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    'Proud to call them my classmates': Pro-Palestinian Columbia alumni boycott reunions

    By Claire Thornton, USA TODAY,


    NEW YORK − Current Columbia students are finding some allies in their cause.

    This weekend, hundreds of Columbia University alumni gathered to boycott their alma mater and stand up for pro-Palestinian student protesters who faced disciplinary action, suspension and arrest . The alumni events, dubbed Columbia Alternative Reunion , were meant to send a message to university administrators that the protest movement for Palestinian causes doesn't just begin and end with undergraduates.

    “Watching these events unfold has been heartbreaking. We stand in solidarity with the students, we think what they’re doing is a testament to Columbia, not the other way around," said alumna Gabby Beans, a Tony-nominated actor and writer.

    Attendees designed the events as a boycott to coincide with Columbia's traditional, annual class reunions, which come with a fee.

    “I didn’t feel comfortable engaging in something that was so pro-Columbia knowing that the administration did not protect the students," said Mychael Crafton, an engineer and member of Columbia's class of 2014.

    Rather than pay money to attend normal reunion events, alternative reunion attendees raised more than $13,000 for Palestinian causes in less than two days.

    During normal class reunions each year, thousands of alumni and their families descend on Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus after the spring semester to celebrate and reunite with their college community. The parties, dinners and receptions help alumni – and their wallets – stay connected to the university, said Michael Carter, an alternative reunion organizer.

    "The endowment is the issue at hand," Carter said. "Columbia, like many private universities, operates as a big hedge fund with a little school attached to it."

    University spokesperson Ben Chang told USA TODAY the school declined to comment on activities that took place outside Columbia University. Chang said the school was "pleased to welcome our alumni back on campus for Columbia Reunion ’24 this past weekend."

    The Columbia College Reunion Team did not respond to request for comment. The student coalition Columbia University Apartheid Divest, which helps organize pro-Palestinian protests, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Jewish students at Columbia and Barnard College who, along with hundreds of others, signed a letter supporting Israel, said it's good that different groups affiliated with Columbia are able to organize about their shared beliefs.

    The weekend's alternative reunions were "productive in terms of raising awareness for their cause" and money for aid, said Eliana Goldin, who is studying with the Columbia-Jewish Theological Seminary program.
    Julie Slotnick, a 32-year-old clinical psychologist, first had the idea to organize an alternative reunion so that Columbia alumni could signal their support for pro-Palestinian student protesters and still celebrate the class of 2024's 10-year reunion in New York City. Claire Thornton

    SUSPENSIONS Colleges withhold degrees from students after pro-Palestinian protests

    College nostalgia meets the current pro-Palestinian movement

    On Friday and Saturday, about 500 smartly dressed thirtysomethings converged at trendy Manhattan bars to reunite with friends − and withdraw support for the university that initially brought them together as undergraduate students. Now working professionals in psychology, fashion, law, engineering and many other fields, the alumni said no one viewpoint defines them.

    “It’s a wide swath of political orientations. It’s not like a homogenous group of angry leftists, and I’m proud to call them my classmates," Beans said.
    Tony-nominated actor and writer Gabby Beans holds up a 'Columbia Alt Reunions' sticker at the Brass Monkey bar in Manhattan's Meatpacking District on May 31, 2024. Hundreds of Columbia University alumni raised more than $13,000 for Palestinian causes. Claire Thornton

    If people chose to attend the alternative reunion events instead of the normal ones, it's because they want to see an end to the violence in Palestine and Israel, Columbia Alternative Reunion lead organizer Julie Slotnick told USA TODAY.

    “The core thing that brings us here, aside from wanting to see one another, is being unable to accept this kind of wasted life, people being decimated," said Slotnick, who is Jewish. "It doesn’t matter the affiliation or what team you’re on. We are outraged to see this happening in Gaza.”

    The current war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group, began on Oct. 7 when Hamas fighters rampaged into southern Israel from Gaza, killing more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and seizing more than 250 as hostages, according to Israeli tallies. Since then, more than 36,000 Palestinians have been killed.

    Columbia response was 'antithetical' to university values

    When Beans first learned Columbia students were occupying campus lawns with tents, she was proud and inspired. She immediately recalled Columbia students' 1968 protests for racial equality and an end to the Vietnam War. She also thought about how Columbia's famed Core Curriculum, which emphasizes literature and philosophy, has long aimed to foster moral reasoning among students, she added.

    “When I saw what the students were doing, I was reminded of that history and I felt pride as an alum that the students were acting as a moral authority," Beans said.
    Mychael Crafton earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees, both in engineering, from Columbia University. He said school administrators need to do more to financially support pro-Palestinian student protesters. Claire Thornton

    But her feelings of pride shifted to shock and outrage when she learned university administrators were cracking down on student protesters by calling in the New York Police Department.

    "I had believed Columbia valued the political activities of its students. To see them acting antithetically to that was really upsetting," Beans said.

    Seeing police called to respond to on-campus protests was another tipping point for Slotnick, she said.

    “As soon as they called the NYPD, I knew I couldn't go to the reunion anymore," she said. "I can’t support them with money."

    Alumni call for divestment, support for students

    Columbia alumni who attended alternative reunions said they want the university to divest endowment money from Israel, and they'd be open to other ideas as well, if the protest movement for divestment fails.

    “I know it’s hard to divest, I know it’s not easy to just meet demands," said Mychael Crafton, an engineer who grew up in St. Lucia.
    Barnard College class of 2013 member Rachael Stein said her alma mater needs to support pro-Palestinian student protesters the same it would support any Barnard student who cares about voicing their political opinion on another topic. Stein works in children's book publishing and fashion in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Claire Thornton

    Crafton said Columbia should fully divest, but if the university can't, it needs to start redirecting more of its funds to "anti-genocide" causes, financially support pro-Palestinian student groups and fund more spaces for pro-Palestinian students to gather.

    “Maybe we can’t take a radical turn and make things the way you want it, but we can start something," Crafton said, adding that he's not seeing enough effort from the university to engage with pro-Palestinian students.

    Multiple class years were represented at the reunion events, as well as students from Barnard College, a historically women's college affiliated with Columbia for more than a century. The college announced earlier this spring they'd be cancelling their own class reunions.

    Rachael Stein, who graduated from Barnard in 2013, said she was attending Columbia Alternative Reunion to stand in solidarity with Barnard students who faced suspension for their participation in pro-Palestinian protests.

    “It makes no sense. How can we trust in the power of the Barnard community if the students are not getting that support?” Stein said.
    Luc Sanchez, who works in security software, travelled from Durham, North Carolina, to Manhattan to attend Columbia Alternative Reunion in support of pro-Palestinian student protesters. Claire Thornton

    Where are Columbia alumni donating?

    On Friday and Saturday, alternative reunion attendees raised nearly $13,000 for direct aid to Palestine, as well as additional sums for individual GoFundMe fundraisers, according to Slotnick. In all, the alumni group hopes to raise $30,000, she said.

    About half of funds raised went to the Palestine Children's Relief Fund, and the rest went to World Central Kitchen, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and Freedom Bakeries, records show.

    The pro-Palestinian student movement began when student asked the university to divest endowment funds from companies profiting from the war in Israel. Because alumni are such a significant contributor to the endowment, this weekend's fundraising efforts is a key step in the overall push for divestment, said Michael Carter, an organizer from the class of 2014.

    "It's urgent, it's not something where you can just keep moving on with your normal life," Carter said.

    This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Proud to call them my classmates': Pro-Palestinian Columbia alumni boycott reunions

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