Stuyvesant Perspectives on Ongoing College Protests in Response to the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Student, teacher, and alum reflections on the ongoing college protests for Palestine

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Following the attacks by Hamas on October 7, 2023, and the subsequent response from Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has stirred up mixed feelings and reactions within the Stuyvesant community and beyond. Among these reactions include protests that have erupted on college campuses across the country, some of which have turned to violence. Stuyvesant students and alumni, no matter their connection to these schools, have been greatly affected by these protests.

The conflict, though recent, has a lot of history behind it. Both Jews and Arabs have historical cultural heritage in the Levant, the region Palestine and Israel now inhabit—Jews since the Tribes of Judea 4,000 years ago, and Arabs since the spread of Islam. As of the 19th century, Palestinian people were predominantly Muslim. Amidst waves of anti-semitism across Europe in the 19th century, epitomized by violent riots known as pogroms and the Dreyfus Affair, a sentiment emerged among many Jews that they deserve a dedicated state. This movement, which was led by Theodore Herzl, is called Zionism, and was supported by the British in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. At the same time, the British promised the Palestinian people their own nation in the Mandate of Palestine. Pushed by World War II and the Holocaust, the Israeli state was established by the UN in 1947.

Arab governments and leaders rejected this proposal, and they declared war on Israel when Israel declared itself an independent state. The tensions between Jews and Arabs in the Levant have since remained, resulting in various conflicts. In the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the more recent First and Second Intifadas, coalitions against Israel have lost, but at great cost to the Jews and Arabs in the Levant. At the end of the Second Intifada in 2005, Israel officially withdrew from the region of the Levant called the Gaza Strip. Although the region was no longer under direct control by Israel, blockades of ports, water, electricity, and humanitarian aid have led Gazans to suffer from extreme poverty. Hence, many pro-Palestinian groups claim Gaza to be an apartheid state. Conflicts between Israel and Hamas, the party in control of Gaza since 2006, have thus emerged every few years since, with Hamas often firing rockets and Gazans suffering greater casualties. 

The present conflict stems from this enduring history of both Jewish and Arab struggles. On October 7th, 2023, Hamas launched its worst terror attacks against Israel up to this point, killing 1,400 people and taking hostages, to which Israel responded with airstrikes against Palestine. The two countries are still at war, with Palestinian casualties being far greater now than Israeli casualties. Israel has continued to respond with indiscriminate attacks against Gaza and blockades preventing humanitarian aid from entering the region. 

Backlash over the Israeli response has manifested in protests on college campuses such as New York University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago. Columbia University was a hotspot of these protests, with students setting up encampments and seizing Hamilton Hall. The protestors’ goal is to encourage colleges to divest any endowments they have with Israel. Since then, many protesting students have been arrested, evicted from their dorms, and have had their degrees withheld. Controversy has emerged as these protesters have set up encampments, seized buildings, and have refused to leave. 

Some students on these campuses believe that there is a lack of accountability from college administration, especially considering the action they have taken against encampments. “Our president actually sent us an email that sounded like an excuse almost, it was like she was trying to reason why the arrests happened in front of Stern, and that was the only thing the president did,” current New York University student James Shin (‘23) admitted. 

Many students find these arrests unjust and defend their protesting peers, arguing that they are simply exercising their constitutional rights. “[The protesters are] practicing their freedom to protest and their First Amendment rights, and it’s wrong to shut them down and prevent them from staying on campus because that’s their form of speech and their form of protest,” freshman Najifa Chowdhury said. 

Not all protests have been peaceful, with incidents of violence unfolding at some—violence some students find to be too much to excuse, especially due to their detriments for those on campus. “I have friends who have attended peace protests that are of a very different character than the [college protests]. There were a few rules—no flags, because you're making a political statement with a flag, and rules about what the signs could say. I think that's an example of a legitimately pro-peace, anti-violence protest. When you’re putting lives in danger instead of merely disrupting life on campus, there is a very clear red line,” Anonymous Junior A said. 

Not only is violence worrisome for those on campus, but it can pose a risk for Jewish students and Jews in general. I think that they should probably hold back on some of the arrests that they are making, but I also think that these encampments absolutely pose a threat to Jewish students. I have a friend living near Columbia and they see swastikas drawn on the walls daily,” sophomore Ellis Thompson said. 

Of course, the anti-semetic rhetoric present at some protests does not reflect the movement as a whole; it’s important to note that being pro-Palestine does not necessarily mean being pro-Hamas. Some students believe that it is possible to be critical of Israel without being anti-semitic: “I'm Jewish, and I'm definitely very critical of what Israel is doing in Gaza right now. It's not anti-semitism if you are just critiquing Israeli policy,” Anonymous Junior A said.

Ultimately, these varying opinions on protests stem from protests having a seemingly unclear ideology: from the perspectives of many at Stuyvesant, protestors are not unified under one belief. Some call for a two-state solution, while others argue Israel should not exist at all. "I'm not a college kid, but from what I'm seeing, I think the images of women, children, and civilians they see on social media have had a big emotional impact on the students. They don't want their university that they're a part of to be a part of that war. But then you've also got students that have signs like ‘From the River to the Sea.’ That's beyond divestment,” US History and Jewish History teacher Robert Sandler described.

In looking for an answer for issues of the present, it may be helpful to reflect on the past. Protests on college campuses in response to the Vietnam War in the 1960’s were very similar to those of today. In fact, current students at Columbia University even seized the same building on Columbia’s campus the protestors occupied in 1968 and 2024, which is likely not a coincidence. “I think they’re trying to model themselves after the 1960s anti-Vietnam protests and I think everyone sees that parallel,” history teacher Dr. Zachary Berman explained.

Still, the two situations cannot be fully compared considering all of the history behind the current Israel-Palestine conflict—history students might be unaware of. "I don't think [college students] know of all [the history]. The only reality is that it's a really complicated conflict," Sandler explained. Likewise, it’s important to recognize that, although college protests are largely against Israel, the current Israel-Palestine conflict has been devastating to both Jews and Arabs. "[October 7th] is the worst event in Jewish history since the Holocaust in terms of numbers of dead. It was incredibly traumatizing for Jews and for Israelis. I wish there could be more respect for both sides of the tragedy in this situation," he continued.

Sandler believes it is essential to continue to speak about the ongoing conflict, but with proper education and guidance. “I feel like I'd be negligent as a Social Studies teacher to not talk about it at all. Students are seeing it every day on their phones. I feel like they need someone who spent decades studying the conflict, who has a good, strong background and to kind of help guide them through this complicated present situation," Sandler explained. 

As of now, there is no telling how college protests will continue to unfold or when they will end, especially as the war rages on. In the meantime, students at Stuyvesant continue to feel the effects of these protests in real, frightening ways. On Friday, May 31, 2024, there was a pro-Palestinian student walkout planned, where students would leave their classrooms around 3:00 P.M., planning to come together outside of the Tweed Courthouse, the location of the DOE headquarters. 

At this protest, some students—who attended in hopes of learning from different perspectives—faced harassment and anti-semitism, including Thompson. “I felt unsafe. While I was talking to [a man who had been harassing Thompson] I not only felt unsafe, but genuinely scared, not only because of what I was experiencing in the moment but because I realized that this kind of person really exists, that they are proud of saying things like this [extremely anti-semetic rhetoric],” he recalled.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is incredibly complex, as both ethnic groups involved have faced many losses in their struggles. We all may have differing viewpoints on it, but it’s crucial to come together and be able to express our views peacefully to make meaningful change. We all deserve to express our opinions without having to feel restricted, but not at the expense of others safety, and without discriminating or promoting violence.