The Israel-Hamas War Is Escalating. Colleges Are Caught in the Middle.
Advocates, donors, and faculty have flooded administrators’ inboxes with a flurry of open letters, statements, and petitions in recent weeks demanding that they denounce, speak up for, or stay silent in response to campus protests over the Israel-Hamas war.
Jewish advocacy groups and a handful of faculty members blasted administrators for failing to protect students against antisemitic incidents and more promptly condemn inflammatory pro-Palestinian speech. Others called on administrators to protect Muslim, Palestinian and pro-Palestininian student groups from doxxing and harassment. And free speech advocates said administrators should not say anything at all, as part of their responsibility to protect everyone’s first amendment rights.
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Faculty members, donors, and advocates for both sides in the conflict have flooded administrators’ inboxes with a flurry of letters, statements, and petitions in recent weeks, demanding that they denounce, speak up for, or stay silent in response to campus protests against the Israel-Hamas war.
Jewish advocacy groups and a handful of faculty members blasted administrators for failing to protect students against antisemitic incidents and quickly condemn inflammatory pro-Palestinian outcry. Others called on administrators to protect Muslim, Palestinian, and pro-Palestininian student groups from “doxxing” — malicious identification by others, often via the internet — and harassment. And free-speech advocates said administrators should not say anything at all, as part of their responsibility to protect everyone’s First Amendment rights.
Campus protests over the conflict in the Middle East in recent days have resulted in screaming matches, student arrests, and, in a handful of instances, violence.
At Dartmouth College, two students were arrested on trespassing charges at a pro-Palestinian protest. And a University of Massachusetts at Amherst student was arrested after punching a Jewish student and spitting on an Israeli flag during a vigil for those kidnapped by Hamas.
Rifts between faculty and administrators have occurred at Columbia and Ohio State Universities, and on campuses in the University of California system, among other colleges. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Civil Liberties Union, and college presidents in Israel have demanded the opposite actions from administrations.
Advocates, faculty, and students have been at odds over college administrators’ role since the day after Hamas’s October 7 attacks on Israel. Jewish advocacy groups took administrators to task for being too slow to condemn the violence and, when they did respond, for failing to use strong language against Hamas.
As attacks on Gaza have ramped up, faculty members are now saying college administrators should more forcefully condemn Israel.
On October 16, the University of California Ethnic Studies Faculty Council condemned UC system leaders’ use of terms like “terrorism” and “unprovoked aggression” to describe Hamas’s actions, in a letter the council posted. Last week, Jonathan (Jay) Sures, a UC regent, rebutted the council’s statement with his own letter, criticizing the group and calling on it to retract its letter.
A college “cannot fulfill its mission as a forum for vigorous debate if its leaders initiate baseless investigations into those who express disfavored or even loathsome views.”
In his response, Sures described the council’s letter as “appalling and repugnant” and argued that it “intentionally ignores the reality of the situation and can be interpreted as a justification of Hamas’s shocking brutality.”
A similar battle occurred at Columbia last week, when a group of faculty members wrote a letter to support student demonstrators after a “doxxing truck” drove through campus displaying the names and images of several who were involved in pro-Palestinian student groups. In response, a different faculty group condemned the first faculty letter, saying it attempted to legitimize Hamas.
And at Ohio State University, a group of more than 2,000 faculty, students, alumni, and other community members signed a statement on November 1 “to reject the university’s selective silence around events in Palestine and to support the many Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim members of our university community.”
The Anti-Defamation League also released a letter, on October 26, calling on colleges to investigate whether chapters of National Students for Justice in Palestine are providing “material support” to Hamas. The letter came a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Raymond Rodrigues, chancellor of that state’s university system, called on Florida’s public colleges to eliminate their chapters of the SJP for what they said was illegally supporting a terrorist organization.
A week later, the American Civil Liberties Union responded, urging colleges to reject the governor and chancellor’s order, calling it the “impermissible chilling of free speech and association on campus.” The letter said ADL lacked evidence to suggest that SJP chapters were directly supporting Hamas.
“A college or university, whether public or private, cannot fulfill its mission as a forum for vigorous debate if its leaders initiate baseless investigations into those who express disfavored or even loathsome views,” the ACLU wrote. “Such investigations chill speech, foster an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, and betray the spirit of free inquiry, which is based on the power to persuade rather than the power to punish.”
On Monday, Brandeis University, a private research institution in Massachusetts, banned its chapter of the SJP, prompting an outcry from the free-speech advocacy group FIRE.
