In the wake of the recent skirmishes between Hamas and Israel, university campuses across the United States have become arenas for demonstrations and intense debates, reflecting the complex interplay of global politics and student activism.
The repercussions of the October 7th Hamas strikes and the subsequent Israeli retaliations have been felt acutely in academic settings. For instance, at Tulane, attempts to incinerate the Israeli flag sparked physical altercations, while Columbia University witnessed the defacement of posters depicting abducted Israelis.
The arrival of a “doxxing truck” at Harvard and Columbia, aimed at publicizing the identities of students linked to groups condemning Israel’s actions, escalated tensions further. Cornell University’s tranquil campus life was disrupted when death threats targeting Jewish students prompted a temporary shift to online classes.
CNN’s exploration of the Cornell and University of Pennsylvania campuses illuminated the deeply personal impact of these distant events on students. Malak Abuhashim, a Cornell chemical engineering student of Palestinian heritage, reluctantly spearheaded her campus’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.
Despite the geographical distance, the war resonated with her through family ties to Gaza. Amidst the chaos, Abuhashim faced the additional challenge of confronting historical denials and erasures by peers—a stark reminder of the broader struggles around narrative and identity.
The national narrative also played a part, with the national chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine deeming the Hamas attacks a “historic win,” a perspective not shared by all campus chapters, which focused more on local support and unity. In contrast, Zoe Bernstein, president of Cornellians for Israel, experienced the situation as a jarring intrusion of global conflict into campus life, exacerbating her distress and disrupting the educational mission.
Students’ Diverse Responses and Complex Challenges
The cascade of reactions to these events has been varied and intense. Antisemitic online threats deeply concerned Momodou Taal, a second-year PhD student at Cornell, who emphasized the anti-racist stance of his coalition and disavowed any tolerance for hate. Meanwhile, Jewish students like Talia, whose family history includes fleeing religious persecution in Iran, found distressing parallels between past injustices and present threats, making the conflict intensely personal.
The conflict has also forced students like Sean, a Penn sophomore with familial ties to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, to grapple with the conflation of dissent and terrorism and the repercussions for their academic and future professional lives.
The slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” has become a lightning rod, interpreted by some as a call for Palestinian sovereignty and by others, like Beni Romm, a freshman at Penn, as a direct existential threat to Israel.
This series of events illustrates the far-reaching impact of geopolitical strife. It transforms academic spaces into microcosms of global conflicts, compelling students to navigate the intersections of identity, politics, and education.
As these young adults engage with complex international issues, they encounter the challenge of balancing their academic pursuits with the passionate expression of their diverse backgrounds and beliefs. The responses—from fear, pride to activism—reflect a generation contending with the weighty task of shaping their worldviews in the face of historical legacies and unfolding crises.