Israel-Hamas war stirs free-speech battles at college campuses across US

The surge in campus activism has left some students and their parents scared and prompted criticism and condemnation of how university leaders are handling the behavior.

WASHINGTON – Aaron McIntyre skipped his math and environmental sciences classes Wednesday to join fellow students at the heart of Howard University’s campus. He held tight to a white bullhorn, glanced at his cellphone and urged students not to ignore events happening across the globe.

“If we stand up for Palestine,’’ the freshman from Chicago told a cheering crowd, “we stand up for oppressed people everywhere!”

McIntyre was one of hundreds of students at Howard, a historically Black college and university, who showed up for the afternoon “walkout” billed as a rally to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. The Howard protest took place the same day students at Columbia University in New York staged their own rallies prompted by the Israel-Hamas war.

Aaron McIntyre joined other Howard University students Oct. 25, 2023 at a rally on campus in Washington, D.C., calling for support of Palestinians.

The surge in campus activism has left some students and their parents scared and triggered unyielding criticism and condemnation of how university leaders are handling the behavior. Some pro-Palestinian activists said they have been harassed and had their personal information published online. Many Jewish students, meanwhile, also said they feel intimidated by a proliferation of antisemitic social media posts and protests. 

What are students saying about the Israel-Hamas war?

Students are arguing over whether Hamas militants’ massacre of Israeli people was warranted, whether Israel has the right to defend itself against terrorists, how Israel has treated Palestinians, and whether criticisms of Israel and the Israeli government should be interpreted as attacks against all Jews, among other issues. 

The activism can be seen at a range of institutions: NYU students and alumni protested in a city park this week. Messages projected onto the George Washington University campus library in the nation’s capital Tuesday were denounced a day later by President Ellen Granberg as antisemitic and unauthorized. A viral video involving Jewish students at Cooper Union, a private college in New York City, showed them huddled in the school’s library on Wednesday as about two dozen pro-Palestinian student protesters banged on the door. 

After the conflict, New York Police Department officials stressed at a news conference Thursday that there was no danger to any Cooper Union students during the protest, and that the Jewish students were not barricaded in the library. A school administrator, law enforcement said, thought it was “prudent” to close the doors. Police continued to patrol the campus Thursday. 

Protesters hold up signs in response to the Israel-Hamas conflict earlier this month at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Many Jewish students who feel uncertain about university support for their plight are turning to their Hillel chapters for support, Hillel International CEO Adam Lehman said. Hillel is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world.  

These students are facing hostile messaging from their peers, their professors and social media “and a lack of recognition of these issues and threats and corresponding support from certain university administrations,” Lehman said.

Jewish students need a safe campus environment “where they are not facing risk just by virtue of expressing their Jewish identities and solidarity with Israel.”

In response to some students’ support for the Palestinian cause – and in some cases, their defense of Hamas’ attacks – a conservative activist group called Accuracy in Media has sent a truck to several campuses, including Columbia and Harvard, displaying those students’ names and faces. 

“We also park the truck at the homes” of some of those involved, said Adam Guillette, the group’s president. 

The attempts to dox students and faculty have left many fearing for their safety and have been roundly criticized by college administrators. In Massachusetts, Harvard administrators created a special doxxing task force this week, according to the Harvard Crimson. In New York City, Columbia University’s president pledged to refer applicable cases to law enforcement. 

College campuses have long history of war protests 

College campuses have long been the scene of student protests, including decades ago when student activism played a key role in turning the tide of public sentiment against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ‘70s, and when many students rallied for equal rights for Black people during the Civil Rights Movement. Protests against apartheid in South Africa spread across U.S. universities in the 1980s. 

“I think what is happening in Gaza,” said retired University of Florida professor Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, “is reigniting a sense of outrage amongst our young people about the role of our government.” She is a veteran of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which led sit-ins and demonstrations during the 1960s to push for an end to segregation.

