Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Tensions flared on campuses across the country Thursday as groups of students gathered to show their support for Israelis or Palestinians in the midst of an escalating war between Israel and Hamas.
Students for Justice in Palestine declared Thursday a “day of resistance,” calling on individual campus chapters to rally in support of Palestinian liberation.
“As the Palestinian student movement, we have a responsibility to join the call for mass mobilization. National SJP is calling on all chapters and allied student orgs to join a National Day of Action on Thursday, October 12,” the Instagram post read.
The accompanying poster drew sharp criticism for featuring an image of a paraglider—like those used by Hamas terrorists to breach the Gaza border and attack Israeli civilians Oct. 7.
A snapshot of scenes from campuses on edge:
- Hundreds of protesters on both sides gathered at the University of Washington in Seattle, with Palestinian supporters chanting, “Resistance is justified,” MyNorthwest reported. One reporter noted that a man draped in an Israeli flag walked through a group of pro-Palestinian protesters, who yelled and pointed but did not harm him. Nearby, Jewish demonstrators broke down in tears, with one young woman pleading, “How are you allowing this? Why aren’t you putting a stop to this? They want us dead.”
- Columbia University closed its campus to the public in anticipation of dueling protests Thursday. A spokesperson said the university was limiting campus access to people with Columbia IDs “to help maintain safety and a sense of community through planned demonstration activities,” The New York Times reported. By evening, hundreds of supporters of SJP and Students Supporting Israel had gathered, waving banners and flags. SJP supporters carried signs that said “Free Palestine" and “To Exist is to Resist,” Reuters reported, while Israeli supporters held posters bearing the faces of Israeli hostages allegedly taken by Hamas. On Wednesday, a 24-year-old Israeli student was reportedly attacked with a stick while handing out fliers in front of the library; a 19-year-old was charged with assault and taken into custody.
- The University of Arizona chapter of SJP postponed its demonstration, saying, “We no longer feel safe holding our rally on campus today,” KVOA reported.
The announcement came after President Robert Robbins issued a statement that read in part, “As we continue to witness the horrendous acts of terrorism by Hamas in Israel targeted at innocent civilians, including children, this clearly is not just a political debate or incident related to geopolitical differences. Let’s call it what it is: antisemitic hatred, murder, and a complete atrocity.”
- The SJP branch at the University of Illinois at Chicago called an “emergency rally for Palestine,” saying, “Resistance is justified when people are occupied.”
- SJP organized rallies on several University of California campuses. At the University of California, San Diego, SJP invited students to a vigil to “honor our martyrs.” At UCLA the call went out: “‼️‼️‼️ BRING YOUR KEFFIYEHS & PALESTINE FLAGS AND WALK OUT OF YOUR CLASSES @ 2:00 PM ‼️‼️‼️”
- At George Mason University in Virginia, a large group of Palestinian supporters, some draped in flags and wearing black-and-white kaffiyehs covering their faces, gathered in a circle around students who led chants through megaphones, including “Long live Palestine!” and “Tear down Israel's border wall!”
- In Florida, Students for Socialism organized a pro-Palestinian rally at the University of South Florida, where speakers urged the U.S. to stop providing aid to Israel, The Tampa Bay Times reported. At the University of Florida in Gainesville, SJP organizers planned to conduct a teach-in on the “day of resistance.” Meanwhile, the University of Tampa's Hillel group set aside a room for Jewish students “to have a safe space for support and self care while dealing with the atrocities committed by Hamas in Israel.”
Faculty on the Front Lines
On the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus Thursday, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli protesters argued with each other, according to North Carolina media.
Evyatar Marienberg, a Jewish Israeli associate professor of religion and the director of the Christianity and Culture minor, said he stood before the pro-Palestinian protesters “in support of being human” and yelled at them in response “to their shoutings.” They pushed him “slightly—they mostly tried with banners,” he told Inside Higher Ed.
Police then removed him from the scene. “They said to get me out of harm’s way, that was not an arrest,” he said.
“This was a protest by a hate group supporting atrocious acts that were done this week, targeting civilians for being civilians,” Marienberg said. “They were shouting ‘with blood and fire we will free Palestine,’ which is not a peaceful chant.”
At Yale University, a petition posted online this week is calling for the dismissal of Zareena Grewal, associate professor of American studies, ethnicity, race and migration and religious studies. The petition includes a screenshot of an Oct. 7 post on X, purportedly from Grewal.
“My heart is in my throat,” it reads. “Prayers for Palestinians. Israeli [sic] is a murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle, solidarity #FreePalestine.”
Fox News reported on that post, as well as another one from Grewal the same day: “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.”
As of Thursday, the X account had been made private.
“My tweets have been taken way out of context,” Grewal said in an email to Inside Higher Ed.
The university said in a statement, “Yale is committed to freedom of expression, and the comments posted on professor Grewal’s personal accounts represent her own views.”
The university pointed to a Tuesday statement from President Peter Salovey that said, “I am compelled by our shared sense of humanity to condemn the attacks on civilians by Hamas in the strongest possible terms. The death toll in Israel continues to climb. Non-militant Palestinians have been killed or displaced. According to reports, we can expect the crisis to escalate.”
Meanwhile, the University of Toronto at Scarborough’s Department of Historical and Cultural Studies affirmed its commitment to academic freedom with a statement on its website, saying it is “resolute in its support for all faculty who speak up about the current war in Palestine/Israel, and who bring their expertise to bear on public conversations.”
