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What’s Really Happening on College Campuses, According to Student Journalists

POLITICO Magazine asked leaders of campus news organizations to set the record straight about campus unrest, antisemitism and what the media is getting wrong. Here's what 14 of them saw and what they think.

Over 50 schools. Nearly 2,000 arrests. One canceled graduation ceremony — so far.

We’re in the midst of the most widespread campus unrest since the 1960s, sparked by the war between Israel and Hamas. Over the last two weeks, campus protests have escalated, with pro-Palestinian tent encampments set up in public spaces, triggering counterprotests and, on more than 30 campuses, clashes with police.

With so many incidents taking place in so many places, it’s hard for anyone to grasp what’s really happening at America’s universities right now. So POLITICO Magazine reached out this week to top student journalists, who have been reporting on the turmoil at the ground level for weeks and months. As neutral observers able to interact with all sides, they can provide unique insights, even as they watch friends get arrested or worry if their graduation ceremonies will even take place.

Over email and phone calls the past week, editors-in-chief of campus publications from 13 different colleges and universities told us how support for Palestine has surged over the last seven months, how their peers define antisemitism and what the political consequences of these protests might be. They come from a wide variety of campuses all over the country, but collectively, the group painted a picture of students fighting to be heard by leadership — both on campus and nationally.

This conversation has been compiled from email responses and phone interviews and edited for length and clarity.

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What are the protests like in-person? Has there been conflict with administration, counterprotesters or police?

Arianna Smith (Ohio State University): The protests mostly consist of chanting, praying and singing. There have been instances of counterprotests from those in support of Israel, including at Thursday evening’s demonstration. The only time I have seen conflict arise firsthand is when police officers have gotten involved by yelling out warnings and initiating arrests.

Leon Orlov-Sullivan (City College of New York): The NYPD came on campus to clear the encampment. In speaking to some people who were actually arrested, they said there was excessive use of force. I heard people were being just grabbed and thrown on the ground. Outside of the encampment on the public street, which hadn’t been fenced in, people were being thrown away from the protests and arrested, and it wasn’t really clear what they were being arrested for. I was as close as I could get to the encampment with the permission of the NYPD. And there, inside the encampment, I saw people being grabbed and sort of manhandled by the NYPD. A statement put out by the encampment’s Instagram account said that two people had broken teeth. Somebody else said that the handcuffs or zip ties — what was being used to restrain their arms — were so tight that their hands were purple.

Emmy Martin (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill): The encampment was swept by UNC administration and police on Tuesday morning at 6 a.m. But then we saw tensions escalate again on Tuesday, when protesters took down the American flag on UNC’s campus to raise a Palestinian flag. There were then probably about 40 to 50 people who came to campus, it looked like they were members of a fraternity, who brought Israeli flags — they were there to support UNC Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts as he entered the quad with several police officers to put the American flag back up on the pole. There was an escalation between police and pro-Palestinian demonstrators. Folks were sprayed with pepper spray, there was pushing, shoving between police and demonstrators. And through it all, there were also pretty significant numbers of counterprotesters in support of putting the flag back up.

Isabelle Friedman (University of California, Los Angeles): UCLA’s campus was met with extreme violence. After counterprotesters attempted to seize the encampment in our main plaza, there were a lot of injuries. One of our reporters was also injured and classes were canceled on Wednesday. And before all this happened, the chancellor was called in to testify before a congressional committee to speak on their views on rising campus antisemitism and the university’s handling of on-campus demonstrations.

Anika Seth (Yale University): Ideology aside, a lot of us, myself included, have friends who are in the plaza who are actively protesting. As a journalist, you’re watching your friends get arrested. And the only thing that you can do in that moment is report. And that was incredibly difficult emotionally, watching friends, classmates, people that I’ve worked with in other clubs be loaded on Yale shuttles that are operating as police buses with their hands held back behind their backs.

Have there been instances of antisemitism as part of these protests and counterprotests? What does that look like?

Sophia Peyser, Madi Olivier (Emory University): Some students have told the Emory Wheel that the protests are antisemitic, sometimes pointing to the use of chants such as “There is only one solution, intifada revolution,” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Zionists have got to go.”

