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Grief, anger, fear on college campuses as Israel-Hamas war divide comes home

Collage of rallies and vigils on college campuses.
Clockwise from top left: Students rally on the UCLA campus in support of Palestinians, USC students attend an evening vigil in support of Israel, a pro-Palestinian rally at Cal State Long Beach, and a pro-Israel vigil at USC.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Flickering tea lights illuminated the blue-and-white Israeli flag as hundreds of UCLA students and other supporters of Israel gathered for an evening vigil at Bruin Plaza this week. They shared feelings of grief and seething anger over the massacre of more than 1,300 in Israel, many of them women and children, by Hamas militants. They prayed, hugged and sang.

The next day, hundreds of other UCLA students marched through campus, joining a national Day of Resistance in support of Palestinians who have lost land, homes, freedom and lives during Israel’s decades-long occupation of their historical homeland. More than 1,900 people have been killed in Israeli military retaliatory strikes on the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7, many younger than 18. One speaker lambasted Israelis for the killing of Palestinians, accusing Israel of dehumanizing them as “animals.” Another student held up a sign that read “Zionism = Terrorism.”

All of the students share the same campus as fellow Bruins. But when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they navigate parallel universes, sharply divided. Although universities are supposed to be bastions of open inquiry, academic freedom and robust debate, the escalating Israel-Hamas war has elevated campus tensions across the country this week, underscoring how much those values have withered as polarization hardens amid the social media age.

 Students march across the UCLA campus in support of Palestinians.
Students march across the UCLA campus in support of Palestinians.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Tense demonstrations, open letters of disdain expressed by both sides, and intense scrutiny of administrators and professors have unfolded on campuses all week and appeared to grow more strained as days passed. Many students on all sides are afraid to speak their minds for fear of being threatened and harassed — or refuse to engage with those who think differently. Faculty, too, have been threatened and subjected to social media aggression for teaching about the conflict.

The vitriolic climate at scores of campuses — including UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, USC and Cal State Long Beach — has chilled speech and torpedoed efforts to build understanding, students and faculty say. Columbia University shut down for a day after a Jewish student was beaten. Stanford Law School moved classes online Friday due to student concerns about safety.

Some university leaders who made statements about the war angered one side or the other.

USC President Carol Folt, for instance, initially posted a statement Oct. 8 on social media about her sadness over “the grave events and the tragic loss of life taking place right now in Israel and Gaza.” She was immediately attacked for not denouncing Hamas terrorism — one critic called her an “embarrassment.” Another intimated he would withhold donations. Two days later, Folt issued another statement condemning the “terrorist attacks by Hamas and their brutal threats to execute kidnapped civilians and commit other atrocities.”

ChayaLeah Sufrin is the executive director of Beach Hillel, which provides Jewish programming at Cal State Long Beach and neighboring campuses. She said she supports peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians and has long tried to foster understanding of the region, coordinating trips with non-Jewish student leaders to Israel, the Gaza border and the West Bank.

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She once believed the campus could be a place where students could talk about the complexities of the region without contentiousness. But she doesn’t know if that’s possible now.

USC students attend an evening vigil on campus in support of Israel.
USC students attend an evening vigil Tuesday on campus in support of Israel.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“I’ve spent my whole career trying to build bridges and try to hear from other voices and understand the Palestinian perspective. I’ve always advocated for a two-state solution,” she said. “I feel very hopeless about the situation.”

At California campuses this week, the already yawning gulf between students supporting Israelis or Palestinians widened. Many of them wore face masks during rallies to avoid being identified and declined to speak to reporters.

During a “Stand With Israel” demonstration at UC Berkeley, more than a hundred students and community members gathered to mourn victims of the attack. Some were draped in Israeli flags or held signs with photos of women and children being held hostage by Hamas fighters in Gaza.

Student speakers described family and friends who had been killed in the violence. Ariel Mizrahi, a senior and student government representative for Jewish students, described learning that her cousin, an Israeli soldier, had been killed while attempting to rescue hostages.

