(NEW YORK) — Student protesters critical of the Israeli government’s military actions in Gaza have continued to face accusations of antisemitism, as politicians from across the ideological spectrum react to the widening demonstrations on college campuses.

But many of the student groups behind the protests – including Jewish activists voicing their support for a cease-fire in Gaza – said that individuals making inflammatory remarks do not represent their groups or their values concerning the war in Gaza.

“At universities across the nation, our movement is united in valuing every human life,” read a statement from Columbia University Apartheid Divest, one of the groups involved in the protests. “As a diverse group united by love and justice, we demand our voices be heard against the mass slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Some Jewish students have long warned against conflating antisemitism with views critical of Israel’s government and blanket portrayals of all protesters as antisemitic.

“It is unacceptable for school administration and politicians … to co-opt our shared identity to silence Palestinian, Muslim, Arab, and Jewish students,” said MIT Jews for Ceasefire, Harvard Jews for Palestine, and University of Pennsylvania Chavurah in a December 2023 statement to Congress. “These actions only serve to obfuscate real cases of antisemitism and put Jewish students at even greater risk.”

College students tackle the debate

Tensions have been high on college campuses since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists invaded Israel in an unprecedented surprise attack. The Israeli military then began its ongoing bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

Since Oct. 7, Israeli forces have killed at least 34,183 people and injured 77,143 others in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health.

In Israel, at least 1,700 people have been killed and 8,700 others injured by Hamas or other Palestinian militants, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Students nationwide have been camping out on their college and university campuses, calling for their schools to divest funding from Israeli military operations amid the humanitarian crisis and rising death toll in Gaza.

The college protests have been largely peaceful, officials say, though hundreds of students and faculty have been arrested at campuses across the country, primarily for trespassing. School administrators across the country have also said that some instances of violence have largely been connected to unaffiliated non-students.

Incidents go viral

Several antisemitic incidents in or near protests have trended online – including a photo that appears to show an individual holding up a sign that states “Al-Qassam’s Next Target,” referring to a military wing of Hamas, pointing toward people holding Israeli flags on Columbia University’s campus on April 20. It remains unclear who the person is and whether they are a student.

Another video trending on social media appears to show another person shouting “We are Hamas” as a man draped in an Israeli flag walks outside the Columbia University campus on April 17.

“We will not be a city of lawlessness, and those professional agitators seeking to seize the ongoing conflict in the Middle East to sow chaos and division in our city will not succeed,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said.

At Cal Poly Tech, administrators say that “hateful graffiti” has been painted on university property, but did not elaborate in their statement on what the graffiti entailed.

“The University condemns in the strongest terms all forms of hatred, bigotry, and violence,” the school’s April 24 statement read. “Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hatred, and bigotry in all forms have no place at Cal Poly Humboldt. The University is actively offering support to all students and has been in touch with local Jewish community leaders.

President Joe Biden, House Speaker Mike Johnson and others have denounced alleged instances of hate amid ongoing debate around the Israel-Hamas war.

“Even in recent days, we’ve seen harassment and calls for violence against Jews,” Biden said earlier this week in a statement. “This blatant Antisemitism is reprehensible and dangerous – and it has absolutely no place on college campuses, or anywhere in our country.”

Students share concerns

In a March U.S. House committee hearing, other Jewish students and groups said that the intensifying debate regarding the Israel-Hamas war has created a “climate of hatred and fear,” and highlighted alleged antisemitic harassment and intimidation since the start of the war.

One student told the committee that she has had slurs like “F— you, Jew,” shouted at her since the war began on Oct. 7.

“This is the reality as a Jewish student who wears the Star of David,” Yasmeen Ohebsion, of Tulane University, said at the hearing.

Jewish students in support of pro-Palestinian efforts have said they’ve also experienced antisemitism from those who disagree with their position.

“Jewish supporters of Israel at MIT have called me an antisemite, Hamas, a self-hating Jew, and have told me that I am ‘not a real Jew’ and that ‘God made a mistake by having you born a Jew’,” read one testimonial submitted to Congress.

Higher education institutions have come under scrutiny for how they’ve handled the unrest from all sides — with Jewish, Muslim and Arab students alike calling out their respective administrations for allegedly failing to protect students with identities tied to the conflict overseas.

“I also want to be clear that we will not tolerate intimidating, harassing, or discriminatory behavior,” said Columbia President Minouch Shafik, who has been the center of criticism for some students and politicians alike, in an April 23 statement.

She said her administration is working to identify protesters who have violated policies against discrimination and harassment: “The right to protest is essential and protected at Columbia, but harassment and discrimination is antithetical to our values and an affront to our commitment to be a community of mutual respect and kindness.”

Authorities and civil rights groups across the country have noted a rise in incidents targeting Jewish, Arab, and Muslim communities.

“The situation on campus has become utterly and categorically untenable for an educational institution that has the responsibility of ensuring its students have a productive academic environment conducive to continued learning,” said Students Supporting Israel’s Columbia University chapter in an online statement about recent protests.

Amid the intensifying debate, some Jewish students say there should also be room for a conscious effort to reject and unlearn normalized antisemitism across the political spectrum.

“There have been both beautiful moments of solidarity for Palestinian liberation and moments of real distress for Jewish students,” said Columbia Jews for Ceasefire in an online statement.

The student group said it is the “utmost importance” for the focus to be on the crisis in Gaza, but the group will “continue to call out and condemn antisemitism where we see it because all identity-based hatred is at odds with liberation.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week condemned protesters critical of Israeli policy. “What’s happening in America’s college campuses is horrific. Antisemitic mobs have taken over leading universities,” Netanyahu said. “They call for the annihilation of Israel. They attack Jewish students. They attack Jewish faculty.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is Jewish, responded to Netanyahu in a statement Thursday night, saying, in part, “It is not antisemitic or pro-Hamas to point out that in a little over six months your extremist government has killed 34,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 77,000 – seventy percent of whom are women and children. It is not antisemitic to point out that your bombing has completely destroyed more than 221,000 housing units in Gaza, leaving more than a million people homeless – almost half the population.”

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