Leon Orlov-Sullivan (City College of New York): I’m a Jewish student, so I can speak to some of this from my own experience, though I don’t wear a yarmulke and I’m not religious. But I do know a lot of Jewish students on campus. I personally haven’t heard anything antisemitic, and I haven’t heard any mention of my own Jewish background. I do think some Jewish students in some groups have expressed concerns that they feel the people who are against Israel are against Jews as a whole, or that they don’t feel safe on campus. I spoke to one student who said she experienced bullying for wearing a pin with the flag of Israel on it.

Jacob Wendler (Northwestern University): While of course, every student is going to have a different understanding of what constitutes antisemitism and Islamophobia, I would say the rhetoric at the protests has remained focused largely on Israel. A few posters circulating on social media have seemed to imply that there has been antisemitic imagery at the encampment (one depicted the Jewish university president donning devil horns, while another showed a Star of David crossed out). Encampment organizers have condemned these signs and taken them down, saying they don’t represent the message of the demonstration.

Manasa Gudavalli (New York University): There were some reports of antisemitic incidents at the first encampment on campus, although NYU’s American Association of University Professors and dozens of departmental leaders have said no university affiliates were involved in such incidents.

Alex Steil (University of Minnesota): Complaints of antisemitism have arisen not so much in response to the theme of the protests but instead to the chalk statements and posters hung around our student union, where phrases like “Intifada is revolution is armed struggle,” “Nothing but hate for Israel and Zionism” or “Al-Qassam make us proud,” were common in the days after last Tuesday’s protests. These are the main examples I have heard from Jewish leaders on campus when they say there is hateful rhetoric on campus. In short, the protests themselves are nonviolent, but Jewish students hear the rhetoric espoused at them as violent.

Have there been instances of Islamophobia as part of these protests and counterprotests? What does that look like?

Manasa Gudavalli (NYU): Many pro-Palestinian protesters say they are being unfairly disciplined for their viewpoints on the war in Gaza. Students have been continuing to push for protection of pro-Palestinian students’ rights to free expression at NYU.

Sophia Peyser, Madi Olivier (Emory University): Emory Students for Justice in Palestine told the Emory Wheel on April 28 that the administration’s actions in the last six months have “invited active harm” to Arab, Muslim and Palestinian communities at Emory — after “EPD arrested 28 protestors during a pro-Palestine encampment on the Quad on April 25.” On April 6, the Emory Wheel reported that the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Palestine Legal filed a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of ESJP with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, demanding an immediate investigation into the “hostile” anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and Islamophobic environment on campus. The complaint claimed that students were subject to actions such as being called terrorists and being followed on campus.

Leon Orlov-Sullivan (City College of New York): As far as anti-Arab sentiment goes, I personally haven’t seen a rise on City College’s campuses. I think City College is majority minority, and there are a lot of students who are Arab or non-Arab Muslim. But a Muslim student I know did tell me that her sister, who wears a hijab, had an experience at Queens College this week where, out of a group of people, she was the only one questioned as to why she was entering her college.

Have you seen a rise in antisemitism on campus outside of the protests? Have you seen a rise in Islamophobia or anti-Arab sentiment?

Alex Steil (University of Minnesota): Yes, there has been a stark rise in antisemitism on campus. Of 122 bias reports this year at the university, 42 are reported against Israel or tagged as antisemitism. Sixteen were reported as against Palestine or as Islamophobia.

Neil Mehta (Brown University): Students, campus groups and administrators have denounced Islamophobia and antisemitism when it has appeared on campus, such as after threats to Brown’s Muslim Student Center last year or Brown-RISD Hillel earlier this year.

Zhane Yamin (University of Michigan): The Michigan Daily has reported instances of antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus. A U-M School of Information board member was recorded verbally assaulting Arab and Muslim students. There was no disciplinary action taken by the university; however, the School of Information committed to facilitating listening groups to hear students’ concerns. The Michigan Hillel building was vandalized with antisemitic graffiti earlier this year, and the students responsible for the vandalization were punished by the university.

Anika Seth (Yale University): There are reports of antisemitic and also Islamophobic conduct that have existed throughout the year. In the fall semester, there was a report of someone having their head coverings snatched off of them. We haven’t traced down all of these specific and very individual reports of violence, but it’s worth noting that they exist on both sides.

Jared Mitovich (University of Pennsylvania): Last semester it felt like the criticism that was the most influential on the behavior of the university was the perceived antisemitism. And that’s because of the passion and the criticism that was primarily led by a group of very passionate students, but also a wave of very significant donors and alumni. And obviously, those donors, such as Marc Rowan, have the resources to be very vocal in the media, through back channels, with administration — they’ve got a pathway to voice their concerns in a way that can impact how the university goes about its business.