“It is not only permissible, but essential for scholars to situate the current war in its broad historical contexts, including those of settler colonialism, U.S. imperialism in the Middle East and global movements for Indigenous rights,” the statement says, “Anti-colonial solidarity is not simply a legitimate ethical position, but a critical analytical perspective that has opened up entire bodies of scholarship. This scholarship remains occluded in public debates by nationalist frameworks that present the situation in Palestine, as in other world regions, as one of ‘national conflict’ or primordial enmity.”
Cornel West, an Independent presidential candidate and the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair at Union Theological Seminary, told Politico he disagreed with a controversial statement by some Harvard University students, which said they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence”—mostly because it lacked nuance.
“Israel and [the] United States are primarily responsible” for the violence, West told the outlet, but “Hamas must take responsibility for killing innocent folk.”
“Palestinians have a right to defend themselves in the same way that Israel has a right to defend itself,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. But neither has a right to kill innocent people.”
Students Face Repercussions for Speaking Out
Earlier this week, pro-Palestinian student groups across the United States received substantial backlash for publishing statements that cheered on the Islamic militant group Hamas for its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, even as the group killed civilians, including children.
Since then, some who wrote and signed off on those messages have experienced serious consequences. Winston & Strawn LLP, a global law firm, announced in a public statement that it had rescinded a job offer to the president of the New York University School of Law’s Student Bar Association, Ryna Workman, due to a statement she made in a widely shared newsletter.
“Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life,” Workman wrote. “This regime of state-sanctioned violence created the conditions that made resistance necessary. I will not condemn Palestinian resistance.”
Workman had previously been a summer associate at Winston & Strawn, according to the firm’s statement. The New York Daily News also reported that the Student Bar Association is moving to remove Workman from the post of president; a hearing will be held in the coming weeks.
Other employers are also opposed to hiring students who have spoken out in support of Hamas. Bill Ackman, a hedge fund manager, asked Harvard in a post on X to release the names of the members of the student clubs that signed the highly controversial statement blaming Israel unequivocally for Hamas’s attack.
“I have been asked by a number of CEOs if @harvard would release a list of the members of each of the Harvard organizations that have issued the letter assigning sole responsibility for Hamas’ heinous acts to Israel, so as to insure that none of us inadvertently hire any of their members,” wrote Ackman, who has donated millions to the university. “If, in fact, their members support the letter they have released, the names of the signatories should be made public so their views are publicly known.”
A number of lists have emerged that index the names of students who had supposedly signed off on that and other anti-Israel statements. A truck bearing a digital billboard also drove near Harvard’s campus Wednesday displaying students’ names and faces under the heading, “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites,” CNN reported.
Some students featured on the lists have either disaffiliated with the club that signed the statement or said they weren’t aware of the pro-Hamas statement before it was published. Several clubs have also chosen to retract their support of the statement and apologized for signing it in the first place.
“We regret that our decision to co-sign the latest PSC statement to call attention to historical injustices against Palestinians, with an earnest desire for peace, has been interpreted as a tacit support for the recent violent attacks in Israel,” wrote the Harvard Undergraduate Nepali Student Association.
Revising Official Statements
At least two universities have released follow-up statements after receiving backlash for initial remarks that were seen as tepid or neutral.
The second addressed the militant organization’s attacks more directly: “As a moral matter, we condemn all terrorism and mass atrocities. This includes the deliberate attack on civilians this weekend by Hamas,” President Richard Saller and Provost Jenny Martinez wrote.
But they also noted they did not believe it was the university’s place to take a stance on geopolitical events, since it couldn’t possibly respond to everything that impacts Stanford students. “It can enmesh universities in politics and create a sense of institutional orthodoxy that chills academic freedom,” they wrote.
Harvard also released a second statement after the first, signed by multiple administrators, was criticized both for failing to condemn Hamas explicitly and for not addressing the controversial statement released by student organizations. The second, signed only by President Claudine Gay, stated that she condemned “the terrorist atrocities perpetuated by Hamas” and noted that, while the students had a right to express their opinion, they did not speak on Harvard’s behalf.
Looking for Federal Guidance
On Capitol Hill, dozens of House Republicans called on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to protect Jewish students on campuses where pro-Palestinian demonstrations were taking place.
The lawmakers, led by Representative Tim Walberg of Michigan, wrote in a letter to Cardona that the demonstrations “could result in the creation of a hostile environment for Jewish students and acts of harassment against them.”
Colleges and universities are required under federal civil rights law to protect students from antisemitic harassment. The Education Department reiterated that responsibility in a Dear Colleague letter released in May as part of the Biden administration’s strategy to counter antisemitism nationally. More Jewish students have reported experiencing antisemitism on a college campus in recent years.
The department has also rolled out an Antisemitism Awareness Campaign, featuring site visits to institutions that have engaged in their own campaigns or experienced upticks in antisemitism. Walberg and others wrote in the letter that the Education Department should put “universities that have instances of student support for terrorism” at the top of the site visit list.
“As demonstrated by the rhetoric and recent actions of students across the country, antisemitic beliefs on college campuses are rampant and must not go unchallenged,” the letter said.
Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the top Republican on the House education committee and a co-signer of the letter, condemned the student groups’ statements earlier this week. The committee is planning to hold a hearing next month about antisemitism on college campuses and the response of university leaders to the attacks.
“While it is the right of all Americans—including students—to speak, it is also the right and duty of all leaders to speak loudly in response to evil rearing its head,” Foxx said in a statement. “Too many colleges require lock-step discipleship behind woke policies and politics. Sadly, the university system has been captured by anti-American and illiberal ideology that is developing and feeding a hatred of Jews.”