(New York Jewish Week) – The NYPD is investigating after pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University claimed that pro-Israel activists sprayed them with a chemical agent during a demonstration.
The university said in a Monday night statement that information had surfaced about the “deeply troubling” incident on Friday, in which students were reportedly “sprayed with a foul-smelling substance” that caused nausea and vomiting. The statement said the “alleged perpetrators identified to the University were immediately banned from campus.”
The NYPD was taking the lead role in the investigation, the statement said.
Friday’s protest came after Columbia confirmed to JTA that it was extending the suspension of two leading pro-Palestinian student groups, Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. The groups were suspended in November for violating university regulations at prior programs, and the university said they had not yet committed to abiding by school rules.
The demonstration was led by a pro-Palestinian coalition of more than 80 student groups that has formed in their absence called Columbia University Apartheid Divest. Despite the snow and cold temperatures, around 100 students gathered outside the school’s Low Library and chanted slogans including, “There is only one solution, intifada revolution.”
Protesters also railed against a “day of dialogue” held at Columbia’s Barnard College, which included scholars of Israel studies, Islamophobia, law and political science. The protesters demanded a boycott of the event, reported the Columbia Spectator, the student newspaper.
A small group of counter-protesters carrying Israeli and American flags gathered opposite the pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside the library. Video showed the pro-Israel demonstrators carrying orange balloons, a symbol of the Israeli hostages, holding up images of the captives, chanting “Bring them home,” and singing Israel’s national anthem.
After the protest, SJP claimed on X, formerly Twitter, that two Israeli “soldiers” had “sprayed a chemical weapon” on the demonstrators, and demanded action from the university. The group claimed that protesters were hit with “skunk spray,” a reference to a foul-smelling liquid Israeli police and soldiers have used to break up demonstrations by Palestinians, haredi Orthodox Jews and, last year, opponents of the government’s judicial overhaul.
But, as of press time, it’s unclear what the social media post was referring to. The student groups did not respond to a request for comment or elaborate on how they determined that soldiers had deployed a “chemical weapon.”
The NYPD said a 24-year-old woman reported that an “unknown substance” had been sprayed into the air, causing her to feel nauseous. On Friday evening, police received five more reports about the incident. As of press time, there have been no arrests and the investigation is ongoing, police said.
Columbia staff told protesters that the university “welcomes the opportunity to engage with recognized student groups to support sanctioned and safe events.” But the university told the protesters that the rally was “an unsanctioned event held by an unrecognized student coalition” and a violation of the university’s policies and procedures, a Columbia spokesperson told the New York Jewish Week.
SJP, whose national umbrella celebrated Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel, has been suspended at several schools, including Florida’s public universities, George Washington University and Brandeis University. It was suspended and reinstated at Rutgers University. Columbia’s suspension of JVP appeared to be the first time a university suspended the Jewish anti-Zionist group.
Columbia was a focal point for controversy in the weeks after Oct. 7, amid dueling protests for and against Israel and the reported assault of an Israeli student. It is one of several elite schools to draw scrutiny amid the Israel-Hamas war. The presidents of three other elite universities told lawmakers last month that calling for the genocide of Jews did not necessarily violate university policy, provoking a firestorm of controversy that led two of them to step down.
Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, was invited to appear before Congress at the same hearing, but declined, citing a scheduling conflict.
The protest on Friday aimed to keep the school’s focus on the war. It was part of an “action week” announced by Columbia University Apartheid Divest that began with the start of the spring semester last week. The activists demanded that Columbia divest from Israel, reform campus policing and commit to financial transparency. The students also announced a “tuition strike,” pledging to not pay the school until Columbia “concedes to our demands.”
According to a video of Friday’s protest taken by the Columbia Jewish Alumni Association, a newly formed advocacy group, around 100 student activists gathered outside the school’s Low Library and chanted, “Globalize the intifada,” and “Resistance is justified when people are colonized.”
Others carried signs that said, “Yemen Yemen make us proud, turn another ship around” — a reference to attacks on global shipping by the Houthis, a US-designated terrorist group that has claimed it is fighting Israel’s invasion of Gaza.
The Jewish alumni group charged that the new anti-Israel coalition was effectively a substitute for the suspended groups. The association said it had been hopeful the new semester would bring quiet to campus, but “that hope was quickly shattered with a week full of disruptive, antisemitic events on campus.”
The group demanded Columbia enforce its policies on protests, discipline students who violate campus policies, and condemn and ban “all antisemitic, genocidal words and actions.”
“The university is looking the other way and ignoring that the same kids are doing the same thing and they’re deciding not to enforce and it’s just disappointing,” Ari Shrage, a board member of the alumni association, told the New York Jewish Week. “Personally, I’m concerned that someone is going to get very hurt.”