Students at university campuses throughout the state are coming together – many times at odds – in their demands for peace and justice between Israel and Palestine. Here is a look at how the divisions are impacting California college students.
Over the past five weeks, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has sparked vigils, sit-ins, walkouts, protests and counter-protests at college campuses throughout California. At some campuses, emotions are high and students are divided — some even experiencing violence, hate speech and fear. Meanwhile, at other campuses, students are gathering to grieve and learn in more peaceful ways.
At CalMatters, student reporters in the College Journalism Network fellowship program have filed the following dispatches about the climates at their campuses.
Cal State Long Beach
The slow and repeated sound of a stick hitting a plastic paint-bucket-turned-drum and a voice over a megaphone leading chants in support of Palestine while voices chanted back, engulfed the pathway from Cal State Long Beach’s upper campus to the ‘Go Beach’ sign on Oct. 10. Over 50 protestors holding Palestinian flags and signs gathered at the monument just three days after the Hamas attack on Israel that resulted in 1,200 dead and about 240 taken hostage.
The protest began shortly after university president Jane Close Conoley described the event, along with social media posts, as “deeply offensive in light of the loss of life and unspeakable violence during this conflict“ via an email sent to the entire student body. There have since been several demonstrations from pro-Palestinian and Jewish groups including another pro-Palestine rally on Oct. 25 followed by a vigil for the lives that have been lost in Gaza, and the most recent walkout led by the CSULB chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine on Nov. 9.
On Nov. 13, a violinist played the Hatikvah — Israel’s national anthem — amid a sea of blue and white balloons on the grass lawn on upper campus. Each balloon was pinned down with a poster of one of the 239 hostages taken by Hamas and was part of a display set up by Beach Hillel, the campus chapter of the Jewish religious organization.
A statement from the campus Jewish Employee Association called on the campus to “temper inflammatory language that fans the flames of an antisemitic backlash, puts us in danger and also threatening our Arab and Muslim brethren.”
Each demonstration has ended peacefully. However, student activists say their involvement in pro-Palestinian activism has put them at risk and they are receiving death threats. A third-year student activist, who asked to remain anonymous for her safety, said the climate has turned a little bit scary.
“It’s been different in the sense that we need to be very careful and very cautious, very under the ropes and under cover, masked up,” she said. “All you need is one picture of yourself at these protests and that’s all it takes to get doxxed.”
At Stanford, students have turned to vigils, art installations, protests, walk-outs, car parades and chalking to advocate for their beliefs and demand university action since the conflict broke out. The most enduring student action has been the four-week-long “Sit-in to Stop Genocide” in White Plaza at the center of campus. Sophomore Alisha Service joined the sit-in on its first night after participating in a protest attended by nearly 1,000 Stanford affiliates on Oct. 20. She is one of 50 participants of Arab, Muslim, Jewish, and other backgrounds who now spend varying amounts of time at the sit-in, some staying overnight every night.
“It’s not on the burden of Palestinians to continuously advocate for themselves alone,” said Annabelle Davis, a Jewish senior who joined the sit-in a few weeks after it began and spends as much time as she can there. “I felt that it was important to visibly be in support, not only as someone who believes in the cause and believes that the demands that we’re making to Stanford are necessary but also to be a visible Jewish presence within the sit-in and its actions.”
The sit-in is demanding university officials condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza as war crimes and call for a ceasefire, provide resources for Palestinian students, launch a committee to investigate and address research initiatives that contribute to the subjugation of Palestinian people, and commit to the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement against Israel. The sit-in also serves as a hub for writing op-eds, planning events, and supporting those affected and interested in learning more. But student life continues: it’s not uncommon to find students finishing their homework or studying for midterms.
Students involved in the sit-in have also faced threats of physical violence, including rape, and insults calling them terrorists from faculty and community members, Service and Davis told CalMatters. They have reported several threats to the university but only a handful have been sent out as alerts to the campus community under the federal Clery Act.
One student, who asked to not be named, said university officials asked the sit-in participants to end the encampment by Nov. 6, per a university policy against camping on the grounds. However, the sit-in is still ongoing while the students negotiate with the university.
On Nov. 12, a group of Jewish and Israeli students set up a tent 15 feet away from the sit-in. Isaac Deutsch, a junior who co-organized the tent, said that their tent is intended to amplify Jewish and Israeli perspectives and to be a space for open discourse. Members of the sit-in say that the new tent feels like an attempt to oppose their efforts, which Deustch denied, pointing to the fact that the university offers limited spaces for student advocacy and their chosen spot, which does not face the sit-in, was the most respectful option.
Muslim, Jewish and Arab student groups, along with Westwood community members, have held multiple vigils and rallies within the last month at UCLA. Hundreds of impassioned, flag-bearing students affected by the crisis attended mass walk-outs and marches to support either Palestine or Israel.
According to Salma, a fourth-year UCLA student who declined to give her full name out of fear of being doxxed or retaliated against, said there was little confrontation from pro-Israel student groups while attending protests and vigils hosted by Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA. However, she added that most anti-Muslim sentiments and harassment are coming from unknown Westwood community members on and off campus, such as student demonstrators and peers being berated by older men with photographs of hostages and Israeli flags, accompanied by aggressive accusations of terrorism.
