At Colleges, Violence in Israel and Gaza Ignites a War of Words

Photo for The Washington Post by Julia Nikhinson
University of Maryland students pray at a vigil for Israel on Monday.

On Saturday evening, after Hamas militants launched a devastating surprise missile attack on Israel, Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier released a statement expressing heartbreak over “violence in the region,” before pointing to “the deeply layered and nuanced complexity” of what had occurred.

Not long after the statement appeared on social media, the chancellor came under a barrage of criticism. “You should be ashamed of this tepid, both-sides, statement,” replied one user on X, formerly known as Twitter, reflecting a common sentiment.

For a few days, the chancellor’s statement remained on Vanderbilt’s website. But by Tuesday, it had disappeared.

The violence in Israel and Gaza has reignited tensions on U.S. college campuses over a conflict that for decades has fueled student and faculty activism, and divided academic communities. The reaction at Vanderbilt is just one example of the tightrope some college leaders appear to be attempting: renouncing the violence and pleading for security and civility on their campuses, while often sidestepping the contentious politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At George Washington University, President Ellen M. Granberg stressed campus safety, warning that “violence, discrimination or harassment” would not be tolerated “against any member of the Jewish, Palestinian, Arab or Muslim communities.” Ron Liebowitz, the president of Brandeis University, an institution founded by the Jewish community, condemned terrorism “perpetrated against innocent civilians” and declared: “We support Israel’s right to defend itself.”

In the meantime, while college presidents search with mixed success for the right words, Jewish student groups have hosted vigils, and groups long critical of Israel and its policies have issued starkly pointed messages supportive of the Hamas attack, sparking furious backlash.

A spokesman for National Students for Justice in Palestine said that about 180 of its 230 active chapters have issued statements in connection with the attacks in Israel. On Instagram, the national group celebrated the weekend attacks: “Today, we witness a historic win for the Palestinian resistance: across land, air, and sea.”

Universities respond

At Vanderbilt, it was unclear why the university took down the chancellor’s earlier statement about the war. When The Washington Post asked if it had been pulled because of criticism, Vanderbilt spokesperson Julia Jordan said that the “statement from the chancellor,” as it was labeled online, was actually not a “statement.”

“Since this was a campus community message and not a statement, the link expired,” Jordan wrote in an email.

Diermeier did not respond to an email requesting clarification.

Harvard University has also struggled to navigate the situation. Over the weekend, the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee, a group of student organizations, said the “Israeli regime” is “entirely responsible for all the unfolding violence.”

That prompted a rebuke from former Harvard president Larry H. Summers, who said on X that he was “sickened” by the “silence” from the university. The slow response, he said, “has allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.”

“In nearly 50 years of @Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today,” wrote Summers, a former U.S. treasury secretary.

On Monday evening, the academic leaders of Harvard issued a statement expressing hope that the university could “draw on our common humanity” to “modulate rather than amplify the deep-seated divisions and animosities so distressingly evident in the wider world.”

Higher education has long provided a staging ground for contentious debates related to Israel, whether it’s students pushing for universities to divest from the nation or protesters clashing with campus speakers on either side of the political divide. But the immediacy of the current conflict has created what some students described as a profound unease on campuses, however far they may be geographically from the front lines of the war.

That unease was on display Monday night at the University of Florida, where a candlelight vigil for Israel ended in a confused stampede. University police said that, after a person in the crowd fainted, a call to 911 created a panic and sent people running away. At least five people were treated for minor injuries at the scene, police said.

Chanie Goldman, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Student & Community Center at UF, said that a loud sound during the vigil – apparently a steel water bottle hitting the ground – was misinterpreted by some as a gunshot. Students had arrived at the event fearing something might happen, she said, and it didn’t take much to cause alarm. “Jewish kids are very scared and very on edge,” Goldman said. “It’s a rough time now.”

‘Let’s do something’

Some students said this week they hoped to set politics aside and focus on the profound loss of life. Jacob Bigelman, a junior at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said he was so distraught by the events in Israel, where he had studied during a gap year after high school, that he couldn’t focus in the library on Sunday morning. Instead, he channeled his energy into organizing a vigil. “Let’s just do something,” Bigelman recalls telling a friend.

