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two side by side images of protesters with an israeli flag and \"free palestine\" sign, respectively
two side by side images of protesters with an israeli flag and \"free palestine\" sign, respectively
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Culture > News

We Spoke To Professors About The Rising Tension On College Campuses Around Israel & Palestine

Since Oct. 7, when Palestinian militant group Hamas attacked Israel, U.S. college campuses have become major sites of protest and debate. Israel’s subsequent airstrikes on the Gaza Strip have led many American college students to call for a ceasefire, with students on over 100 campuses walking out on Oct. 25. As the death toll continues to rise, professors who teach Jewish and Middle Eastern Studies in the U.S. are working to guide students toward dialogue and productive discussion amidst a sharp rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia on college campuses.

Many of the reactions on campuses to the violence in the Middle East have been heated: Northwestern’s student newspaper was imitated with a mock front page that called the university “complicit in genocide of Palestinians.” Anti-Israel messages were projected on a school building at George Washington University. At Columbia University and Harvard University, “doxxing trucks” circled the campuses, branding some students as “leading antisemites.” During a Free Palestine protest on campus, Jewish students at Cooper Union had to take shelter in a library.

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestine sentiment alike are simultaneously creating this surge in antisemitism and Islamophobia. The White House is attempting to address this rise: The Department of Education Office for Civil Rights has updated the intake process for discrimination complaints to make it easier for students experiencing antisemitism and Islamophobia to get help, and the DOJ and DHS have taken steps to provide support to campus law enforcement. The Biden-Harris administration is also developing the first national strategy to counter Islamophobia — an announcement that has already been met with skepticism by Muslim-American communities.

Christina Kiel, Ph.D., senior professor of practice in Tulane University’s political science department, says the main emotion she’s encountered among her students is confusion. “Students would like to know what the ‘right’ side is, whom they should support and whom they should be against,” she tells Her Campus. “They feel pressure from their peers to speak up against injustice. But if different injustices affect both groups, speaking up requires nuance and educating yourself, and not everyone is taking the time to do so.”

israeli flag in front of a crowd of protesters
Photo by Ethan Swope/Getty Images

Tulane’s student body is approximately 40% Jewish, and Kiel says that campus has had “at least one vigil for the victims of Hamas’ attack and at least one pro-Palestine protest near campus.” At the protest, three counter-protesters were assaulted.

There were also vigils and demonstrations at Dartmouth College, but none that escalated into violence, according to two professors there: Susannah Heschel, Ph.D., the Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies and Chair of Jewish Studies, and Tarek El-Ariss, Ph.D., the James Wright Professor and Chair of Middle Eastern Studies. El-Ariss is also the author of the forthcoming book, Water on Fire: A Memoir of War.

“We organized forums to talk about what’s going on immediately after [Oct. 7],” El-Ariss says. Dartmouth’s response has even garnered online praise from Forward, a Jewish publication. “I have friends at other universities — they can’t even organize anything, the faculty, because everyone’s so raw about things and whatever you say or might say might be interpreted as being pro one group and against the other, or not taking the feelings of a certain group into consideration.”

For Kiel, current and former students alike are coming to her with big questions. “Conversations have been civil, and students’ main goal [has been] to learn more about the current and historical context, and how to interpret news coverage,” she says. “Many questions have been about Hamas — how the group came to be so entrenched in Gaza, what Palestinians think about the group, whether there is a distinction between military resistance and terrorism. Students also want to know about Israel’s long-standing blockade of Gaza, the political and economic conditions in the territory, and the international humanitarian obligations during war.” The answers to these questions, Kiel points out, aren’t simple enough to fit on a social media infographic.

Heschel and El-Ariss co-teach a class where they show students common liberation movements between Jews and Arabs throughout history. “It’s important for our students to recognize, first of all, that the histories are complex and that they are in many ways shared,” Heschel says. “We have much in common in the problems that we face both then and now. And there isn’t a single simple narrative. So we are trying to get students away from narratives that talk about perpetrator, victim or colonizer, colonized … I really think that the students come away with what we emphasize, which is, ‘Always think in complex terms, not in simple narratives.’”