“Don’t you dare come to Jewish students or come online and tell us there are two sides,” she shouted tearfully into a megaphone. “This is not about politics. If you believe in human rights, where are you now?”

A crowd of several hundred more gathered around Sproul Plaza to watch, including some assembled around a large Palestinian flag, who declined to talk to the media. Israel supporters approached the counterprotesters repeatedly, shouting expletives and telling them to go home. The counterdemonstrators mostly stood by stoically. Shouting erupted repeatedly.

Both sides denounced the other as terrorists, and there were shouts of “disgusting pigs!” from an Israeli participant. The pro-Israel demonstrators chanted, “Shame on you! Shame on you!” en masse to silence the disruptions, or sang “Am Yisrael Chai,” a popular song meaning “the people of Israel live.”

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UC Berkeley students interviewed on both sides said fruitful dialogue between the groups had become all but impossible.

“Bears for Palestine” said that no productive conversation is possible with supporters of an “apartheid regime” that has occupied Palestinian lands for decades, depriving more than 2 million Gazans of their human rights and basic necessities for the last 16 years.

Student demonstrators at UCLA show support for Palestinians.
Students rally at UCLA in support of Palestinians on Thursday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“This humanitarian crisis is not a two-sided discussion, and pro-Israel narratives simply exist to silence Palestinian voices,” the group told The Times in a statement. “To demonize and condemn indigenous resistance is to overshadow the decades of oppression, ethnic cleansing, and destruction of the Palestinian people.”

The group added that Palestinian students who had spoken up had been doxxed, risking their future and professional lives. Many are fearful of their identities being published on Canary Mission, a website that posts names and photos of students, professors and others who it says “promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews” — often by supporting Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation.

Abed Ayoub, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said his staff has heard from students across the country, including California, who are facing expulsion and losing job opportunities for expressing their beliefs. Others are having their social media posts monitored and are threatened with violence on campuses, he said. The committee has set up an emergency fund to provide legal support.

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A statement from the National Students for Justice in Palestine, which called for the campus rallies Thursday, described the Hamas attack as a “historic win for the Palestinian resistance.” The group has led campus efforts to build support for Palestinians, including nonviolent boycott and divestment campaigns, but their tactics have angered and appalled many supporters of Israel.

Pro-Israel students have also been harassed. At UCLA, students walking on campus with an Israeli flag this week were accosted by another student yelling profanities and calling them “colonizers” and “occupiers.”

Bella Brannon, president of the UCLA Hillel, said it will be hard to move forward in dialogue after seeing fellow students support the Hamas attack as liberation for the Palestinian people and disregarding the horror of Israeli women and babies who were killed.

“If people won’t condemn terror attacks for what they are ... there is no conversation to be had,” Brannon said.

USC students attend a vigil
USC students attend an evening vigil on campus in support of Israel on Tuesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Some students said they might be willing to talk, but the other side wasn’t. Or they say the conflict is so complex it is difficult to know where to start.

As she cradled an electric candle in her hands at a USC vigil for Israel this week, Sarah Schornstein, a graduate student in public diplomacy who specializes in Mideast studies, said even she is flummoxed by how to explain the complicated history and prefers discussing Israel’s culture.

“Anyone on any side of the issue who talks about this will end up finding themselves in a hole, and I know,” she said. “I’ve had a long experience working with Israel ... but even I find myself digging myself into a hole, trying to figure out how to explain things.”

Efforts to teach about the long history of the conflict have blown up.

The hands of woman hold a candle.
A scene from the pro-Israel vigil at USC.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

This week, two UCLA professors announced an “emergency teach-in on the crisis in Palestine” — and were immediately hit with threats and harassment. One of them, English professor Saree Makdisi, said his department was flooded with so many angry phone calls that staff members shut down the office and went home early, fearing for their safety. His inbox was filled with angry emails calling for cancellation of the forum, the firing of a professor involved and insults about Muslims and Palestinians.

