Skip to main content
A Jewish student wears a keffiyeh to shield their identity at a Gaza solidarity encampment at Tufts University on 3 May, 2024 (Azad Essa/MEE)

What really happened at college campuses according to Jewish students

Students described scenes of camaraderie, faith, and community building; and said the media took their cues from administrators and pro-Israel groups

It was mid-March and the death toll from Israel's war on Gaza was continuing to spiral. 

Watching the horrors unfold in real-time, David Rosenburg*, a 19-year-old student at Tufts University in Massachusetts, was angry and frustrated that Israeli forces, supported by the United States and other western powers, were carrying out widespread atrocities in Gaza as part of a supposedly "justified" response to the 7 October attacks on southern Israel.

Determined to not be a bystander, Rosenburg began to organise against the war on campus. He also read voraciously about the region.

Whilst reading Frantz Fanon's seminal book, A Dying Colonialism, about the Algerian revolutionary war against the French, he came across a statement by a group of Jews from the Algerian city of Constantine that finally addressed an unanswered question.

The group said they would commit themselves to resisting the French because they knew of the history of co-existence between Muslims and Jews in Algeria prior to colonialism and understood that Europe, with its long history of antisemitism, was no friend of theirs.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Rosenburg said the quote perfectly addressed what he had been thinking and wondering for months: the concept of Jewish safety.

It made him realise that when it came to Jewish safety, it was not going to be found with Israel, a state built on ethnic cleansing or the subjugation of another people.

"It made me realise that fighting against the colonisation of Palestine today - was, in my view, a way to avoid the mistakes made by Algerian Jews when the larger Jewish community sided with their French colonists," Rosenburg told Middle East Eye. 

'The narrative that the Gaza solidarity encampments are inherently antisemitic is part of a decades-long effort to blur the lines between criticism of Israel and antisemitism'

- Letter signed by hundreds of Jewish students

Weeks later, on 7 April, Rosenburg, along with several other students, set up an encampment at Tufts to protest against the killing of Palestinians as well as to call on the university to divest from companies profiting from Israeli occupation.

It was amongst the first set of encampments to emerge in the United States, even prior to Columbia University in New York City.

The camp at Tufts, however, immediately drew the ire of administrators, and the students took it down. Instead, they decided to build a mock apartheid wall.

But later that month, when authorities aggressively cracked down on the protest site at Columbia University, encampments sprang out across the country. Tufts rebuilt their encampment, too, this time in the university's main quad.

Soon, student encampments in solidarity with the Palestinian people were taking place at around 100 universities in 46 states. Tufts was now part of a national student movement in what would arguably became the largest anti-war student action since those exerted against the US war in Vietnam in the 1960s.

A colourful affair

The encampments, which had gripped both public and private universities, were a colourful affair.

Tents were erected in a quad or a lawn in a central location at the university so it would remain a constant eyesore for administrators. Students set up libraries, food and water distribution points, makeshift toilets, first aid corners, prayer areas and teaching areas.

They strapped banners to trees, and hung Palestinian flags from statues and light poles. They slept in sleeping bags in tents. They did homework under lamps connected to power inverters.

Students and faculty who traversed the camps, often multiple sites, to visit or teach or support, described an atmosphere of camaraderie, faith, and community building. 

The mainstream media, however, chose to frame it differently.

Taking their cue from administrators and pro-Israel groups, the protesters were described an antisemitic, foreign funded and lauding "terrorism", opening the way for political interference and police brutality. 

The few incidents of antisemitism that did take place - in some cases by outliers or by pro-Israel students as a way to derail the protest - often became the core of the story itself.

But as several organisers routinely explained, the encampments were a continuation of anti-war protests of decades past; the call for divestment from Israel was part of Palestinian civil society calls to isolate Israel, and it was a call for dignity, and housing and freedom of movement for all people. 

And although the encampments were planned by a coalition of groups, and built on decades of work by Palestinian academics, scholars and activists who helped frame the discourse around Palestinian liberation in the US, organisers said that one crucial aspect of the movement was yet to be told: the fundamental role of anti-Zionist Jewish students in the planning and execution of the encampments.

