‘I’ve been terrified.’ Student fears triggered by Israeli-Palestinian conflict skyrocket

Barricades surround the encampment for the pro-Palestinian group as they stand guard
Pro-Palestinian protesters hold makeshift shields to protect their encampment at UCLA on Tuesday.
(Michael Blackshire / Los Angeles Times)
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The UCLA Muslim student wears sunglasses, a kaffiyeh scarf and face mask to avoid recognition on campus. She’s asked to move her classes online to prevent others from knowing her route and following her. She will speak only on the condition of anonymity to protect herself and her future as an aspiring nurse.

But her caution has not helped her feel safe. She is terrified by the hate that has rained down on her and her fellow pro-Palestinian supporters since Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel retaliated with a massive and continuing assault on Gaza. She has been spat on and called a terrorist multiple times, she said. Men who have come to the encampment have threatened rape. A woman brandished a stun gun at her on campus, laughing.

But nothing was as chilling as Tuesday night, when a mob of counterprotesters began to attack the “Palestinian Solidarity Encampment” erected by students last week, tearing down barriers, assaulting campers and screaming epithets, as captured in videos by The Times.


“I never felt more scared in my life,” she said. “I felt my life was in danger.”

The violence at what had largely been a peaceful student protest at UCLA traumatized and angered pro-Palestinian supporters, who are demanding an end to Israeli actions in Gaza and divestment in the country — the biggest wave of campus demonstrations since the 1960s civil rights movement. It also highlighted the intense fears among college students across the country as the Israel-Palestinian conflict foments escalating campus protests and reports of physical and verbal assaults, doxxing and threats to academic and professional careers.

A new national study led by the University of Chicago has for the first time documented in detail the extent of those fears and reasons for them — along with student attitudes toward genocide, antisemitism, Islamophobia and possible ways to calm tensions.

Hours of violence that unfolded overnight at a pro-Palestinian encampment set up on UCLA’s campus prompted administrators to cancel classes on Wednesday and has triggered questions about authorities’ response.

May 1, 2024

The study found that 58% of students who identified as Jewish and 52% of those who said they were Muslim have feared for their safety since Oct. 7. An additional 16% of neither background also expressed fears. This represents as many as 3 million students across the country.

“The campus fears are more intense and more widespread than what we’ve previously known,” said Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political science professor and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats who wrote the report.

The nonpartisan analysis is based on a nationally representative sample of 5,000 college students at more than 600 four-year academic institutions included in two commissioned surveys between mid-December and mid-January — before the most recent clashes at numerous universities throughout the nation, including USC, the University of Texas at Austin and Columbia. The surveys were conducted at the University of Chicago by NORC, previously the National Opinion Research Center, and College Pulse, with narrow margins of error from 1% to 1.94%.

In one finding, about 10% of college students would permit student groups to call for genocide against Jews, and 13% of college students say that when Jews are attacked, it is because they deserve it. The same percentage would permit that call against Muslims.


The survey asked students to describe what triggered their fears. Jewish students’ responses included death threats, vandalism of their fraternity house, swastikas painted on a nearby synagogue, harassment when walking by wearing a Star of David necklace and protest chants they interpret as a call for their people’s genocide.

Photos: Clashes erupt at pro-Palestinian demonstrations on California campuses

May 2, 2024

One UCLA Jewish student, a senior who asked for anonymity to protect her safety, said she was “terrified” to walk through campus and broke down in tears when a pro-Palestinian supporter stood up in class and said Jewish students did not belong at the university.

Another senior, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Priel, said she has encountered screams to “go home” and “kill Zionists.”

“The hate and violence that’s been going on on campus has become way worse since Oct. 7,” Priel said.

Dan Gold, executive director of Hillel at UCLA, said most students did not feel physically unsafe but were more concerned about being excluded from campus activities since the tensions escalated. He said Jewish students have been sidelined in clubs, intentionally shoved and frightened by protest chants and symbols.

In one instance, a ghoulish effigy of a pig holding a bag of money next to an image of the Israeli flag was erected on campus during the last University of California Board of Regents meeting to dramatize protester demands to divest from firms that supply weapons and services to Israel.