Have Jewish students on your campus told you they feel unsafe? Have Palestinian/Arab students on your campus told you they feel unsafe?

Sophia Peyser, Madi Olivier (Emory University): We published an op-ed in the fall from a Jewish student who said they felt unsafe because “educators here dismiss the real fears of Jewish students.” Additionally, many attendees at Palestine protests and members of pro-Palestine student groups have requested anonymity from our news reporters, citing safety concerns.

Alex Steil (University of Minnesota): Jewish students have made an overt effort to express their unease. They are expressing their worries that violent rhetoric, at any moment, could turn into violent action. As the student president said for the campus Jewish student organization, “Safety, in this moment, is relative.” They mention how they don’t feel safe walking around campus, seeing mentions of armed revolution or the globalization of the Intifada. I have not heard of the same type of incidents with Palestinian/Arab students. That’s not to say it isn’t occurring, but it isn’t talked about in the same way as it is with Jewish students. There have been statements from those arrested explaining why they left their encampments early: The police presence made them feel unsafe.

Anika Seth (Yale University): I’ve heard especially in the fall, when the “doxxing trucks” were coming around campus, a lot of Muslim and Arab students and also students of color expressed really huge concern for their safety and worries about doxxing. And I think that there is a lot of truth to the reports that you see in national media about Jewish students feeling uncomfortable and unsafe on campuses. But there are also a lot who are upset by that characterization. We’ve heard students say that they feel incredibly safe and don’t appreciate being looped into this category of “all Jewish students are unsafe on American universities everywhere,” which I think is a narrative that national media outlets seem to be getting out but that students here have been totally pushing back against.

Jared Mitovich (University of Pennsylvania): In the Jewish community, there are certainly subsets of people who do feel unsafe on this campus right now, especially given the encampment — that’s created a place for them to attribute those feelings to. At the same time, you also have Jewish students who are pro-Palestinian and who want to see the university defending its Palestinian students. On the flip side, Palestinian students and their supporters do feel that the university has kind of created a state of heightened surveillance. What I know is definitely true is that they’re concerned about doxxing and their safety, given that a lot of external organizations have taken down the names of faculty, students and staff — anybody who those organizations perceived to be engaged in antisemitic or even anti-Israel conduct. Those names and faces have been plastered all over the internet. And that’s really prompted a wave of concern among those students, but also university administration, who have taken some steps to create doxxing resources and web pages.

Emmy Martin (UNC-Chapel Hill): Our administration has been pretty vocal in condemning antisemitic speech and Islamophobic speech. Students, specifically within our Arab and Muslim community have called on the administration saying they’ve not felt supported in the same way that Jewish students have experienced support from the administration. For example, UNC Hillel has often posted messages on their social media saying that they’re in communication with university administration and they’re in communication with campus security. Whereas, our Arab student organization or Muslim Student Association has folks who are saying that they don’t feel like the administration is there to provide resources for them.

How do students on your campus define antisemitism? Where do students draw the line between antisemitism and anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel? Has that debate evolved in the last few months?

Jared Mitovich (University of Pennsylvania): At the university level, I believe they’ve adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. And that has drawn criticism from more of the anti-Israel side — that definition, in their interpretation, includes that anti-Israel conduct is antisemitic.

Shane Brennan (Arizona State University): I think students have been increasingly able to decipher that criticism of Israel’s government is not hate against Jewish people. There are Jewish students who support Palestine on campus.

Sophia Peyser, Madi Olivier (Emory University): One member of the Emory community directly discussed this topic in an op-ed, stating that a student group’s demand for Emory to “separate entirely from any Zionists” was inherently antisemitic, as 67 percent of religious Jews are emotionally attached to Israel, according to a Pew Research survey. On Nov. 1, 2023, the Emory Wheel reported that several other students also found these demands for separation from Zionism to be antisemitic.

Alex Steil (University of Minnesota): Jewish students, again during a press conference, did conflate rhetoric against Zionism with rhetoric against Jewish students. Having talked personally with numerous members of our Jewish student organization, many see violent rhetoric against Israel as equivalent to violent rhetoric against Jewish people. That’s one of my biggest takeaways right now: Adults as well as students are synonymizing the two terms, rightly or wrongly.

