Tensions on campuses over the war between Israel and Hamas escalated on Wednesday as an out-of-state conservative group drove trucks through Harvard Square emblazoned with pictures of students linked to a controversial statement on Israel, labeling them with the word “Antisemites.”
Meanwhile, officials at Tufts University denounced one of the school’s own student groups for a statement it issued earlier this week that applauded the attack by Hamas and praised the terrorists’ “creativity.”
The day’s events amounted to a ratcheting-up of an already extraordinarily tense situation, with dozens of campuses in New England and beyond engulfed in controversies over how students and university leaders should talk about the violence.
On Tuesday, facing intense pressure, Harvard University president Claudine Gay issued a statement, her second in 24 hours, condemning the attack against Israel as “terrorist atrocities.” That missive came after students and advocates criticized an earlier statement from the university for failing to acknowledge the barbarity of Hamas’s incursion.
On Wednesday, Israel said an estimated 1,200 people had been killed in the attack, which included militants gunning down unarmed concert-goers and murdering families in their homes. Another approximately 150 people were kidnapped. Israel has responded with airstrikes that leveled swaths of Gaza, killing more than 1,100 people, according to Palestinian health officials.
Similar controversies played out at other campuses. On Wednesday, a professor at Boston University sent an email to dozens of colleagues denouncing a statement from the school’s interim president as “shameful” for failing to explicitly describe “the extent of this 9/11-like barbaric, terrorist attack.” Leaders at other universities have been criticized for appearing, according to their critics, either too pro-Israel or too anti-Israel in their public remarks.
While these events paled in comparison to the expanding horror in the Middle East, students in the Boston area were facing fierce and, in some cases, menacing public criticism.
The trucks in Harvard Square on Wednesday were sent by a conservative group based in Washington, D.C. They displayed the faces and names of students linked to a statement, issued last Saturday, that sparked the controversy at Harvard.
As the dead were still being counted in Israel — and the scale of the horrors, including murdered children, was becoming clear — the Harvard student groups published a statement that appeared to justify the attack. “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” the statement said.
It drew a torrent of criticism from fellow students, Jewish advocacy groups, and national politicians of both major parties. Then Tuesday, a conservative news outlet published the names and LinkedIn profiles of students connected to the statement.
On Wednesday, the trucks arrived.
Students began noticing them rolling through Harvard Square in the late morning. They were nondescript except for this: on their sides, where a corporate logo would usually be, there were LED screens that rotated photos of the students along with their names printed in big crimson letters beneath the words, “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”
The trucks also displayed a URL, HarvardHatesJews.com, and the logo of a conservative media watchdog called Accuracy in Media.
“I think it’s important for the Harvard student body to know who among them are hateful antisemites,” AIM president Adam Guillette said in an interview. The group, he said, would remove the names of any students who recanted and disavowed the controversial statement. “We believe in forgiving anybody who apologizes,” he said.
Several of the students groups have withdrawn their support for the statement in recent days.
On Wednesday night, a top Harvard official sent a campus-wide message.
“I write tonight to assure you that the University takes seriously the safety and wellbeing of every member of our community,” executive vice president Meredith Weenick said. “We do not condone or ignore intimidation.”
The Palestine Solidarity Committee, which posted the controversial statement last Saturday, denied it intended to defend the Hamas attack. “To restate what should be obvious: the PSC staunchly opposes violence against civilians — Palestinian, Israeli, or other,” the group told the Crimson, the school’s student newspaper.
“The statement aims to contextualize the apartheid and colonial system while explicitly lamenting ‘the devastating and rising civilian toll,’ ” the group added. “It is unacceptable that Palestinians and groups supporting them are always expected to preempt their statements with condemnation of violence.”
At Tufts, the student group’s statement was far more explicit in its support for Hamas’s attack.
In a statement released this week, Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine, wrote: “Since Friday, Palestinians have been launching a historic attack on the colonizers. Footage of liberation fighters from Gaza paragliding into occupied territory has especially shown the creativity necessary to take back stolen land.”
Jeremy Burton, chief executive of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston, called the Tufts student group’s statement one of the worst he had ever seen.
”It’s just moral bankruptcy,” he said. “This student group is endorsing terrorism.”
On Wednesday, Tufts said in a statement to the Globe: “We strongly disagree with and denounce SJP’s statement and want to make clear that no student group speaks for the university.”
At other campuses, Jewish students have complained their classmates have posted comments online defending or justifying Hamas’s attack. Pro-Palestinian students said they have received threats for expressing views critical of Israel.
Rachel Young, a junior at Northeastern University, said news of the attack, and Israel’s airstrikes seemed to ignite the campus community. “There was a lot of animosity being thrown,” she said.
And on the BU campus, the criticism of the statement from interim president Kenneth Freeman showed the tensions and sensitivities about how to describe the violence.
Freeman and BU’s interim provost, Kenneth Lutchen, had jointly written on Tuesday, “We are appalled by and condemn the attack by Hamas on the State of Israel and especially the intentional and large-scale targeting of noncombatants. The resulting war will senselessly claim innocent victims on all sides.”
But Israel Shaked, a BU professor emeritus, charged that the letter did not go far enough. “Shockingly, K. Freeman’s letter does not mention the extent of this 9/11-like barbaric, terrorist attack. One should wonder whether the office of the President of Boston University would dare describing the 9/11 tragedy as a ‘conflict’ and expressing sorrow for the ‘victims on ALL sides,’ ” he wrote.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a subject that frequently consumes campuses in controversy, university administrators and professors said.
The Harvard Crimson sparked an uproar last year by endorsing the controversial Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, an effort to punish Israel. Tufts has been embroiled in controversy several times in recent years due to disputes between Jewish and pro-Palestinian groups, including Students for Justice in Palestine, which has previously called for boycotts of student groups associated with Israel or Jewish identity. (Requests for comment sent to the group were not returned.)
Sut Jhally, a professor emeritus of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that two factors have caused greater numbers of students to focus on pro-Palestinian advocacy: the wider availability of information due to the internet and smartphones, and an embrace of pro-Palestinian politics by a wide array of progressives.
”For a long time, it was called ‘progressive except for Palestine,’ ” he said. “And you can no longer do that. Now, you can’t be a leftist and be a supporter of a racist system as it is in Israel.”
Juliana George, a junior at Northeastern, described her pro-Palestinian views in the same way, saying they stem from her Asian American identity and advocacy. “Palestinians are part of that community,” she said. “Asian American politics in general are completely meaningless if we don’t support a free Palestine.”
Asked what she makes of Hamas’s attack, George said, “It’s kind of a reductive question whether or not I support the violence that occurred on Saturday. There has been continual violence happening against Palestine for more than 70 years from the Israeli state.”
Globe correspondent Daniel Kool and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.