“The current environment on campuses has created an unprecedented situation of antisemitism in all layers of campus life,” Gold said. “It happens every day, almost everywhere.”

Many on campus and outside UCLA are criticizing the university for not handling the violent counterprotest better.

May 1, 2024

Muslims and others who sympathize with the Palestinian cause have reported more violent harassment. Students in the survey and at UCLA said aggressors have ripped off their kaffiyehs or hijabs, called them terrorists and whores, and threatened rape or murder. In one case, a student was almost run over in the street.

Many Palestinian supporters are particularly anxious about their academic and professional careers, as people have taken photos of them and posted the images on social media. One website, Canary Mission, blacklists those they accuse of being antisemitic.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, has been flooded with complaints of warnings and even workplace firings of those who express pro-Palestinian views.

“It’s worse than 9/11,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR’s Greater Los Angeles office.

Fourth-year UCLA student Hasan Mirza noted a “dramatic increase” in anti-Muslim hate directed toward students on campus since Oct. 7. As the president of the Muslim Student Assn., he was made aware of at least seven accounts of verbal harassment toward Muslim students wearing hijabs since then.


“There’s always a concern of feeling like you have to look over your shoulder,” said Mirza, who is Pakistani.

But he noted that most of the harassment and threats are not from members of the UCLA community and that he generally feels safe when surrounded by other students and faculty on campus. “It’s a diverse campus and we’re been glad to see that [choosing harassment] is not the case for most of our peers,” he said.

Other students at UCLA, like fifth-year art history graduate student Benjamin Kersten, said they similarly feel safe on campus, outside the occasional Zionist protester walking through.

“You never want to be called a traitor and have death wished upon your family,” said Kersten, who is an anti-Zionist Jew. “It’s not fun; but otherwise, I haven’t felt unsafe on campus.”

Pape, of the University of Chicago, said some fears are driven by a “tragic misunderstanding” of the other side’s intentions. The most frequently used pro-Palestinian protest chant — “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — is understood in dramatically different ways by various students.

The survey found that 66% of Jewish students interpreted it as a call for the expulsion and genocide of Israeli Jews, a perception closely linked to fears for their safety.


By contrast, 14% of Muslim students interpreted the chant that way. Rather, 76% of those surveyed understood it as a call for Palestinians and Israelis to live side by side in two separate countries or in one state.

Among all students, 42% understood the chant as a call for mutual existence, compared with 26% of those who believed it advocates for the expulsion and genocide of Israeli Jews.

Photos: Clashes erupt at pro-Palestinian demonstrations on California campuses

May 2, 2024

The overwhelming share of students, including Jews and Muslims, said they abhor political violence and that calls for genocide were unacceptable.

The survey found that college students are not particularly antisemitic, as measured by agreement with such traditional tropes as that Jews have too much power and are unfair business competitors. But rather, they hold highly negative views of Israel as a state.

“Campus anger is mainly against Israel as a state and not the Jewish people per se,” Pape said.

Islamophobia is also relatively low among college students — lower than attitudes by American adults, the survey found.


The findings show strong support for calming actions, such as major public statements by university and national leaders that would condemn violence of any kind against any group of people. The study also said that university leaders should clarify policies on permissible political action on campus by students toward students and mechanisms and obligations to report and respond to incidents.

Others say campus administrators must be far more proactive and even-handed in protecting students — a call that intensified Tuesday after the violence against the UCLA student encampment.

One quick measure would be to publicize evidence that students on either side of the Israel-Palestinian divide are not as hostile to each other as commonly portrayed, Pape said.

Such work is going on in small ways, person to person, among many students.

Cecelia Fischer, a UCLA student majoring in history and Arabic whose honors thesis is on Jewish history, has been involved in promoting respectful conversations. She is participating in a campus “dialogue across differences” program that builds relationships, offers workshops on such topics as political polarization and invites speakers with various experiences and views.

She said hearing the deep pain that many of her classmates are feeling over the fallout of the conflict has been “heartbreaking.”

“My hope is that this [Oct. 7] event will trigger more people to learn, and I hope they do it in dialogue with others — to listen and understand rather than respond.”


Times staff writer Ashley Ahn contributed to this story.