They moved the teach-in online for safety and to better accommodate the hundreds who wanted to attend. But when a group of mostly female students gathered outside a UCLA classroom to watch it online together, a group of young men began screaming profanities at them, calling them “f— terrorists.” The young men knocked over a trash can before campus security stopped them, according to a video of the incident reviewed by The Times. The students fled, with one reporting that the men grabbed two laptops and threw them on the floor and into the trash.

“People should be ashamed of themselves,” said Makdisi, a Palestinian American Christian whose primary message during the teach-in was that the only way to end violence in the contested land is to dismantle the conditions that cause it, which he said was the Israeli occupation.

He said those who tried to intimidate others from speaking were un-American. “The whole point of this country is that we’re not supposed to have to ask permission to speak and express ourselves,” he said.

At Stanford University, Jewish students were reportedly singled out by an instructor who asked them to stand in the shoes of the other side. The instructor also downplayed the Holocaust and separated students into colonized or colonizer groups depending on their family countries of origin. The university is investigating the incident and the instructor, who was described as a non-faculty member who is not teaching during the inquiry.

Meanwhile, leaders at Stanford, Harvard, UC Berkeley and other campuses across the country have faced a deluge of demands to issue statements condemning Hamas or recognizing equally the killings of innocent Palestinians.

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Stanford President Richard Saller and Provost Jennifer Martinez were criticized for not explicitly denouncing Hamas in their initial message to the campus Monday; they followed up two days later condemning all “terror and mass atrocities” including the “deliberate attack on civilians this weekend by Hamas.”

At the University of California, some chancellors issued statements condemning Hamas. They have drawn criticism for failing to recognize the innocent Palestinian civilians who also have been slaughtered by Israeli military forces.

Alex Morey, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said university leaders should get off the “hamster wheel” of never-ending demands for social and political statements and declare institutional neutrality as the University of Chicago did in a 1967 policy adopted amid civil rights activism. The policy said universities should be hosts of social and political debates among faculty and students but not participants in them.

“I’m hopeful,” Morey said, “that this can be something of a watershed moment where universities refocus on what they can and should do, which is step into their incredibly unique role to provide an ideal space for working on these problems among students and faculty rather than putting their thumb on the scale for either side.”

The issue is drawing in new student activists without ties to either Israelis or Palestinians. At UC Berkeley, affinity student groups such as Koreans 4 Decolonization and the Jakara Movement chapter publicly support the Palestinian movement because their own communities endured decades of occupation and colonization.

“All of our movements are intertwined,” said Amrit Kaur, a chapter board member with the Jakara Movement, which represents California Sikh youth whose forebears experienced decades of British colonial rule in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent. “If we want to be able to fight for ourselves, we have to be willing to fight for others as well.”

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A young woman in a mask holds a sign reading 'Free Palestine.'
Cal State Long Beach students hold a campus rally Tuesday in support of Palestinians.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

At Cal State Long Beach, a multicultural group of students joined a national “Day of Resistance” rally Tuesday in support of Palestinians and against colonialism. Led by the La F.U.E.R.Z.A Student Assn., the students marched throughout campus, chanting, “Viva, viva Palestina!” and carrying a large banner of a Palestinian flag that read, “WHEN PEOPLE ARE COLONIZED RESISTANCE IS JUSTIFIED.”

The group drew condemnation for posting an illustration on its Instagram account of a paraglider flying over a crowd of people holding signs reading “Free Palestine” and “Resistance is our right.” Among other tactics, Hamas fighters used paragliders during last weekend’s incursion into Israel.

UCLA students rally on campus in support of Israel.
A pro-Israel rally at UCLA on Tuesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The university’s president, Jane Conoley, wrote an email to the campus community, denouncing the Instagram post and protest, calling it “deeply offensive in light of the loss of life and unspeakable violence during this conflict.” The group has since removed the illustration from its Instagram account.

Nicolette Love, a 22-year-old Jewish student studying psychology, said she had a friend walk with her on campus to avoid interactions with students involved in the pro-Palestinian protest.

“It’s a lonely feeling for I think a lot of us, where you see people that you thought you were friends with and they’re blatantly promoting what’s happening,” Love said.

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