Princeton University (MEE/Azad Essa)
A Jewish student leader at a press conference at Princeton University, on 25 April 2024 (Azad Essa/MEE)

At the epicentre of the protest movement at Columbia University in NYC, organisers said, was Jewish students who played leading roles along with their Palestinian or Muslim counterparts. 

When Columbia University suspended Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) in November 2023 for its agitations over Israel's war on Gaza, it levelled the same charges at the local chapter of Jewish Voice of Peace (JVP), so much so that JVP was suspended, too. 

"The mainstream narrative was that they were 'tokenised Jews' when the reality is that they were some of the most key and crucial players in the encampments and the pro Palestine student movement at large, and have been since the start of October," Maryam Alwan, a Palestinian student leader at Columbia University, told MEE.

"I am immensely grateful to the Jewish students who spoke up to the news, especially because I know them so personally and watched them face bullying and ostracism from Hillel [a pro-Israel Jewish student organisation] and Jewish peers, as well as even backlash from their own families," Alwan added.

MEE found that at several of the encampments, anti-Zionist Jewish students vastly outnumbered Palestinian or Arab student protesters. It was also Jewish students who marshalled away pro-Israel students or faculty from their Palestinian or Muslim colleagues as a means to keep the most vulnerable students away from potential harm. 

Jewish students led the charge

At an earlier encampment at Stanford in California in November 2023, visited by MEE, Arab students spoke of how it was the Jewish students who took large chunks of responsibility for the camp; including sleeping at the camp to keep the momentum going while allowing their Palestinian comrades to rest back in their dorms in relative safety. 

But the narrative of violent students, rampant antisemitism, and fanatical students wouldn't dissipate. 

In one survey, released in early May by Hillel, 61 percent of Jewish students polled said there had been "antisemitic, threatening or derogatory language toward Jewish people during protests at their school".

Another 63 percent of Jewish students said they felt less safe because of the protests and 58 percent felt less safe because of the encampments. 

But these statistics and similar anecdotal accounts were readily dismissed by those involved in the encampments.

A close reading of the Hillel poll, for instance, shows that the poll does not define antisemitism and make no differentiation between antisemitism and criticism of Israel.

In his piece for Time Magazine, Raz Segal, an associate professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an endowed professor in the study of modern genocide at Stockton, wrote that "those accusing protesters of antisemitism do not appear to consider the many Jews amongst the protestors in the encampments as Jews, arguing in effect that Jews can only be Jews if they support Israel or do not express pro-Palestinian sentiment." 

At US universities, free speech isn't free for pro-Palestine activists
Read More »

Also in May, several hundred Jewish students across the country signed a statement rejecting claims that campus protests were anti-Jewish nature.

"The narrative that the Gaza solidarity encampments are inherently antisemitic is part of a decades-long effort to blur the lines between criticism of Israel and antisemitism," the letter signed by 750 Jewish students, read.

"It is a narrative that ignores the large populations of Jewish students participating and helping to lead the encampments as a true expression of our Jewish values," it continued.

"The denial of Jewish participation in this movement is not only incorrect, but it is an insidious attempt to justify unfounded claims of antisemitism," it added.

Jewish students who participated in the encampments themselves say that it was instead pro-Israel groups or students, or outsiders like the police, that made the encampments unsafe.

Even as students came in their hundreds to occupy a lawn, or courtyard, at times a building, protesters appeared to demonstrate remarkable discipline despite facing incidents of violence and intimidation.

In Vermont, three Palestinian students wearing kefiyyehs were shot in October, leaving one permanently paralysed.

For months, at Harvard University, Columbia and Princeton Univeristy, as well as University of Pennsylvania, students were harassed by pro-Israel groups who doxxed them, put their faces on mobile billboards and labelled them as antisemitic. Others were chased by powerful pro-Israel families on Harvard's campus.

At Columbia University in January, pro-Israeli students used a chemical-based weapon, known as skunk water, on anti-war protesters. At UCLA in May, mobs of pro-Israel supporters attacked the encampment and beat up students. 

Steven Thrasher, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University who visited several encampments, wrote that "nothing on any campus has approached the level of armed students taking over libraries or kidnapping college presidents, common in the 60s, but there's lots of pearl clutching!"

The media and the encampments

At several of the camps across the country, students narrated how protesters of all faiths broke bread together, formed working groups to tackle problems and respected each others' prayer times.

