Colleges Overcomplicate Responses To Israel-Hamas War at Palestinian Students’ Expense

Condemning marginalized student groups while staying silent on the Israel-Hamas War isn't keeping U.S. campuses safe. Encouraging learning about the origins of this war might.
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Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D.
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Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D. (he/him), is a scholar, writer, and editor. Cobretti's research and writing focuses on the experiences of historically excluded students and faculty and staff in higher education. His work has been published in the Journal...
Published on November 13, 2023
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  • College students have protested the Israel-Hamas war, and the U.S. government's role in it, on college campuses.
  • Islamophobic and antisemitic incidents have increased as a result, and it appears students supporting Palestine are suffering the most consequences.
  • Colleges and universities have failed to recognize the history between Israel and Palestine, and the equal impact it has on Jewish and Muslim students.
  • Colleges should encourage the teaching, discussion, and debate of the Israeli and Palestinian struggle — not quell it.

As the Israel-Hamas war continues to intensify and impact the lives of thousands of civilians in Gaza, U.S. colleges and universities are struggling to define their stance — and overall understanding — of the decadeslong conflict between Israel, Hamas, and what we know as present-day Palestine.

Last month, President Joe Biden urged colleges to address the rise in antisemitism on college campuses. At the same time, the U.S. House of Representatives accused colleges of disregarding Jewish students by not making a statement on the matter.

While antisemitism has and continues to be an issue for colleges to address, colleges' noticeable silence about the war reveals the extent to which higher education has not made space for the discussion of this issue from both sides of the fence — namely Jewish and Muslim student groups. Unfortunately, that has come at a time when Palestinian and Muslim students are also experiencing violence on campus.

Despite colleges' decisions to either remain silent in the debate on the Israel-Hamas war or adopt a statement that privileges one group over the other, it's important to recognize what we lose by not creating space for safety, protest, and expression between impacted groups — and the students we further marginalize by not understanding the issue in totality.

The Issue Is Complicated, but Simpler Than We Think

If you just learned about Israel, Gaza, and Palestine when Hamas attacked Israeli citizens in October, you'd think the lead-up to this war was abrupt. However, this conflict goes much further back than some scholars and most U.S. citizens realize.

In 1947, after a rise in Jewish immigration, the United Nations divided what was then Palestine into two states — Jewish and Palestinian Arab. The Jewish state then declared itself Israel, an independent nation that had a birthright to the land.

The war of 1948 ensued, resulting in over half-a-million Palestinian Arabs fleeing the country. In the next two decades, Israel annexed and took control over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, where the majority of the war is happening as we speak.

Hamas' motive for the Oct. 7 attack is based on their desire to repossess the land Israel took, along with the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Since this attack, more than 10,000 citizens in Gaza have died — the majority being women and children — as of publication.

Based on this history, one primary issue ultimately led to the violence in Gaza. First, Israel believes that it has a birthright to the land. This belief is rooted in Zionism, which centers Judaism as both a nationality and religious ideology that asserts Israel has a right to independence in its ancestral homeland.

The issue with this perspective is that Israel has been recognized as an independent nation by national governments across the world since 1948. Still, Israel continued to forcibly annex land historically occupied by Palestinians and Muslims.

The second emerging truth is that this is a war between the Israeli government and an Islamist militant group — not a coordinated attack on behalf of the Jewish and Muslim populations, at-large. Regardless, this war is impacting both Israeli and Palestinian citizens.

The U.S. government's support of Israel has impacted college campus climates — and in many cases, it comes at the expense of Palestinian and Muslim students attending U.S. colleges and universities.

Campus Climate Has Been Impacted on Both Sides

Because colleges exist outside of a vacuum, the political issues that dominate news headlines are now playing out front and center on campuses across the country.

Over the last few weeks, various campuses across the country have seen a rise in antisemitic attacks against Jewish students. A Cornell University student was recently charged with making violent threats against Jewish students on campus. Since then, President Biden outlined explicit efforts colleges need to make to address antisemitism on campus, including partnering with campus law enforcement to track online hate rhetoric targeting specific institutions.

