Schools across the country are becoming hotspots for protests in response to the ongoing conflict.
Students throughout the Bay Area have become entangled in the ideological crossfire between Israel and Hamas. As the death toll in the Middle East rises, so does the vitriol on American campuses, with threats, discrimination, and online harassment appearing at universities from coast to coast.
It has become so contentious that two professors from the University of California, Berkeley, on opposing sides of the conflict felt compelled to plead with students on a campus that was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement to stop the harassment.
“We are two professors on this campus who strongly disagree.” But we’ve always treated each other with dignity and respect,” wrote the two professors — one Palestinian and the other Israeli — in a message to the student body last Thursday. “We love this campus with its diverse communities and all of our students and are heartbroken to hear of incidents of near violence between students in recent days.”
That message, written by professors Hatem Bazian and Ron Hassner, was placed directly beneath one from the university chancellor, who acknowledged the “growing prevalence” of online threats and harassment related to the war.
The backlash is intensifying.Accuracy in Media, a conservative group, circled Harvard University with a digital billboard after students signed a statement saying they held Israel “entirely responsible” for the violence unfolding in the Middle East. The sign displayed photos and names of the letter’s signatories under the headline “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites,” according to the New York Times. The names were soon published on a website called HarvardHatesJews.com.
“Which campus should our Anti-Semite Accountability Project visit next?” Adam Guillette, president of Accuracy in Media, asked last week on X (formerly Twitter). “UVA? UPenn? NYU? Berkeley? We’d like to hear from you.”
Last weekend, a law professor at UC Berkeley echoed a similar sentiment, urging firms not to hire his students who have publicly blamed Israel for the war — and asking if their clients would “want an attorney who condones hatred and monstrous crimes” in an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal.
Such tensions, however, are not one-sided. Just days before that op-ed was published, a Stanford professor was fired for allegedly downplaying the Holocaust and singling out students “based on their backgrounds and identities” in class. Students responded by draping blue ribbons across campus in memory of the 1,300 Israelis killed in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.
Hearing about that class hit Judith Frydman, a biology professor at Stanford, like a gut punch. Frydman, who is Jewish, grew up in Argentina and was forced to stand up for being Jewish on her first day of school when she was only 12 years old.
“That was something that happened in a banana republic with an autocratic dictatorship,” Frydman said. “This is not supposed to happen in the United States… And you can only wonder, “Why did he think he had the right to do these things?”
Stanford, like UC Berkeley, said it had received concerns from Jewish students, faculty, and staff about their safety, as well as reports of Palestinian students receiving threatening emails and phone calls. Or Gozani, a Stanford biology professor with Israeli roots, said several Jewish students had reached out to him for help, particularly amid a flurry of antisemitic signs and emails.
“They wondered how the administration could have left them so isolated.” “How could they not do more to protect them?” Gozani wondered. “I know those students are experiencing a lot of pain right now.”
Those feelings have also surfaced in high school, sometimes for the opposite reason: a complete lack of acknowledgement. Tali Lehrer, a Jewish high school student, said she hasn’t been able to focus on her classes, homework, or much else since the war began.
“I thought that at least in my history class, the teachers would have mentioned something,” the 15-year-old said. “I understand how difficult it can be, and we need to ensure that everyone feels heard.” But what happened on October 7 and in the days that followed was not political. It’s simply a matter of what is humane, and Israelis were brutally murdered.”
Aisha Garcia Jajeh, an 18-year-old student at the University of California, Davis, felt the same way — but in the opposite direction. Jajeh, whose mother is Palestinian, was enraged by the university’s “vague, both-sides approach” to the war, which failed to question what events led up to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
On Wednesday, approximately 1,500 high school students in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland walked out of class and took to the streets to protest Israel’s retaliation in Gaza, as organized by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center.
According to UNRWA, the United Nations agency focused on Palestinian refugees, at least 4,300 people have been killed in the Israel-Hamas war, including approximately 3,000 in the Gaza Strip and 1,300 in Israel. Over one million people have been displaced within the Gaza Strip, and hospitals, schools, and homes have been targeted by airstrikes.
In many communities, clergy are meeting with teenagers to help them cope with the emotions brought on by the politically turbulent times in which they live.
“People are upset, angry, puzzled, and numb, and oftentimes, they’re holding all of those emotions within the same person,” said Jon Prosnit, rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos. “Their hearts are breaking for the tragedy that is happening, and there is a lot of pain and a lot of questions.”