Understanding California’s college students’ protests over Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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Mikhail Zinshteyn | CALMATTERS

During back-to-back days at one of California’s largest universities, hundreds of students took to marches, impassioned speeches and megaphones to condemn the mass death that has afflicted Israelis and Palestinians: The attack by Hamas in Israel on Oct. 7, and the Israeli military response since then. The UCLA demonstrations last week — one Tuesday by supporters of Israel, the other Wednesday by pro-Palestinian students — were common in grief but riven by deep wounds over history and words.

This wasn’t a dialogue, but a thunderous expression of each side’s anguish.

Ever since campus protests in California erupted over the latest explosion of violence, students affected by the crisis have endured profound agony as they watch an escalation of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not seen in decades. Adding to their hurt is a lack of public consensus over what language constitutes prejudice. At the same time, California university leaders are also struggling to strike a balance between First Amendment guarantees and civility.

And as the regents of the University of California meet Wednesday, undoubtedly students will bring their sorrow to a leadership searching to instill comity. While the regents don’t have the matter on their agenda, the morning public comment period is often an electric display of students and employees voicing concern. Late last week, the UC leadership released a statement denouncing bigotry while noting free speech protects vile rhetoric.

The discord is playing out as campus Arabs, Jews and Muslims are witnessing generational traumas that gash their identities like spears, intensifying feelings already on edge.

For Jewish students, the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, in which the Palestinian militant group Hamas murdered 1,200 people, was a grotesque reminder of past perils that have menaced Jewish communities. The massacre was the single largest loss of Jewish life in one day since the Holocaust nearly 80 years ago, which some Jewish students on campus stress is still recent history.

“We have watched as students, professors, and even friends (equate) terrorism with liberation, perpetuate antisemitism, and even celebrate the deaths of our loved ones,” said Bella Brannon, a UCLA student who spoke last Tuesday at a campus demonstration calling on Palestinians to return the more than 200 Israeli hostages who were kidnapped in the Oct. 7 assault. Brannan is president of the campus Hillel.

The event, held a month to the day of the attacks, featured a long dinner table with chairs and place-settings for all of the kidnapped hostages that stretched dozens of feet. Baby bottles taped to the tablecloth signified seats for the children taken by Hamas.

And while supporters of Palestinian freedom don’t necessarily agree with Hamas’ methods, many Jewish groups across the country were outraged that a leading campus voice for Palestinian rights didn’t condemn the Hamas attacks, instead calling them “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance” in a written statement.

Mourning thousands of lives while having to answer for Hamas is part of the frustration for Arab, Muslim and pro-Palestinian students, including Jews, as the Israeli military continues its bombardment of Gaza to topple Hamas’ rule of the area. The campaign has so far resulted in more than 11,000 deaths since Oct. 7, including at least 4,500 children, according to Gaza health authorities. For many Arab and pro-Palestine students, Israel’s latest response is viewed as a continuation of its violent control of Palestinians — prompting their fervent calls for Palestinian statehood free of Israeli intervention. (While the United Nations envisioned two countries in the region in 1947, only Israel emerged, in 1948.)

“There is no way to work with an occupation that will continue to encroach upon those borders, without addressing that their intentions are to remain annexing, remain displacing, remain ethnic cleansing,” said Mohammed Noroozi in an interview. He’s a fourth-year student at UCLA who helped coordinate the pro-Palestinian rally and march on the campus last Wednesday, a day after the Israeli hostages demonstration.

“How am I supposed to go to class without crying,” Noroozi asked.

Hundreds of students attended the pro-Palestine rally, which also called on the UC system to divest from weapons makers, and appeared slightly larger than Tuesday’s event.

Criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories since 1967 runs deep among international groups and many American Jewish scholars as well, several hundred of whom have called Israel an apartheid state. Critics of that allegation say it’s misleading and that Israel has a right to defend itself against militant activity.

Israel’s creation led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and anti-Jewish revolts in Arab and Muslim countries made up a large portion of Israel’s early population. Numerous peace deals to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fell through in the last three decades.

Antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus

Fearing online harassment or worse, few students who attended last week’s UCLA rallies wished to speak with reporters. Others would only give their first names. One student agreed to have her photo taken but pleaded with CalMatters hours later to avoid publishing her name. “I’m receiving a lot of hate on social media right now,” she wrote.

Alqasim, a fourth-year UCLA student, wore a head scarf synonymous with Arab and Palestinian identity, called a keffiyeh, that concealed most of his face during the rally. He and other students supportive of Palestine fear appearing on a website called Canary Mission, which collects student statements that are antisemitic or critical of Israel and posts their names and images in a searchable format.

Some Jews fear being punished for Israel’s actions, a case of conflating a people and a government that doesn’t represent them, wrote Dov Waxman, a UCLA professor who leads a center on Israel studies. News reports and major Jewish advocacy groups indicate that Israel’s military response has animated a massive intensification of antisemitism domestically and abroad, further alarming Jewish students and their communities.

Muslim and Arab students and their families — and those who appear to be but aren’t — likewise are confronting hateful animus against them, rekindling the memories of Islamophobia that pervaded U.S. civil society after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Last week the Biden administration said bigotry against Jews and Muslims is on the rise at colleges and demanded that campuses stop it.

Members of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus wrote a letter last week to the state’s public university leaders to “express our outrage and concern regarding the explosion of antisemitism at University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) campuses in recent weeks.” The letter noted a “barrage” of acts of violence and intimidation against Jewish students and employees. Those include a private social media post attributed to a UC Davis professor in which they threatened “zionist” journalists and UC professors who denounced system leaders for calling the Oct. 7 attack an act of terror.

Last Friday, the Veterans Day holiday and days after the legislative caucus’ public rebuke, the UC system released a statement from its 10 campus chancellors and the system president condemning Islamophobia and antisemitism.

“Antisemitism is antithetical to our values and our campus codes of conduct and is unacceptable under our principles of community. It will not be tolerated,” the letter said. “Similarly, Islamophobia is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. We will work to ensure that those who advocate on behalf of Palestinians can also be confident of their physical safety on our campuses.”

CSU leadership released a statement last Saturday saying that while the system supports free speech, it condemns Antisemitism and Islamophobia.

At a recent protest off-campus, Noroozi said a counter-protester spat in his face. He and Middle Eastern and pro-Palestine students CalMatters spoke with said they’ve been called “terrorists” on campus.

UCLA groups have alleged other incidents in which seemingly non-student adults intimidated pro-Palestinian students in the past week. Media and advocacy reports have chronicled other instances of campus Islamophobia, including a driver striking a Stanford Muslim Arab student in a hit-and-run that’s being investigated as a hate crime.

Hillel, a campus religious group, hosts a rally calling for the release of kidnapped Israelis at UCLA’s Wilson Plaza in Los Angeles on Nov. 7, 2023. | Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

Hateful speech is protected

For colleges, the free exchange of ideas is a central tenet of their existence. Balancing that mission and protecting the emotional and physical safety of students is an ongoing tension.

“The bottom line is that hateful speech is protected by the First Amendment,” said Michelle Deutchman, executive director of the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement at the University of California. Some slogans and posters at campus protests “may feel to some students extremely menacing, extremely threatening, extremely hateful, extremely demeaning, but that does not negate the fact that it is protected and allowed on campus now.”

The center points to effective campus tutorials on free speech, including those issued by UC Davis and Long Beach State.

UC’s letter reiterated Deutchman’s points, citing existing system policy. However, “persistent harassment of individuals or groups, or credible threats of physical violence,” are also examples of “behavior that crosses the line into unprotected speech,” the UC letter said.

Importantly, while speech is protected by the First Amendment, vandalism and violence aren’t.

Deutchman, who spoke with CalMatters before UC published its letter, said laws on speech cannot parse the nuance and messiness of campus debate. College administrators must find a way to do more, even if speech is protected.

