What’s Happening at Encampments at College Campuses Around Baltimore?

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Johns Hopkins University’s student led encampment (Robyn Stevens Brody/Sipa USA/Newscom)

This is a rapidly developing story. Information is accurate as of press time.

Protests on college campuses calling for an end to Israel’s military activity in Gaza and divestment from Israeli causes have become a considerable challenge for the Jewish community in the past few weeks. Many protesters have set up encampments and refuse to leave college campuses until their demands are met — one of the longest-running is at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where protesters have been camped out for over a month, while the encampment at Columbia University in New York drew the most media attention when it popped up a few weeks ago.

Many Jewish organizations and government officials have released statements decrying these protests, criticizing them as a hotbed for antisemitic activity. Some university administrations have even called the police on protesters on their campus, leading to hundreds of arrests.

As of press time, Johns Hopkins University and Goucher College both have encampments on their campuses. Towson University does not have one, but students have previously organized protests. University of Maryland, Baltimore County also does not have an encampment or any active protests, but its chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine is currently facing charges from the college for violating its Code of Student Organization Conduct at a protest earlier this year. A group of UMBC social work school students have said they would protest graduation because of the Israel record of the school’s keynote speaker, Sen. Ben Cardin, according to Jewish Insider.

Johns Hopkins administration last month said students could protest but not overnight, and that students who violate rules could face disciplinary action. An encampment formed on the campus on Monday, April 29, with a group of students camping out there overnight, according to The Baltimore Banner.

According to The Baltimore Sun, Hopkins administrators planned to meet with protesters Tuesday to negotiate a resolution to the encampment.

These encampments aim to draw attention to the over 30,000 people who have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, as well as promote campus legislation that would see the school divesting from Israel- and military-related causes. Johns Hopkins students specifically called out the university’s partnership with Tel Aviv University, where students can participate in a two-year Master of Arts program; as well as its Applied Physics Laboratory’s involvement with weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin.

“There is nothing antisemitic about the demand for Palestinian freedom and an end to U.S. support to Israel,” said Matt Schwartz, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace Baltimore, in a statement supporting the Johns Hopkins encampment. “We should carefully examine the proclivity of U.S. politicians, police and pundits to smear and silence these student activists standing in solidarity with Palestinians around the country, including many thousands [of] Jewish student activists. Such a proclivity speaks to the deep rooted anti-Palestinian racism, as well as antisemitism, baked into the political culture of the United States.”

Is it feasible that these protesters might get what they want?

“In more than a decade of anti-Israel student government campaigns, not one single university in the United States has ever altered their investment strategy, ended contracts with Israeli vendors, or canceled academic partnerships with universities in Israel,” wrote Towson Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Alex Salzberg in an email to Towson’s student body.

Goucher College recently attempted to diffuse tensions on its campus by hosting a dialogue with activist Valarie Kaur, who spoke about the Israel-Hamas war and the current situation on college campuses. Like with Johns Hopkins’ administration, Goucher President Kent Deveraux affirmed the students’ right to protest in a campus-wide email titled “When Campus Demonstrations Cross the Line,” but decried protesting students who yelled at staff members, and called for the dissolution of the college’s encampment.

“I have confidence that our students will remove the tents from the Academic Quad and find alternate ways to engage in productive conversations with me and others at Goucher while ensuring that our campus is a safe place for all,” Deveraux wrote.

Hillel staff across the state have been in conversation with each other about these protests.

“Of course, our campuses are different from one another, and what works on one might not work on another,” said Goucher Hillel Executive Director Josh Snyder in an interview with the JT. “But we’ve also been supporting one another as professionals, in terms of our health and well-being. Hillel International has also done a lot to support us.”

Snyder stressed that he would like to avoid any confrontation between students and police like other campus encampments have faced, but that he’s still worried about the spread of anti-Jewish sentiment, even through seemingly nonviolent protests.

“These protests may look peaceful, and like they’re about students expressing their freedom of speech, but they are impeding on the academic freedom of other students,” he
said.

Towson Hillel recently launched a petition for students who oppose divestment, which has accumulated over 3,000 signatures. Salzberg said that the state of American college campuses has become an issue of global concern.

“When I was in Israel last month, the concern that Israelis felt for our college students was real. Even in the midst of a war, they were worried about the climate on campus and the rise of antisemitism,” he said. “I am incredibly proud of our students. This is not what they expected when they came to Towson University. Their resilience and dedication to the Towson Jewish community and our family around the world is a point of light in otherwise dark times.”

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