Anika Seth (Yale University): Some people on campus have in the past argued that critique of Israel in any way is a critique of the Jewish people — and I will say that I think that perspective has become less prevalent from what I’ve seen since last October. Students in the paper have expressed how people will make them feel or describe them as less Jewish for being critical of Israel. And that’s another form of antisemitism that we’ve been hearing people describe to us: “You’re not Jewish if you’re not pro-Israel.”

What portion of your student body is engaged in active pro-Palestine protests at this point? Is that proportion growing?

Neil Mehta (Brown University): Over the past few months, many more students have gotten involved in campus activism than in years past. Protests regarding divestment have drawn crowds of hundreds of people, and over 50 percent of respondents to our undergraduate poll said they had attended a rally or protest during their time at Brown. In that poll, held late February, we surveyed over 1,000 students. Roughly two-thirds of respondents, who are all undergraduates, said they disapproved of the university’s response to the conflict, and a similar share said they approved of a divestment proposal.

Alex Steil (University of Minnesota): It’s hard to put a number on this, as they have ebbed and flowed. That said, our reporters have put estimates of the protests at a couple hundred, although those numbers are really just determined by raw counting rather than any metric we could point to. Those numbers have dwindled as the week went on, although protestors are still saying on social media their numbers are in the hundreds. As a proportion of our overall campus, it is a fraction of our roughly 55,000 students.

Manasa Gudavalli (New York University): Most of the protests on campus, not only now but for several months, have been pro-Palestinian. While there have been large pro-Palestinian protests on campus in the past, the last two encampment demonstrations and a recent strike held in Washington Square Park have been the largest so far, indicating growing support on campus for Palestinians and divestment from companies with ties to Israel.

Leon Orlov-Sullivan (City College of New York): In recent days, I think a lot of people have developed the opinion that the CUNY administration is poorly handling the protests. And I think that might be pushing some people toward an opinion that is more pro-Palestinian or more against Israel’s actions during the Israel-Hamas war.

Have non-student protesters been an issue on your campus?

Shane Brennan (Arizona State University): The organization that promoted the ASU protest is an off-campus political organization. Students are involved with that organization, but they are not a student organization. Most pro-Palestine protests have been organized at least in part by off-campus organizations. However, there is an active Students for Justice in Palestine at ASU that has organized smaller protests consistently throughout the year.

Arianna Smith (Ohio State University): There have been non-student protesters on campus but they have for the most part been protesting alongside the student organizers, and have not been orchestrating demonstrations of their own.

Sophia Peyser, Madi Olivier (Emory University): The university reported that eight of the 28 individuals arrested on April 25 were not affiliated with the Emory community. On the night of April 27, we reported that three unidentified individuals spray painted “LAND BACK,” “FUK USA” and “DEATH 2 [ISRAEL]” on the Convocation Hall building on the Quad — protesters in attendance said that the individuals were not Emory students.

What does the media get wrong about the protests on your campus?

Zhane Yamin (University of Michigan): The protests at the University of Michigan are not equally pro-Palestine and pro-Israel. However, national media has portrayed them as so. Pro-Palestine protests are much more common, and generally bigger than pro-Israel demonstrations or rallies. However, this does not necessarily mean that student sentiment regarding the Israeli military campaign in Gaza is uniform or that there is a lack of pro-Israel sentiment on campus.

Isabelle Friedman (UCLA): One thing we’ve been trying to be careful about is making it clear where violence has come from and originated from on campus. We’ve seen some outlets portray violence as if it is not one-sided: It was coming from the counterprotesters Tuesday night. That’s something that other outlets should be critical of in their coverage.

Jacob Wendler (Northwestern University): One thing outside media may not see about the protests is that there’s a diverse array of viewpoints within the pro-Palestine encampment, and not everyone agrees on how protesters should carry out their demonstration or what might constitute a sufficient agreement with university administrators. The encampment includes Arab and Palestinian students, Jewish students, Muslim students and students of various other identities. They don’t always agree on how to respond to police escalation. For example: During the encampment’s first few hours, tents repeatedly went up and down as demonstrators disagreed over whether or not complying with police orders would be in their best interest, and there’s been dissent within the camp about how much to engage with the media.