On Friday afternoon, Jewish students held up blankets and sheets to grant Muslims some privacy as they conducted their Jum'ah prayers. Later on Friday evening, Muslim students stepped aside, as Jewish students set up Shabbat prayers. 

In some cases, professors moved their classes to the encampment, much to the chagrin of administrators. Some professors reported being sent warning letters from administrators for holding classes there. They continued to do so anyway. 

Léa Sainz-Gootenberg, a student from the University of Chicago, told MEE that outsiders found it somewhat difficult to comprehend the level of cohesiveness that existed at the encampments.

She said it was as if they parachuted in to report on the protest movement and had neither the interest in knowing the context of the war being waged on the Palestinians, nor the rigour to show that these encampments were the final act in a long semester of pleas to the university administrators to stand on the right side of history.

As , a professor of journalism at Michigan State University wrote in The Conversation, the media seemed more interested in spectacle - often focusing on disruptions, or headbands, or banners, rather than the substance of student demands.

Brown argued that movements that "seek to disrupt the status quo are the most likely to receive initial coverage that frames protesters as criminal, irrelevant, trivial or illegitimate components of the political system."

But on the ground the situation was very different.

Jewish students conduct Shabbat at Brown University in Providence on April 26, 2024 (MEE/Azad Essa)
Jewish students conduct Shabbat at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, on April 26, 2024 (Azad Essa/MEE)

Given that Passover, a Jewish holiday that commemorates Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt, took place as the encampments began in late April, many Jewish students organised Passover Seders at the protest sites.

In Jewish tradition, Passover refers to the 10th plague that killed all of Egypt's firstborn but "passed over" the homes of the Hebrews, as they were referred to at the time.

Agnes Lin, a recently graduated Jewish student from University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and one of the organisers of the encampment, said it felt especially important to hold the Passover Seder in a way that related to Palestinian liberation. 

'It's frustrating when anti-Zionist sentiment is immediately shut down with a claim that it's antisemitic'

Léa Sainz-Gootenberg, student at University of Chicago

The 22-year-old told MEE that she too was raised in a Zionist community in which she was made to believe that Israel was necessary for her safety as a Jewish person.

She said it was difficult to unlearn ideas about Israel because Jewish Zionism was "fear based" and antisemitism was almost always conflated with anti-Zionism.

"You are taught to be very very afraid, of anything outside of what you already know and you are taught to be very afraid of antisemitism. And they use this legacy of genocide (of Jews) as a source of fear," Lin added.

It was only after she made friends with a Palestinian who described her experience - including detention, the theft of homes and land, forced displacement and daily discrimination and apartheid - that she began to understand the extent she had been duped by her elders and teachers.

It shattered her world-view.

"Her story couldn't exist as a truth if I continued to believe in Zionism," Lin said.

Police presence outside Columbia University on 20 April, 2024 (MEE/Azad Essa)
A massive police presence outside Columbia University, on 20 April 2024 (Azad Essa/MEE)

Jewish students who participated in the encampments invoked the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, as a theological reason for joining the protests for Palestine.

The call for Palestinian liberation, they added, was also about economic equality, climate justice, religious freedom, political rights, and land rights - for all peoples. It was, in contrast to Zionism, not based on fear.

"When I think of 'repaired world', inside the encampment is that repaired world," Lin said.

Likewise, Tobias Lodish, a leader at the JVP chapter at Occidental College in California, told MEE that it felt especially incumbent on him, as a Jewish American, to involve himself in the struggle and to furthermore clarify that speaking up for Palestinian rights was not a call to exterminate Jews.

The vitriol against the encampments and the ever-ready conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism continues to dominate discussion about the camps.

"I recognise my position as a Jewish person, and the power that I have to really emphasise a clear distinction between real, historically based, positive, transformative and loving aspects of Jewishness, and Jewish life and culture," Lodish told MEE.

"And I think by emphasising those parts of Jewish life and Jewish culture, I'm able to make a clear distinction between the hateful ideology of Zionism and the loving ideology that Judaism offers people.

"And by making that distinction clear, I'm not only able to show that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, I'm able to show that Zionism completely runs counter to Judaism, and Jewish ideals and Jewish values. 

A new generation?

