Hundreds of protesters gathered at Columbia University on Thursday for competing pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations that earlier in the day led school administrators to take the extraordinary step of closing the campus to the public.
Students waving banners and flags faced off across hedges dividing the Manhattan campus, one day after an Israeli student there was assaulted. Other campuses around the city also erupted with rallies on Thursday following the Hamas attack on Israel over the weekend and the Israeli military response in Gaza.
The protests around the city were largely peaceful, but the passionate views on display and the anxieties the gatherings produced were testament to the shock felt in New York over the attacks, which have killed thousands.
“I feel very dispirited,” said Caroline Smith, 23, to a Columbia student who told more than 10 members of her family live in Israel. Watching the pro-Palestine demonstration made her feel “highly disturbed,” she said.
“I feel unsupported,” said Ms. Smith. “I only feel support from my Jewish friends.”
New York City has been racked by grief, shaken by protests and living on edge in the week since the Hamas attack killed more than 1,200 Israelis, and Israel began a bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip killed more than 1,100 people and flattened large areas of the Densely populated and impoverished region.
Some events, like a rally in Times Square last weekend where protesters cheered rocket attacks on Israel, have raised tensions between the Jewish community and a pro-Palestinian leftist movement that has grown in influence in recent years. Others, like a candlelit gathering in Washington Square Park where mourners prayed for the dead in Israel and Gaza and denounced the war, have been more muted.
“Every single life lost — every Israeli murdered by Hamas, every Palestinian killed in Gaza — is a human spark that is extinguished,” Brad Lander, the city comptroller, told the assembled mourners in Washington Square on Wednesday night. “We mourn those human beings, and we mourn the loss of that human spark.”
The assault of the Columbia student, a 24-year-old who was hanging flyers at the time of the attack, was one of several in New York in the last 24 hours that the police were treating as possible bias incidents.
It led to the arrest of a 19-year-old woman who was charged with assault, according to the Police Department. The police did not identify the victim. On Thursday, a university representative, Samantha Slater, said the school was restricting access to campus “to help maintain safety and a sense of community through planned demonstration activities.”
More than 100 demonstrators rallied outside Brooklyn College to protest the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, with a smaller group of pro-Israel demonstrators gathered nearby.
“We have to be the voice of Palestine because they have no voice right now,” said Syed Ahmad, 22, a business student whose family is from Pakistan. “We have every right to stand up for what’s right.”
Nearby, David Brodsky, 52, a professor of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College, stood with the pro-Israel demonstrators. “This is a time for moral clarity,” he said.
“We say, ‘We feel your pain,’” Mr. Brodsky said, referring to the other group of protesters. “We’re not denying their pain, but they must be able to feel ours too, and we must be able to come together.”
The protests were largely peaceful, but tensions flared.
Several pedestrians passing the demonstrations in Midwood, a neighborhood with many Jewish residents, called out pro-Palestine demonstrators, calling them “terrorists” and “idiots.” In responses, protesters shouted back, “Murderers!”
“You are sick people, animals, you don’t deserve to be here!” one woman standing with the pro-Israel protesters yelled at those gathered in support of Gaza.
The pro-Palestine group chanted “Jews, yes! Zionism, no!”, but some expressed darker sentiments. One man held a sign that said “Decolonize Palestine by any means necessary.”
In an email to the Columbia University community, Dennis A. Mitchell, the institution’s interim provost, said Columbia was bracing for dueling protests staged by two groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Students Supporting Israel.
He said one or both groups had made “substantial efforts” to draw protesters to campus who were not affiliated with the school “in a manner that risks creating an unsafe environment for our community.”
“Freedom of speech is a fundamental value we hold dear, one that fosters intellectual growth, critical thinking, and the exploration of different perspectives,” wrote Mr. Mitchell. “However, it is crucial to emphasize that with this freedom comes the responsibility to ensure that our campus remains a safe.”
Another protest against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza was scheduled for Friday afternoon. The group organizing it, Within Our Lifetime, said the demonstration would be held near Times Square as part of an “International Day of Action for Palestine, in defense of liberation, justice and freedom for the Palestinian people.”
The protests have heightened anxieties in the city, which were already high after the Times Square rally. Khaled Meshal, the former Hamas leader, called for protests across the Arab and Muslim world on Friday in a video message sent to the Reuters news agency.
But law enforcement officials said on Thursday that there were no credible threats to New York, and the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement to Jewish leaders that he was not aware of any credible threats to Jewish communities in the United States.
Still, the Police Department said plans were being made to deploy a large number of uniformed officers if necessary, and it said that police patrols would be increased around synagogues and mosques.
“We have this situation under control,” Rebecca Weiner, the deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.
In addition to the assault at Columbia, the Police Department’s hate crime task force said it was investigating two incidents that occurred in Brooklyn on Wednesday night.
One incident occurred near the Navy Yard, near South Williamsburg, at around 8 pm
Four men — two Jews and two from Middle Eastern descent — were waving a Palestinian flag and holding a sign that said “End the War” when a man wearing “traditional Jewish attire” surrounded them on a two-wheeled vehicle, a law enforcement official said. He then grabbed the Palestinian flag from the men and beat one of them with it, the official said.
Later that night, a group of men waving an Israeli flag shouted anti-Palestinian statements at an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old and a 21-year-old as they walked down the street in Bay Ridge at 11: 30 p.m.
Shortly afterward, three cars parked in front of the same group of young people, blocking their path, and then a group of men emerged from the cars and attacked the 18-year-old, punching and kicking him repeatedly. The police said they were looking for suspects in both incidents on Thursday and that no arrests had been made.
Back on Columbia’s campus, not everyone was taking sides over the conflict in the Middle East.
Not far from the protests, Daniel Gonzalez, a first-year student, lounged with his feet up while reading an article on a fundamental concept of quantum mechanics: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Angry chants rang out all around him.
“It’s fine,” said Mr. Gonzalez, 19, who grew up in El Salvador. “Everybody has the right to express themselves.”
Chelsia Rose Marcius, Claire Fahy, Mary Cramer , Wesley ParnellKarla Marie Sanford, Nina Ajemian, and Michael LaForgia contributed reporting.