Leon Orlov-Sullivan (City College of New York): One thing the media gets majorly wrong is the outside agitator narrative. A lot of the people that I spoke to at the encampment and the protests were CUNY students, and a lot of the older people that I spoke to were alumni or faculty or staff of CUNY. So, I definitely think that one thing the media gets wrong is portraying the encampments as though they’re not really run by or mostly populated by people from the City University of New York.

Shane Brennan (Arizona State University): The encampment itself was pretty tame and didn’t interfere with the day-to-day operations of the vast majority of students.

How do you feel about members of Congress and other political leaders weighing in on the protests?

Anika Seth (Yale University): The antisemitism hearings before Congress that Elise Stefanik was instrumental in overseeing — that set of hearings felt deeply politically motivated to me. I will say that from the get-go made me very jaded and cynical of any type of federal response to this sort of stuff. So even if their interests are the purest, it is difficult for me to view them as anything but potentially poorly informed in some way or politically manipulative in some way. And that bothers me. Especially because these are in many respects people who aren’t on these campuses and aren’t seeing what’s happening.

Jared Mitovich (University of Pennsylvania): I was at that congressional hearing in December. It allowed me to see how close any university is to scrutiny by Congress. After the Trump election — as a wave of criticism of elite universities came from the right for their handling of free speech and supposed indoctrination — it was really interesting to see that shift. And to see Republicans in particular potentially realize that criticism of elite universities for their handling of antisemitism might be a politically helpful topic to campaign on. And I think Penn was the first example of that, because we were one of the first schools that the Committee on Education opened an investigation into. I think a lot of students on either side would say, we don’t need politicians to tell us how to operate the universities.

Manasa Gudavalli (NYU): While it is understandable that political leaders would want to weigh in on an issue that has become so deeply entrenched in national discourse, there are also concerns about this potentially causing further divisions within and oversimplification of a complex issue.

Alex Steil (University of Minnesota): I can tell you what the student response was when Rep. Ilhan Omar came to campus. Frankly, the publicity seemed to be limited to our outlet and those who were at the protests when she showed up. I saw nothing on social media about her visit, both for protesters outside of these organizations or the official student accounts posting about the protests on campus. In the end, the visits from our city council members and other legislators seemed to make little impact. In at least our instance, it seems that our protests are more student-led, student-oriented and focused on our university rather than the national scale. Our members of Congress weigh in, and that’s fine. But it seems like the students who are protesting are focusing on change it feels like they can make — calling on their university, potentially folks they have talked to before in different subject areas — rather than continue to petition at the national level.

Do you feel the events of the last few months have changed students’ political leanings? As in 1968, do you feel like these protests will have long-term impact on national politics?

Jacob Wendler (Northwestern University): I don’t know if I necessarily see it shifting people’s political views. But I think the war in Gaza has certainly made a lot of people particularly disillusioned with the U.S. government and with both parties — even more so than they previously were. We definitely might see that impact younger voter turnout rates in the fall. There were chants or signs about “Genocide Joe” at the encampment and about the Biden administration’s role in supporting the Israeli government.

Jared Mitovich (University of Pennsylvania): Penn is just generally a liberal campus, people here are not really that supportive of Trump. What you’re seeing with Biden is that people aren’t necessarily behind him either. There were the Pennsylvania primary elections last week, and the uncommitted votes — or at least the write-in votes, which are correlated to uncommitted votes — were the highest in our neighborhood of Philadelphia than any other neighborhood. And I think that reflects that students’ sentiment, even within a city that’s very liberal, might be more against Joe Biden than average.

Leon Orlov-Sullivan (City College of New York): I think the impact of these protests will be a shift toward a less pro-Israel sentiment in American national politics. Polls do show that younger people are less likely to support Israel as opposed to older Americans. For many older Americans, it’s crucial to support Israel as an ally, and I think that’s less true for younger Americans. But there’s definitely a decent proportion of younger Americans who will continue to support Israel.

Anika Seth (Yale University): There feels like there’s a really different cadence to how national media is covering what’s happening now. The idea of there being these mass encampments and mass protests across the country, and students getting arrested for them and putting their arrest records on the line for it — all of that has changed how my friends from home who aren’t maybe as involved in news or geopolitics, my parents, my cousins, national media, people on the internet talk about the war. It’s much more of, “Wow, look at how much these students care about this cause!”

Calder McHugh and Peder Schaefer contributed to this report.

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