While these discussions are happening inside the classroom, outside of them, many college students are showing solidarity with Palestine. With events like walkouts at campuses like Grinnell College and during a speech by Hillary Clinton at Columbia, a “die-in” at Harvard University during Family Weekend, and hundreds attending pro-Palestine rallies on campuses, there’s a growing anti-Zionist movement among students. Part of why college students’ pro-Palestine protests have gained so much national attention is because they challenge a long-held status quo among Americans.

“Public opinion in the United States is still very favorably towards Israel. But young people and those identifying as liberal have less favorable views,” Kiel explains. According to Jacobin, multiple polls since Oct. 7 have revealed those under 50 are more likely to be critical of President Biden’s unconditional support for Israel. “In talking with my students, I think the main contributing factor from their perspective is the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Human rights and anti-racism campaigns are championing the Palestinian cause, and these are causes that resonate strongly with many in the above-mentioned demographic groups,” Kiel says.

She continues, “The recent political shift in Israel to the far-right incited much criticism from those within these groups who pay closer attention.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sworn in in December 2022, leads the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, according to PBS.

With college students taking part in the growing anti-Zionist movement, confusion around what Zionism even means has left many to conflate the term with Judaism, and anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Zionism is the nationalist movement for the development and protection of a Jewish national state, aka Israel. Anti-Zionism opposes that movement. Criticizing Israel’s policies, then, is anti-Zionist but not antisemitic — but using hate speech and symbols toward Jewish people, for example, crosses the line into antisemitism. Zionism and Judaism are also not interchangeable, and Jewish college students can be anti-Zionist.

protesters with palestinian flags
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Kiel points out that parts of the younger generation of Jewish Americans are “on the forefront of the criticism of the current Israeli government and now the war in Gaza,” citing the grassroots anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace as one example. “These American Jews do not see themselves as advocates for the government of Israel, advocating for U.S. support under any and all circumstances (an attitude that was quite common in the American Jewish community for a long time).” This complicates the idea that anti-Zionism and antisemitism naturally go hand in hand. “This shift, I think, has a lot to do with internal Israeli politics, the democratic backsliding under Netanyahu, [and] the disappointment in the abandonment of the peace process,” Kiel says.

While lots of young Jewish Americans have joined the anti-Zionist movement, many Jewish students are still experiencing antisemitism on campus. Cornell University, for example, canceled classes on Nov. 3 due to “extraordinary stress” on campus after a student was arrested for allegedly making violent threats aimed at the school’s Jewish students. “The response of this moment is explosive, but it has been building for some time. For many years now, Jewish students have been forced to take what are essentially ‘disloyalty oaths,’” meaning coercing people or organizations into rejecting Israel in order to take part in activities, explains Pamela Nadell, Ph.D., Professor and Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History at American University, as well as Director of Jewish Studies. Nadell, who testified before Congress in 2017 about antisemitism on college campuses, is currently writing Antisemitism, an American Tradition, a history of antisemitism in the U.S.

“If they want to join social justice clubs on their campuses, they are told that they must disavow support for Israel. Yet, what most of their peers do not understand is how central Israel is to Jewish identity.” In fact, Pew Research Center’s 2020 survey of Jewish Americans found one-third (35%) of Jewish adults under 30 view caring about Israel as essential to being Jewish.

As protests continue, professors are hoping that students don’t shy away from the necessary nuance needed to understand the history of the Middle East. “We support [students’] right to demonstrate, to hold vigils, and we engage them and we try to expand their mind,” El-Ariss says. Still, the question remains: “How do we do it respectfully and uphold a civic dialogue and an ethical dialogue where we are not eliminating and negating each other even if we disagree politically, even if we feel that we might be on different sides of the fence? This is, I think, what we hope [to achieve].”

Erica Kam is the Life Editor at Her Campus. She oversees the life, career, and news verticals on the site, including academics, experience, high school, money, work, and Her20s coverage. Over her six years at Her Campus, Erica has served in various editorial roles on the national team, including as the previous Culture Editor and as an editorial intern. She has also interned at Bustle Digital Group, where she covered entertainment news for Bustle and Elite Daily. She graduated in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from Barnard College, where she was the senior editor of Columbia and Barnard’s Her Campus chapter and a deputy copy editor for The Columbia Spectator. When she's not writing or editing, you can find her dissecting K-pop music videos for easter eggs and rereading Jane Austen novels. She also loves exploring her home, the best city in the world — and if you think that's not NYC, she's willing to fight you on it.