“Make no mistake, Brandeis is punishing its students for nothing more than protected political advocacy,” said Zach Greenberg, a senior program officer at FIRE, in an emailed statement. “In this difficult moment, Brandeis could have demonstrated how students can engage with opposing viewpoints. Instead,” President Ronald D. Liebowitz “is teaching them to simply silence those they hate. This betrayal of Brandeis’s free speech promises is a stain on the school’s 75-year reputation as a bastion for free inquiry.”
Public colleges have no business responding to faculty statements or telling students what they can and can’t say during student protests, said Keith E. Whittington, a politics professor at Princeton University.
While some of the more violent threats on campuses may count as unprotected speech, Whittington said, many of the incidents at colleges, including doxxing trucks and statements supporting Hamas’s actions, are protected by the First Amendment.
“I think there’s certainly some examples of pretty contemptible speech in some of these letters,” Whittington said. “But universities have to be able to distinguish between speech that is pretty contemptible, but protected by their policies, and speech that is threatening or suggests that somebody is going to engage in unprofessional conduct.”
Others say events like the Israel-Hamas war require them to take a position that supports students and helps them feel safe on campus.
Justin Finkelstein, an analyst in the ADL’s Center on Extremism, emphasized the need for college administrators to provide more support for students, by condemning letters and statements that support Hamas, which much of Europe and the U.S. deems a terrorist group. People who release those statements should be allowed their freedom of speech, he said, but that doesn’t prevent colleges from responding accordingly in support of Jewish students.
Administrators should also be aware of “unbalanced” faculty ideologies, said Sara Coodin, director of academic affairs at the American Jewish Committee, another advocacy group for the Jewish people. If faculty members continue to issue “lopsided” statements, people won’t be able to have a conversation about the complexities of the war, she said.
To Charles H.F. Davis III, an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, faculty statements are like “the lantern in the window” in the absence of support from administrators. They help students see who on campus supports them and who doesn’t, he said.
“The pen is kind of our weapon of choice,” he said. “My desire to be visible and to show up is not just one of exercising moral, political courage, but to let my students know that I see you, I’m here with you, and that I can’t articulate these things in my work or in my classes. And I actually show up when rubber meets the road.”
While college administrators are under pressure to protect free speech and foster open debate on campus, they’re also being called on to keep students safe. Advocates for both Israelis and Palestinians say college leaders aren’t doing enough.
Acts of antisemitism on college campuses have grown by 388 percent in recent weeks compared with this time last year, according to the ADL.
The pen is kind of our weapon of choice.
As a result, Jewish students have felt left behind and scared, Finkelstein said. While many of them support Palestinian freedom, they’re being misrepresented and misunderstood, he said.
“Jewish students are being painted as these terrible, bigoted, baby-killing machines, when all they say is they’re anti-Hamas and they want the kidnapped folks to be returned,” Finkelstein said.
As Jewish students feel progressively targeted, they are looking for where they will feel safe on campus, and college administrators should help them find that by addressing their “pressing needs,” Coodin said. This includes emphasizing resources for students to find support, clarifying reporting processes for hate incidents, and identifying what the campus policies are on protests.
Meanwhile, a growing number of faculty members feel that Muslim, Palestinian, and pro-Palestinian protesters are especially vulnerable to harassment and doxxing.
To Davis, the statements from faculty and administrators supporting Israel or condemning pro-Palestinian protests have helped to create a “volatile” and “polarizing” campus climate. Many of the statements have a “complete and utter disregard” for how Palestinian people have been treated for the past 75 years, Davis said. This can be especially problematic for colleges with large populations of Palestinian and other Arab students, he said.
“That tells us that institutions consistently are siding with those who have been in power and those who have been a part of the oppressive regimes there,” Davis said, “which is inconsistent with a lot of the things that have been espoused with regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion, yes, but also the idea of decolonization.”
Statements from faculty and advocacy organizations condemning pro-Palestinian demonstrations have also falsely equated supporting Palestinians with being pro-Hamas, Davis said. Students who are exercising their constitutional rights are being told they’re committing acts of terrorism, he said, which creates a chilling effect and a “culture of fear.”
Campus and municipal police officers at protests also place Palestinian students in danger, Davis said. Often, having the police there escalates a demonstration and can lead to student arrests, he said.
“I couldn’t imagine being a Palestinian student at this moment on a campus,” Davis said. “I’m both rendered invisible and hypervisible simultaneously.”