A contentious debate concerning the conflict between Israel and Hamas is unfolding on college campuses in the United States. Amid the current climate of social media-driven polarization, the question arises: can young Americans engage in constructive dialogue on such divisive issues?
Last week, hundreds of students gathered on the main quad at Columbia University in New York City to participate in parallel protests both supporting Israel and advocating for the Palestinian people while condemning the loss of life.
Pro-Israel demonstrators, mainly of Jewish background, displayed white and blue Israeli flags and primarily relied on signs featuring images of Hamas’ attack victims to convey their message. On the other side of the square, students backing the Palestinian cause waved signs with slogans such as “Free Palestine” and “End the Occupation.” During the event, a female student from Gaza shared her personal experiences, including her mother’s difficulties due to an Israeli blockade.
Although these two groups stood in close proximity, their ideological differences appeared insurmountable and intensified throughout the evening.
A pro-Palestinian protest leader read an open letter from two student organizations at Columbia, published a day after Hamas militants carried out an attack on a music festival and several Israeli towns, resulting in at least 1,400 casualties and around 150 hostages. According to the speaker, the attack marked a significant moment for Palestinians in Gaza, representing a counter-offensive against their settler-colonial oppressor.
To these students, the attack on Israel was a pivotal development in the ongoing struggle for Palestinian autonomy. They viewed Israel’s response in the following days as another demonstration of its disregard for Palestinian suffering.
During the retaliatory Israeli airstrikes, over 2,700 Palestinians in Gaza lost their lives, while more than two million residents were trapped by a blockade, cut off from essential resources. Israeli officials used strong language, with Defense Minister Yoan Gallant referring to Hamas militants as “human animals.” The death toll was anticipated to rise if Israel launched a ground offensive.
Most of the activists at the Thursday rally declined to speak with reporters. However, one supporter of the pro-Palestinian protesters expressed the sentiment that violence would end when justice was achieved and people could live with dignity.
While the rally’s speakers condemned the loss of all civilian lives and observed a moment of silence, they did not specifically mention Israeli victims of violence or the atrocities committed by Hamas fighters against civilians, including women and children.
The organizers of the protest, “Students for Justice in Palestine,” clarified in a statement to the BBC that they opposed violence against innocent civilians and stood for the preservation of life and justice. They also questioned why an entire nationality, in this case, Palestinians, was held accountable for the actions of Hamas.
However, many Jewish students in attendance interpreted these speeches as a dismissal of the violence against their own religious and ethnic minority, which has also faced persecution.
Columbia University is not the only institution grappling with this political divide. Student groups at Harvard University have issued a statement blaming Israel’s policies for the civilian casualties, which has provoked a backlash from influential alumni.