The UC letter said that the system will soon “announce a series of initiatives to help us address the current climate on our campuses … and improve the public discourse on this issue.”

A separate UCLA faculty letter denounced the campus protest climate, which it said celebrates Hamas and incites violence.

Disputes over rhetoric

At the pro-Palestine UCLA rally, event organizers passed out flyers with words to chants that participants shouted during a march through campus, including “there is only one solution, intifada, revolution!” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” That last phrase is a reference to the geographic space that includes Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Students there told CalMatters they regard it as a democratic statement to support Palestinian rights, a common view held by scholars on Palestine.

The rally ended with some students beating piñatas with the likenesses of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Joe Biden. The Tuesday event had aggressive displays, too. One older participant carried a sign that read: “Hamas, Islam, Death.”

Major Jewish groups say phrases such as “from the river to the sea” are associated with extremist violence against Israel, and by extension, Jews. But Jewish views are diverse on this: The group Jewish Voice for Peace opposes Zionism and has campus chapters, including at UCLA.

Waxman, the Israel studies director at UCLA, said the charge of antisemitism can be overused.

“I think it’s important to recognize that even criticism that’s unfair, or excessive or harsh, isn’t necessarily antisemitic,” Waxman said. “That also applies not just to criticism of Israel’s policies, but criticism of Israel as a country, and that includes criticism of Zionism as well. It’s not automatically or inherently antisemitic.”

He signed a 2020 declaration endorsed by hundreds of scholars on antisemitism and related fields that said criticism of Zionism — and references to the area between the river and the sea — are not antisemitic on the face of it.

Waxman cautioned that context matters when dissecting slogans. If Hamas supporters chant “from the river to the sea,” the intent of Jewish murder is clear. Others who speak the phrase in the context of a democratic movement that supports equal rights for Jews and Arabs in the region “may not be motivated by antisemitism,” he said. Denying the attachment and history of Jews and Palestinians to the region is also bigoted, Waxman added.

But at least one state lawmaker who’s a member of the Jewish legislative caucus views the existing protest language as antisemitic.

“We know what these slogans mean and it’s disgraceful,” Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur, a Democrat from Santa Monica, said at the Tuesday UCLA rally. “I’m not here to tell you what you already know, that Jews have a right to self determination, that anti-zionism is anti-semitism, that the one Jewish state has the right to exist and defend itself.” His district includes a large Jewish population, as well as UCLA.

In a brief interview with CalMatters at the rally, Zbur said calling for intifada and the slogan from the river to the sea are antisemitic. “That’s a direct call for violence against Jewish people,” he said.

To others, the discourse over language misses the point.

“You just need to be able to watch and see what’s going on in Gaza to realize that that is the true horror of where we should be focused, rather than condemning students for actually advocating for justice and equality,” said Ussama Makdisi, a history professor at UC Berkeley who teaches courses on the Middle East and Palestine.

One-state or two-state solution?

A key debate in the Israel-Palestine crisis is whether the region should have two independent countries or a single united state.

Paige Martin, who’s Jewish and attended last week’s pro-Israel demonstration, said she supports peace for everyone and a two-state solution. The fourth-year UCLA student noted that “I don’t agree with everything that the state of Israel does, but I believe it’s important to have a homeland for the Jewish people.”

Alqasim, the student from last week’s pro-Palestinian rally, said that he supports two countries, as long as that means equal rights for Palestinians in Israel as well.

A Palestinian student named Amy who also attended the rally, said, “when we advocate for a two-state solution it equalizes both sides.” To her, the issue is that of “an occupied people and an occupier.”

During the event for Israeli hostages, a student shouted “free Palestine!” before walking away. The crowd jeered at him. CalMatters approached the student, who granted a brief interview but would only identify himself as Joseph.

“I feel for everyone whose family has been taken hostage,” he said. “But you cannot justify 10,000 civilians dead in exchange for 240 hostages. That’s a non-comparison.”

As he pulled away, he added, “I support a two-state solution where the Palestinians and Israelis both have viable states to live together peacefully.”

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