One chant increases the fears of both Jewish and Muslim students

The school year is over, but campus protests over the Israel-Hamas war continue to flare up across the country. Pro-Palestine student activists are “promising to continue their protests” in September as university administrators prepare for this daunting challenge.

That means far too many Jewish and Muslim students will be frightened when they return to campus unless steps are taken to defuse tensions, judging by a report from a group led by Robert Pape, the Director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats.

“As a consequence of the conflict,” according to Pape, 56% of Jewish college students and 52% of Muslim college students felt they were “in personal danger,” based on nationwide polls conducted between December 14, 2023 to January 16, 2024.  

Muslim and Jewish fears

“There is significant evidence that…Muslims feel uncomfortable, afraid, or intimidated due to unwelcome and common behaviors they observe,” according to Pape. He reported “numerous observed acts of intimidation,” some of them detailed in the report, such as people pulling off keffiyehs and “wishing rape and deportation against anyone who is anti-Zionist or even just sympathized with Palestinian civilians.”

Jewish students also recounted disturbing and undeniably anti-Semitic incidents. Moreover, when focusing on their fears, Pape’s group paid a lot of attention to the controversial chant: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.”

Respondents were asked if they thought the chant meant 1-Palestinians and Israelis should live side by side in different countries; 2-Palestinians and Israelis should live together in one state; 3-Palestinians should replace Israelis in the territory, even if means the expulsion or genocide of Israeli Jews.

66% of Jewish students thought it meant the expulsion or genocide of Israelis Jews. Of Jewish students who understood the phrase that way, 62% reported feeling afraid. 

The activists who orchestrated that chant might not have cared one whit about Jewish trepidation, but the very same words also added to Muslim students’ worries about their own safety, according to Pape’s study. Some “fear backlash” due to protest chants from anti-Israel activists which they “interpret as meaning harm to Jews and “do not feel truly represents the Palestinian cause.”

These poll results probably don’t paint an accurate picture of what activists who chanted “From and River to the Sea” thought they were calling for. First of all, especially in the early stages of the protests, an untold number didn’t even know which “River” and which “Sea” they were yelling about. 

“Most people who protested were opposed to the mass killings in Gaza,” said Rachel Burnett, a recently graduated leader of J Street U at UCLA who spent some time in the pro-Palestine encampment there. However, she said the main organizers of the protest movement, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), UC DIVEST and Jewish Voice for Peace, were advocating for one state. Some hoped that could be achieved peacefully.  While she wouldn’t guess how many wanted to expel Israeli Jews, she encountered very disturbing rhetoric, including signs that announced “Israelis are native to hell” or graffiti supporting Abu Obaida, the spokesperson for the Hamas military wing.  

So what is to be done?

In September, the last thing the leaders of pro-Palestine protests will want is calm or a diffusion of tension. I suspect the same thing is true of the pro-Israel counter-protestors who threw firecrackers into the UCLA encampment, and attacked people with pepper spray and wood planks. 

Nevertheless, Pape tried to suggest how to reduce tensions on campus. His report recommended: “Every leader in a position of power, including protest organizers, should…find ways to send the message, repeatedly and convincingly, that violence is never justified. They should also clarify policies on permissible political action on campus by students toward students.”

It’s hard to argue with that and his other anodyne ideas. But he also suggested that education about the different possible meanings of “protest phrases can increase awareness of unintentional signals of harm.”

In other words, he wanted pro-Palestine protestors to realize and care that Jewish and even Muslim students feel threatened when they hear the River to the Sea chant and other “protest phrases” like “Globalize the Intifada.” When I ran this idea by several university professors and knowledgeable students, few thought it would do much good. 

“Sadly, I do not see any appetite for such an experiment at this time,” said one Jewish professor at a liberal arts college. “Right now, the SJP/FJP (Faculty for Justice in Palestine) is too dug into their self-righteous narrative about `the work’ and deem any attempt to point out flaws and shortcomings to be some sort of trojan horse meant to delegitimize the movement.”

Ms. Burnett said, “Among pro-Palestine activists, there is a legitimate feeling that Jewish feelings have been prioritized over the protestors’ safety.” And they object that “centering `feelings and fears’ in general distracts from what they would classify as a genocide in Gaza and what they see as UCLA’s complicity.”

That doesn’t mean university communities are helpless. Kenneth Stern, Director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, told me that universities should “teach courses about hate, why we hear things differently, what words mean (intent vs other frames).” In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, he wrote: “Students need to hear different points of view and to learn to unpack buzzwords rather than sling them as weapons.” 

Dov Waxman, director of the Nazarian Israel Studies Center at UCLA, told a group of J Street leaders about “the need for more education” about Israel-Palestine. “The long-term solution is to deepen students’ understanding” of the conflict. His Center hosts “lunch and learn” sessions about the conflict and he mentioned dialogue and learning taking place on many other campuses. Sadly, one of the UCLA protestors’ demands was closure of Waxman’s Nazarian Center.

In the short term, universities probably can’t persuade protestors to stop using buzzwords and phrases that will create fear this Fall. But they can and should help more moderate students broaden their understanding of Israel-Palestine and, like this web site, develop a third narrative that incorporates different points of view about the conflict.