“They act with impunity because they know the administration won’t do anything about it,” Salma said.
UC President Michael Drake announced Wednesday that the UC is investing $7 million into developing means to ease conflict on campuses, such as mental health services, educational programs and training for UC faculty. The UCLA Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs sent an announcement to notify students of on-campus resources for reporting physical violence or verbal harassment, and that campus police would increase its visibility and presence on campus to diffuse tensions.
Members of the pro-Palestine group alleged multiple incidents of physical and verbal assaults against students at protests and in Westwood. “What I feel is most unfortunate is that this very aggressive behavior — even going to the extreme of physical assault — has happened to Muslim and Arab students on campus,” Salma said.
Ellie, a fourth-year student who also declined to give her full name, said she believes this conflict will give rise to both Islamophobia and antisemitism at UC campuses, citing accusations of each from fellow students personally and online.
“There is probably going to be rising antisemitism. I haven’t heard any personal stories, but I do think it’s very possible, but there’s also going to be a rise of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism,” Ellie said.
Both Salma and Ellie added that it will be difficult to improve the deteriorating relations between students situated on different sides of the conflict. “I’m not going to defend someone who won’t educate themselves with reliable information,” Salma said.
Cal State Fullerton
As protests, demonstrations and gatherings have increased at universities throughout the state, campus leadership at Cal State Fullerton continues to show support for its grieving students — with faculty playing an increased role in dampening tensions on campus.
Following a candlelight vigil held on Oct. 23 for all who have died in Israel and Gaza, Shana Charles, a Fullerton professor in attendance, said the inclusion of Jewish and Muslim communities on campus offers everyone a pathway to healthy dialogue with those grieving. While faculty members have been encouraging student voices through educational seminars and public forums, the university has maintained neutrality in support of their students, an act noticed by many.
“As an inclusive community, it is important to recognize and communicate our empathy for how these events are experienced by our diverse Titan community. We are bound together by our shared Guiding Principles for Social Justice and commitment to a safe and inclusive learning and working environment,” said President Sylvia Alva in a university-wide email.
“I’m very thankful that Fullerton is more aware of the realities of what’s going on,” said senior Cal State Fullerton student Dunia, who is Palestinian and consented to only give her first name in fear of backlash from the community. “If they weren’t, they would’ve let out the same tone-deaf statement being seen at other schools. When I look at [the university] statement itself, I think it’s prevented a lot of escalation from happening.”
Cal State Bakersfield
Some students at Cal State Bakersfield have participated in informational events and a vigil in response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Publicized events have been largely pro-Palestinian, with no vocal pro-Israeli actions. Over the past month, students have stood on campus with signs that read, “Ask me about Palestine.” Sarah Alame, a biology graduate student leading the actions, said that most students who approached them did not feel that they were informed enough to talk about the topic.
“A lot of people came up to us and they just told us, ‘We don’t understand what’s happening. Can you please explain to us what’s going on?’” said Alame.
Alame also organized a candlelight vigil on Nov. 14 with two student organizations on campus to honor the Palestinian lives lost in the Gaza Strip. Alame said she believes that honoring the loss of Palestinians does not diminish the loss of Israelis, but rather brings attention to those that have not received as much media coverage and support.
“I wanted to create a safe space for students to come and express their concerns and to express their grief or, I guess, to grieve in unison,” said Alame. “I also wanted to make a statement to our university leaders that students care about this. Our university leaders have been silent about this since the very beginning.”
Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo
In San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly students and community members have publicly gathered for marches, protests and teach-ins since Oct. 7. One month later, multiple Jewish organizations at Cal Poly hosted a march on campus to demand the release of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas. Two days after that, at the weekly farmer’s market in downtown San Luis Obispo, nearly 300 community members called for Palestinian liberation.
Freshman Sameeha Siraj attended the march for Palestine, and brought along two friends, in hopes of forming a sense of community and spreading awareness. Siraj said she has a friend in one of the Palestinian territories who has had multiple family members who died in the conflict, emphasizing that having a tangible connection to someone “feels really real.” The last time she heard from her friend was two weeks ago and she hasn’t been able to contact her since.
“I have kind of a privilege of where I am and I just thought it was imperative that I also step in and do what I can,” Siraj said. “It’s just the bare minimum and I think the march is a great way to really form as a community and go together because you feel stronger that way.”
Another Cal Poly freshman, who declined to share her name for safety concerns, explained her reasons for attending a community event in support of Palestine.
“I felt like it was important to show my support for the people that the genocide is happening to,” the student said. “It’s important to bring this attention to the issue over here because we have a lot of power as Americans and since America is such a big supporter of the Israeli government.”
Following the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong sent out an initial response stating that Cal Poly’s “practice… is not to comment on current national and world events that do not directly impact a critical mass of our students and employees.”
However, the next day, after an unidentified male from a passing truck shouted “Death to Israel” at two Jewish-identifying students, Armstrong emailed a follow-up message addressing the incident and his previous message. He apologized for having “added to your burden in any way” and stated that the initial letter “failed badly” to reassure the campus community.
more on campus free speech
UC regents announced they will commit $7 million to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia on campuses. The money will go to training faculty and staff, and to mental health services for staff and students.
As student protests erupt over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, college campuses struggle to balance First Amendment rights and civility.