These White House initiatives also include attacks toward Muslim students, but few colleges have outlined action steps that give equal support and consideration to Palestinian and Muslim students.

In one particular instance, Munger Hall resident advisors (RAs) at Wellesley College sent an email condemning Israel's actions against Palestine and seeking to collect aid to donate to children and families of those impacted. Later, Wellesley President Paula Johnson came out against the email sent by the RAs, further stifling the ability of students and those who speak out in support of Palestine to have a voice that is equal in weight to the calls from alumni and student groups fighting against antisemitism.

As of now, the majority of direct statements that emphasize the need to address Zionism and provide specific action steps for Palestinians have so far come from students, including those at the University of Iowa, the University of Rochester, and American University, to name a few. However, many students protesting in support of Palestine have been condemned by their institutions.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis deactivated Students for Justice in Palestine, a pro-Palestine student organization, at two state universities in Florida, accusing them of materially supporting terrorists.

At Stanford University, a Muslim student was recently the victim of a hit-and-run that the institution is currently investigating as a hate crime. Meanwhile, Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Student Association at Seattle University recently called out the campus administration for their noticeable silence on the impact the war has had on Muslim and Palestinian student groups.

In each of these situations, Palestinian and Muslim students have said they feel just as threatened as Israeli and Jewish students on campus. Yet, politicians, like DeSantis, have sought to align their right to free speech with supporting acts of terrorism while colleges and universities fail, in official communications, to address the atrocities shown toward Palestinians and Muslims.

This creates a dangerous narrative that assumes all Palestinian and Muslim students are aligned with Hamas' actions, despite the group being a small faction of the larger community. Without making that distinction, we run the risk of silencing and ignoring students needing help and experiencing violence at a higher rate simply because of their identity.

College leadership and administration might not hold the same political values and beliefs as their students, but they're still responsible for protecting all students on campus — Muslim or Jewish, Israeli or Palestinian. Unfortunately, it is my view that U.S. colleges and universities are failing in that regard.

What We Lose in Our Lack of Understanding

Higher education concerns pale in comparison to the realities of those trapped and held hostage in the ongoing war and genocide happening in Gaza. But this situation has revealed some harsh truths and realities that colleges must grapple with.

American higher education's mission is to encourage the free-flowing exchange of ideas and critical perspectives to advance the knowledge and education of society.

When we promote the ability of one student group to demand and receive support over the protestations and needs of another student group, we succumb to a culture that restricts free exchange and instead further marginalizes views and perspectives from a diverse student body that colleges purport to care about.

Because of this, there is an assumption that all Palestinian supporters are antisemitic and anti-Israel, while others assume all Jewish citizens are inherently Zionist. However, conflating a person's ethnicity or nationality with affiliation to a particular religion or principle in this instance is not necessarily true. And colleges have a responsibility to create spaces for students to learn about the nuance between these terms and principles.

I believe part of this is because most Americans do not understand and have not learned about the concept of Zionism. Notably, a recent survey by the Brookings Institution found that most American respondents don’t know or are unfamiliar with the term Zionism. This seemingly confirms that our education system has not fully understood the history and weight of Zionism in a way that would allow students to understand the challenges Palestinians face in this war.

Furthermore, when colleges and universities are silent, it exacerbates the issue at hand. The focus has and should be on centering both the voices of Israeli and Palestinian students who have been directly impacted by the violence happening in Gaza as a result of this conflict without marginalizing either group in the process.

As scholars and leaders, we care about the future of higher education. We want it to continue being a center of critical knowledge production that advances society — not an institution that bends to the will of a dominant political narrative.

We have to remember that there are multiple sides to this issue that must be heard, and we don’t have to silence Palestinian and Muslim students for our communities to educate themselves on an issue that impacts students who are already on the margins.