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A group of students protesting. One holds a sign that reads, "stand with Gaza."

A group of students protests at American University amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Anadolu/Contributor/Getty Images

More than half of Jewish and Muslim students, and a fifth of all college students, feel unsafe on campus because of their stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a new report from the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats, a nonpartisan research center on international politics and security.

The report explores students’ fears and beliefs in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s ongoing assault on the Gaza Strip. The findings are based on national surveys of 5,000 students attending at least 600 four-year colleges and universities and 5,000 adults in the U.S. between December 2023 and January 2024.

The surveys found students have reason to be afraid, with real acts of violence happening on campuses and antisemitic and Islamophobic sentiments expressed by a significant number, albeit a minority, of their peers. But the report also concluded their fears may be partly driven by fundamental misunderstandings of each other’s views of the conflict, reduced to slogans in impassioned campus protests.

Over all, 56 percent of Jewish students, 52 percent of Muslim students, plus 16 percent of other college students, said they felt like they were in “personal danger” because of their support for one side or another in the conflict, according to the report. That equates to approximately two to three million students nationwide.

“Campus fears are more intense and more widespread than we knew,” said report author Robert A. Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Project on Security and Threats.

The findings also suggest students’ fears aren’t unfounded. Of the 5,000 students surveyed, 1,032 gave answers explaining why they felt they were in personal danger related to their views on the conflict.

Their responses fell into “two buckets”: students who perceived certain protest chants as threatening to themselves or others and students who reported experiencing or observing a litany of acts of intimidation or violence, the details of which were “quite disturbing,” Pape said.

“While running a fundraiser for emergency services in Israel, my friends and I were threatened by a Palestinian man that he would ‘kill us all,’” wrote a Jewish student quoted in the report. “Our fraternity house was vandalized and the synagogue 3 miles from campus had swastikas painted on the doors.”

“Someone tried to run me over and called me a terrorist for wearing a scarf around my shoulder,” a Muslim student wrote in all caps.

Students who weren’t Jewish or Muslim also described experiencing or seeing others threatened, doxed or socially ostracized for their views.

Organizations that advocate for Jewish and Muslim students say these results feel consistent with what they’re seeing on the ground.

“Attacks on students in education settings is exceeding anything I’ve ever seen before and is personalized in a way I’ve never seen before,” said Corey Saylor, research and advocacy director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He highlighted increased efforts to publish personal information about pro-Palestinian students, such as the truck that drove around Harvard University with the names and faces of students who signed a statement blaming Israel after the Hamas attack.

“There are whole websites dedicated to doxing people who speak up,” he said. “The intent of that is 100 percent to silence people and to hurt their career and education prospects.”

Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel International, an organization that supports Jewish students, said the most recent Hillel survey found that 56 percent of Jewish students surveyed “reported having directly encountered antisemitism” and 57 percent “reported feeling unwelcome on their campuses.” Since Oct. 7, the organization has tracked at least 1,095 incidences of “antisemitic harassment, intimidation, vandalism, hate speech and assault, representing a more than 700 percent increase from the same period last year.”

“The findings of this new study from the University of Chicago are highly consistent with Hillel’s own data and research,” he said.

The report also did an analysis of Islamophobic and antisemitic views among students and among American adults more broadly, separate from attitudes toward the state of Israel. It found that college students were more anti-Zionist than the general population, but not more antisemitic, i.e., believing in negative tropes about Jewish people, culture or beliefs. Students were also less Islamophobic than the general population.

However, extreme versions of antisemitism and Islamophobia did appear among students. The report found that about 10 percent of college students over all said student groups should be allowed to call for genocide against Jews, and 13 percent said if Jews were attacked, they deserved it, a sentiment that has significantly risen among American adults over all since the Israel-Hamas war started. When asked the same questions about Muslims, the same shares of students condoned calls for genocide or violent attacks.

Pape said this signifies to him that the antisemitism and Islamophobia Jewish and Muslim students on campus are experiencing might not end when the war does.

“These other wider-context findings don’t give us confidence that these are truly limited, isolated events that we can just now forget about,” he said.

Meanwhile, 16 percent of students hold American Jews at least somewhat responsible for the ongoing violence in the Middle East, while 13 percent deem American Muslims at least somewhat responsible, the report noted.

A ‘Tragic Misunderstanding’

The research also suggests that fears on campuses may be partly stoked by students’ varied understandings of what different protest slogans mean.

Notably, 26 percent of all college students believe the common protest chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” refers to the expulsion and genocide of Jewish Israelis, according to the report. The majority, 66 percent, of Jewish students perceive the chant that way, and of that group, 62 percent report feeling afraid. In contrast, only 14 percent of Muslim students believe the phrase refers to the removal or genocide of Israeli Jews.

Lehman said that “universities need to take seriously the impact on their Jewish students of calls for the elimination of the Jewish and democratic state of Israel, and the many associated calls for violence (such as chants calling for ‘global intifada’) echoing across their campuses.”

“Jewish students have good reason to understand these calls as threatening, both based on the clear context in which these slogans are conveyed and the real threats and violence they accompany,” Lehman said.

Saylor believes these chants are getting outsize attention at a time when more severe incidents are happening to students.

“We have plenty of just blatantly egregious examples of Islamophobia, of anti-Arab racism, of antisemitism that we can focus on, and I would say let’s focus on that,” he said.

He added that these are “difficult political issues” students are discussing, and universities’ job is “to be neutral and make sure the students have an opportunity to express themselves and learn how to participate in our democracy.”

Pape, who’s studied political violence for 30 years, believes the actual violence and threats students are both perpetrating and experiencing may partly be a result of a “tragic misunderstanding”—students interpreting these phrases as calls for genocide, even if they’re not intended that way.

“What happens when you have rumors of violence or misunderstandings of intent is it produces fear, and then when people are fearful they get a fight-or-flight response,” he said. These are “the spiral effects that happen in a conflict.”

Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate and author of The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, said he was surprised to see such stark differences in how students understood “from the river to the sea” and said realizations like this can be “opportunities” for valuable discussion, even if uncomfortable.

“Everybody has a responsibility to their fellow classmates to understand why their classmates might be looking at this differently, to understand the difference between actual intimidation, harassment and discrimination, which we are seeing in some instances, of course, and hearing things that you don’t like,” he said.

The report offers a number of recommendations for campuses to promote calm, including that campus leaders condemn violence and bullying among students, launch educational initiatives about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and support research on antisemitism, anti-Zionism and Islamophobia.

Students surveyed signaled support for some of these options. Just over half of students favored campus administrators making statements against on-campus violence and intimidation and 62 percent supported programs to encourage dialogue and empathy.

Pape believes even just disseminating the information that students understand protests slogans differently from one another could help students understand one another better and have a ripple effect on campus climate.

“This is really new information,” he said.

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