At New York University (NYU), where students and faculty squared up to administrators and alumni organised one of the first campaigns to halt donations to the school, activists said it was unsurprising that Jewish students were highly represented in the movement.

"Jewish students and allies at NYU constituted about one-third of protestors at our encampment and were at the front lines of protests and actions in and around campus," NYU Alumni for Justice in Palestine told MEE.

"Jewish allies also constitute a large number of our signatories, and many have shared that their Jewish values of human rights, social and environmental responsibility are precisely what drive them to stand for Palestine. The movement for Palestinian liberation is one that crosses religious, sectarian, gender, racial, ethnic, and class lines," the group added.

The involvement of Jewish students at the encampments largely corroborated growing perceptions that the Jewish community's commitment towards Israel is on the wane. 

In his book, Knowing too much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End, writer and activist Norman Finkelstein wrote that whereas "twenty years ago Israeli soldiers toured US college campuses to be feted by Jewish students as war heroes", today "Hillel drags them on tours to persuade Jewish students that Israeli soldiers are not war criminals".

"Once a banner of pride for American Jewish youth, Israel has now become its albatross," Finkelstein added.

While the Israeli offensives on Gaza in 2008/9 and 2012 had prompted that shift for some in the community, it was the 2014 assault that coincided with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that influenced a new generation of Jewish activists to draw parallels between police brutality in the US and the subjugation of Palestinians.

"I don't think that we should expect anything different from our Jewish college students who are sitting alongside the students in the same classroom, who have the same intellectual curiosity, who are a part of our community," Heba Gowayed, an associate professor at the department of sociology at City University of New York, told MEE.

"What I have heard from my Jewish students is that for them there's the added layer of feeling like 'never again is never again for anyone', which is a refrain I've heard often from them.

"So I think that their Jewish identities, in addition to some of them feeling maybe that their Jewish identities are being weaponised for the sake of this genocide, or that they are specifically becoming a part of the national news coverage as a reason to crack down on their fellow student.

"I think for a lot of them their commitment to their Jewish identities is actually what is motivating them to stand up in this case and to say: 'Our ancestors have suffered and experienced genocide and we don't want to see it for anyone else'," Gowayed added.

Jewish students at UCLA call for a ceasefire in Gaza (MEE/supplied)
Jewish students at UCLA call for a ceasefire in Gaza in May 2024 (MEE/supplied)

Activists said the rise of groups like IfNotNow (INN), a youth-led umbrella movement demanding an end to American support for Israeli occupation, as well as the presence of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), was characteristic of this trend.

In February, IfNotNow told MEE that the group was witnessing a wave of support amongst young Jews in the US.

MEE, too, has tracked this shift, noting that young Jewish Americans are increasingly rejecting Israel as a fundamental feature of their identity.

In April, the Pew Research Centre found Jewish adults under 35 were, at best, divided on only certain aspects of the war on Gaza.

Around 52 percent polled said they found Israel's conduct acceptable whereas 42 percent concluded it unacceptable. But the same poll found that 91 percent of those Jewish American under 34 thought the way Hamas conducted its attack on Israel was unacceptable, while 63 percent thought that Hamas's reason for fighting Israel was invalid.

Likewise, it also found that 78 percent of 18-34 year old Jewish Americans felt that Israel's war against Hamas was valid. Only 61 percent of those polled within the age bracket felt it acceptable for the US to send humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza.

However, as pointed out by several anti-Zionist Jewish activists, the majority of American Jews and mainstream Jewish organisations are still largely pro-Israel. These groups still hold an outsized influence over the Jewish experience at universities, especially in linking Israel with Jewish theology. 

'As anti-Zionist Jews - instead of parading around respectability politics and critiquing the language the Palestinians use to oppose the genocide that is being inflicted on them, we need to be trying to fight Zionism within our Jewish communities'

- David Rosenburg, student at Tufts University

Sainz-Gootenberg from the University of Chicago, said she understood why it was difficult for many young American Jews to separate Judaism from Zionism, largely because of the ways in which many in the community conflate the two.

"It's frustrating when anti-Zionist sentiment is immediately shut down with a claim that it's antisemitic, because I personally believe that my Jewish values and generations of progressive Jews, who sort of fought for workers rights, fought for all sorts of rights, would adamantly be against what is going on in Gaza right now," Sainz-Gootenberg said. 

