just being individual pockets at various universities,” he said.

The University of Maryland has seen little disruption from protests. There’s no encampment and protesting has been reported to be around 100 students doing a daily sit-in for 12-13 hours a day on the McKeldin Mall in front of the university administration building beginning on April 29, according to the campus newspaper, The Diamondback.

And the situation hasn’t been overly tenuous for Jewish students on campus either, according to Dawn Savage, the assistant director of student life at UMD Hillel.

“For us, campus has remained relatively quiet, seeing little protest on campus — only a small group of students and no ongoing encampment. While some students may feel uncomfortable being near the protesters, the overall feeling is that students feel safe on campus and are not engaging with the protests,” Savage wrote in an email.

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