American college students’ engagement with the Israel-Hamas war, which builds on a 75-year conflict, is different. 

“For a lot of people right now, this feels really high-stakes. It feels like a crisis that is existential,” said Angus Johnston, a student activism historian and professor at City University of New York. “People on each side are looking at what is happening, and they are seeing innocents dying every day. 

“And they’re both right: There are innocents dying on both sides of this conflict every day.”

On issues like Vietnam and the fight to end apartheid, there was more consensus, said Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard College’s Center for the Study of Hate in New York and author of the 2020 book “The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate.” 

“I don’t remember anyone getting up and saying ‘We’re organizing in favor of apartheid,’” he said. 

Exactly where most college students stand on the war at the moment, though, isn’t entirely clear. Recent polling is limited. 

A Generation Lab survey first reported by NBC News this month of nearly 1,000 younger college students (two- and four-year undergraduates) found that nearly all of them, 88%, believe Israel “has a right to exist.” About a tenth thought Hamas’ initial attack was a justified act of resistance, and more than two-thirds characterized it as an act of terrorism. The survey did not ask broader questions about their views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Professors wade into Israel-Hamas debates

The conflict on campus isn’t limited to students: Faculty members also have been the targets of criticism by their colleges over statements and assignments connected to the war. 

An instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, was excoriated by the self-described watchdog group StopAntisemitism on social media for an assignment that offered extra credit to students who watched a documentary about Palestinian territories or participated in a walkout against the “settler-colonial occupation” of Gaza. Assistant Vice Chancellor Dan Mogulof said that when the university learned of the assignment, it was changed to give students more options, including attending the protest or watching any documentary they choose on the Middle East. 

American and Israeli flags fill the field at Statler Park in Boston this month.

A history professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who referred to Hamas’ attack on Israel as “energizing” and “exhilarating” at an off-campus rally, defended his remarks. A few days later he apologized, the campus newspaper reported. He is now on leave, according to the Cornell Review.

At other institutions, petitions demanding the ouster of faculty perceived by critics to be in some way supporting Hamas’ attack have garnered thousands of signatures.  

The American Association of University Professors, a national organization dedicated to protecting the academic freedom of faculty members, called on institutions Wednesday to refrain from sanctioning professors who express politically controversial views at this time. 

“The climate is very volatile right now,” said Alex Morey, attorney and director of campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. The debate is “perhaps the most difficult free-speech moment we’ve seen on campuses in the last decade.”

Donors withdraw cash over accusations of antisemitism 

The student activism has had implications beyond a few bad headlines: At some colleges, the tumult is starting to hurt their bottom lines.

Rich donors at the University of Pennsylvania pulled their support in recent weeks, condemning the school’s response to the conflict as antisemitic. For the first time in more than a decade, Columbia canceled its annual alumni fundraiser this week in the midst of campus tensions over the war. The Wexner Foundation, a nonprofit founded by American billionaire businessman Leslie Wexner and his wife, Abigail, cut ties with Harvard and the Harvard Kennedy School, it said, because of “the dismal failure of Harvard’s leadership to take a clear and unequivocal stand against the barbaric murders of innocent Israeli civilians.”

Kathy Tee holds up a sign condemning antisemitism at a solidarity rally for Israel outside the Texas Capitol this month. "I'm here because I wanted to support the Jewish people and I didn't want to stay silent," Tee said.

A letter sent Wednesday to George Washington University’s president from several congressional representatives – who are also prominent alumni with connections to donors – pleaded with the administrators to explicitly condemn antisemitism. 

The pressure is on from some of the richest business leaders, too. Billionaire hedge fund manager and Harvard alumnus Bill Ackman said on Oct. 10 that he was asked by a number of other CEOs whether his alma mater would release the names of a number of current students who solely blamed Israel for the violence in the war. Releasing the names, he said, would ensure no CEOs would “inadvertently hire” the students whom he accused of supporting terrorism. A law student at New York University lost out on a job offer.