Lin, from UCLA, too, said it was crucial to understand that the fear-factor is pathological. To overcome it requires effort, community, education and immense unlearning. 

Meanwhile, Rosenburg, the student from Tufts, said there was another problem that prevents the conversation and protest from moving forward. He said that even the anti-Zionist Jewish Americans who support Palestine are falling short as allies over their prioritisation of "Jewish safety" as opposed to focusing on the Palestinian right to resist. 

"Many of the larger anti-Zionist Jewish organisations still normalise the occupation - as if everything before October 7 was fine, and they don't centre the resistance," Rosenburg said.

"As anti-Zionist Jews - instead of parading around respectability politics and critiquing the language the Palestinians use to oppose the genocide that is being inflicted on them, we need to be trying to fight Zionism within our Jewish communities.

"One of the reasons behind why many of the white Ashkenazi Jews support Israel is because - they are - and I am including myself here - settlers living on stolen land. And that the ideology of Zionism is not really that different from the ideology of settler-colonialism in the so-called United States," Rosenburg added.

Alwan, the Palestinian organiser at Columbia University, admitted that it had been tough to define the contours of the conversation given the importance placed on "Jewish opinion."

"It is a confusing tension to navigate, because on the one hand we want to centre the Palestinian experience, but on the other hand the mainstream media tends to value the impact on the Jewish community above all else and sometimes don’t even wish to speak to Palestinian students - or if they do, it is only with the hopes of making us apologise for or explain certain sensationalised incidents or perceptions," Alwan explained.

In late April 2024 - more than six months into the Israeli war on Gaza and more than 30,000 Palestinians dead, 78 percent of Jewish Americans polled by the Pew Research Centre between ages 18-34 still found "Israel's war against Hamas" to be valid.

The poll also found that 61 percent of the same age group favoured the US providing military aid to Israel and 63 percent said that Hamas did not have a valid reason to fight Israel. Around 31 percent of those between 18-34 said Hamas's fight against Israel was valid.

Joint liberation 

For some, it took days, for others, weeks - but by late May, most of the encampments across the country were forced to disband. 

In several universities, city or state police, sometimes even counterterrorism forces, were called in to put an end to the movement that had captured headlines across the country and even spread across the western hemisphere. 

Depending on context, encampment organisers at different universities arrived at different levels of agreements with administrators.

At Tufts, student organisers refused to sign a dud deal and chose to continue the fight another day.

For many, the scale of violence meted out on students appeared to drive home the point that Israel continues to hold a disproportionate place in American institutions of higher learning. Still, the students found other ways to express their solidarity.

Why academic scholarship on Israel and Palestine threatens western elites
Read More »

At graduation ceremonies, many pro-Palestine activists carried Palestinian flags or had them wrapped to the back of their gowns, or raised them at their convocation addresses.

Lin, the Jewish organiser from UCLA, recalled her time as a 16-year-old organising for Aipac and their fear-based method to garner commitment to Israel, and compared it to the motivation for struggling for the liberation of Palestine.

"This movement is not based on fear. It is based on a deep care for people. A deep, deep commitment to build a world we want to live in," Lin said.

"The encampment was an example of that. We made that world," Lin added.

Similarly, Alwan, the Palestinian organiser from Columbia University, said that despite the students being accused of creating "unsafe spaces" and "disrupting" university life, for many who were brave enough to take part in the encampments itself, it allowed them to see glimpses of the past and the future.

"My friends tell me about conversations they had with their grandparents where they cannot fathom that their grand kids could envision a world where Jewish safety no longer comes at the expense of Palestinian lives and freedom and I would say that we have lived that within the micro-worlds of the encampments, where Jewish students would cover the praying Muslims to protect them from harassment and then organise an interfaith Seder or Shabbat celebration," Alwan said.

"My Jewish friends have been so integral to this fight that I cannot imagine a free Palestine without them living side by side with us, in the same way that my grandparents told me they used to be friends and neighbours with Jews before the violent Zionist project was realised."

Additional reporting and research by Violet Barron. 

*Name of the student interviewed in this story has been changed for their safety or any sort of reprisal

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.