By midday, the students had designed a flier for a vigil that night outside the university’s Memorial Library. Bigelman estimates a couple hundred people showed up. The crowd joined to chant the Jewish prayer Oseh Shalom and, as the proceedings concluded, to sing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, with the flag of Israel waving from the stage.

“There’s obviously going to be time to engage in talks about all that is going on and all that’s unfolding,” Bigelman said in an interview Monday. “But our message [at the vigil] was about unity and being just one strong Jewish community. I told one of our rabbis, I was so blind to how large and how strong the Jewish student body on campus is.”

Yuval Lerman, a senior who spoke at the vigil, has a grandmother who lives outside of Tel Aviv. When he spoke to her recently by phone, he said she was frightened and “doesn’t know how many terrorists are currently in the country.”

There are diverse opinions among Jewish students in Madison about Israeli policy, Lerman said, but that’s not been the focus of discussion in recent days. “I’m way too personally affected, way too much in the state of grief,” he said, “to be thinking about politics right now.”

Other vigils were being staged across the country, including one Monday evening at the University of Maryland at College Park that drew hundreds of people.

“Mainly what we’ve seen is a collection of our Jewish students coming together,” said Dawn Savage, assistant director of the University of Maryland Hillel. “Students are doing their best to get connected to the community, to kind of feel that solidarity of others within the Jewish community during really challenging times.”

Johaer Jilani, a student director of the Muslim Students Association National, said he worried that any “geopolitical event” of this kind might trigger anti-Muslim sentiment. Jilani, a medical student at Howard University, said he condemns violence against civilians, whether perpetrated by Palestinians or Israelis. He expressed disappointment, however, that university leaders have not generally given voice to the Palestinian cause. This is particularly regrettable, Jilani said, given how Muslim students have rallied in support of other social justice and liberation causes, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the Ukrainian resistance, which are widely embraced in higher education.

“We believe that Palestinian resistance is an issue no different from both of those,” Jilani said, “but we feel betrayed because we haven’t seen the same support.”

Free speech debates

Diverging views on the conflict are already creating divisions on campuses. Over the weekend, Students for Justice in Palestine at Rutgers University issued a statement standing with the “Palestinian resistance” and calling the attack on Israel a “justified retaliation.” The message was deeply offensive to Jewish students, said Lisa Harris Glass, chief executive of Rutgers Hillel, one of the nation’s largest chapters. In addition, she said stickers with QR codes leading to an Arabic language website were placed on bollards outside the organization’s building, which Glass interpreted as hostile. Hillel requested and received additional security in response, she said.

Jewish students, Glass said, are “devastated and terrified, panicked.” She said some have family who are missing and all are mourning the dead. “We’re all praying and frightened. It’s unthinkable. There are communities that are just wiped out in Israel. They’re gone.”

After a request from Jewish students, Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway issued a statement, but without explicitly supporting Israel, a disappointment to Glass and others.

Given the passions surrounding the issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been ripe for free speech debates in higher education. Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free-speech group, said on X Sunday that even “hateful” speech on the topic is likely protected by the First Amendment.

“Colleges and universities, for their part, do themselves no favors taking sides on Israel/Gaza,” Morey wrote. “At a minimum, they should not punish students or faculty who debate these fraught issues. A campus is the ideal place to do it. With words and not weapons.”

Mark Yudof, a former president of the University of California system, who now works for a pro-Zionist group focused on higher education, said he was distressed to see “an avalanche of pro-Hamas” statements from student organizations. At a moment like this, he said, it is incumbent on university presidents “to provide moral leadership.”

“My style would be not to go tit-for-tat to respond to the student organizations,” said Yudof, advisory board chair of Academic Engagement Network, a nonprofit group that encourages college leaders to confront antisemitism. “I would make my statement that says the willful killing of civilians and targeting people who are at an outdoor dance party, those are heinous acts. I would make my statement and not respond to each and every thing. And I wouldn’t get into the politics.”