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Jewish college students targeted amid rising tensions over Israel-Hamas war

The president of Brandeis University banned his school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a national pro-Palestinian advocacy group.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

During a campus event honoring the hostages taken by Hamas, Efe Erçelik, a University of Massachusetts Amherst student, allegedly approached a group of Jewish classmates and said, “[Y]ou aren’t allowed to eat pork, so why are you walking around like fat [expletive] pigs,” according to a police report.

Then he allegedly punched and kicked one of the students and destroyed his Israeli flag, according to the police. (Erçelik has pleaded not guilty to assault and battery and other charges.)

The alleged attack is just one of several recent incidents reportedly targeting Jewish students seen as supportive of Israel at college campuses across the country. They mark an escalation of campus tensions that intensified last month with disputes over how to talk about the Hamas attack on Israel and the retaliatory war Israel is pursuing in Gaza.

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Some Jewish students now say they fear for their physical safety, after alleged assaults at several campuses and the arrest of a Cornell student, Patrick Dai, who said he wanted to “slit the throat” of male Jewish classmates and rape Jewish women, according to the Justice Department.

Meanwhile, university leaders face a high-wire balancing act. They are trying to find the equilibrium between protecting free expression on campus, which includes protests of the Israeli campaign against Hamas that has killed thousands, and curtailing activist speech that some administrators and Jewish students say amounts to incitement to violence.

“Our Jewish students are not OK. There is fear and there is a growing sense that we’re not sure we can be safe on these campuses,” said Rabbi Marc Baker, who leads Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

Last Friday, Columbia University suspended two student groups — Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace — after demonstrators occupied a campus building and chanted “intifada,” which many Jews interpret as a call for violence against civilians. (In its announcement of the suspension, Columbia referred to “threatening rhetoric” as a cause, but a spokesperson declined to say if the intifada chant specifically was a factor.)

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Protesters at Tufts University chanted “long live intifada” after occupying a campus building last Thursday. And on Monday, protesters gathered around the John Harvard statue in Harvard Yard chanting “intifada, revolution.” The Harvard students had gathered to protest reported disciplinary action against a proctor who was involved in an altercation with a student at a pro-Palestinian campus demonstration last month.

The term intifada, which means “shaking off” in Arabic, was coined to describe an uprising from 1987 to 1993 against Israel’s military occupations of Gaza and the West Bank. It was marked by widespread Palestinian protests and a fierce Israeli response.

In the Second Intifada, which began in 2000, Palestinian militants carried out deadly suicide bombings on buses, at hotels, and at restaurants, including one attack by a suicide bomber sent by Hamas that killed 30 civilians and injured 140 more during a Seder.

Charlie Covit, a Harvard first-year student, said that when he hears his peers chanting intifada, “I question if they really know what they’re saying.”

“There were some students chanting ‘long live the intifada,’ and kind of laughing,” he said. “Do you know the defining event of the intifada was when 30 people at a Passover meal were blown up?”

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At Brandeis University, president Ronald D. Liebowitz banned his school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a national advocacy group. He said he viewed the decision, in part, as a matter of safety.

Liebowitz pointed to social media posts by the group that characterized the Hamas attack as a legitimate form of resistance and called on activists to “rise up” in solidarity. In an Oct. 9 statement, the group wrote, “It is a moral imperative to recognize and support the resilience of the people who have endured 75 years of oppression, displacement, and the denial of their basic rights.”

“It creates an unsafe environment or a feeling of an unsafe environment,” Liebowitz said. “The whole idea of free speech [on campus] is to provide an educational environment that is welcoming and conducive to debate and the exchange of ideas. When you introduce this kind of rhetoric, it does the opposite. It silences people.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a First Amendment advocacy group, assailed the ban as an attack on free speech. On Friday, seven people were arrested at a protest over the ban.

Some student groups and their campus allies have said the Hamas attack, which included the kidnapping of children and mass slaughter of civilians, was justifiable, even praiseworthy. The Tufts chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine lauded the Hamas militants’ “creativity.” A Cornell professor, Russell Rickford, said he was “exhilarated” by the attack. (He later apologized, saying “some of the language I used was reprehensible.”)

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When the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at UMass Amherst announced a demonstration on Oct. 10, the group wrote, “We will be marching in solidarity with Palestinians breaking out of their open air prison,” echoing the language that some left-wing groups used to describe the attack.

Then, at the event two days later, a crowd of protesters shouted, “long live the intifada.”

“It was terrifying to see how many people openly came out and supported a terrorist attack,” said Dylan Jacobs, the UMass Amherst student allegedly assaulted by Erçelik on Nov. 3.

Jacobs described the attack in an interview last week. The police account was based on statements from Jacobs and two other eyewitnesses who Jacobs said declined to speak with the Globe. Erçelik’s lawyer, Rachel Weber, said “the police report is based on one set of statements, but there are additional witnesses who offer a starkly different version of events.” Weber said Erçelik did not wish to comment and she did not make other witnesses available.

The UMass Amherst demonstrators also marched through campus chanting, “Zionists, get out,” according to video shared with the Globe.

“It means people who support Israel aren’t welcome at UMass,” Jacobs said. Some Jewish students and advocacy organizations have contended that “Zionists” is sometimes a dog whistle used by antisemites to refer to Jews more broadly.

Pro-Palestinian activists, including some progressive Jewish groups, have contested that claim, saying the term refers exclusively to supporters of Israel.

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Campus protests have become even more heated as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has continued, killing more than 11,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health.

At Cooper Union, a college in New York City, Jewish students sheltered in a library last month as pro-Palestinian protesters banged on windows and a locked door while shouting slogans, according to press accounts.

At other campuses, Jewish demonstrators have been the victims of alleged assaults. At Tulane University, a Jewish student’s nose was broken during a dispute between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel activists. At the University of California Berkeley, a video circulated showing two young people in face masks accosting a student wearing a kippa, the skullcap worn by some observant Jews, and trying to rip an Israeli flag from his hands.

Similar incidents have occurred beyond the walls of college campuses. The Anti-Defamation League said there has been a sharp increase in harassment, vandalism, and assault against US Jews since Oct. 7 compared to the same period last year.

In Columbus, near Ohio State University, two Jewish students were assaulted on a city street last Friday, according to the university. “The suspects yelled a derogatory term” before the attack, the Columbus Dispatch reported. There was no evidence the alleged assailants were also students.

In Thousand Oaks, Calif., near Los Angeles, a pro-Palestinian protester and a pro-Israel protester clashed. The pro-Israel demonstrator, 69-year-old Paul Kessler, fell or was struck and died, according to press reports. Authorities have ruled his death a homicide.

Gerard Filitti, a lawyer with the Lawfare Project, a pro bono legal aid group, is now representing some students who say they have been targeted. He views their experiences as indicative of wider societal animus towards Jews that has ramped up during the war in Gaza, he said.

“What starts on college campuses doesn’t just stay there,” he said. “It spills over into the community.”


Hilary Burns and Jeremy C. Fox of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used.


Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.