By Jared Ware / Prism
As the genocidal retaliation to Operation Al Aqsa Flood unfolds in the form of a brutal siege against the entire population of Gaza, protest has taken place across the globe in the form of mass marches, demonstrations, vigils, direct actions, and armed resistance. In the U.S., student organizing has been central to many of the mobilizations and demonstrations calling for a ceasefire, mourning the mounting numbers of Palestinians killed by Israeli airstrikes and U.S.-funded missiles and bombs, and generally standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom and sovereignty.
Many college students who have stood boldly against genocide and in solidarity with Palestinians say they have been doxxed, demonized, targeted, fired, and had their advocacy equated with support for terrorism by colleges and universities, employers, Zionist organizations, and politicians at different levels of government.
“At the end of the day we understand these things as scare tactics,” said Stephen Hamad, a student organizer and representative of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Hamad is using a pseudonym to protect his identity amid this heightened climate of repression. “I think there’s particularly a reason why they focus so much of this repression on the student movement. And that in our eyes is because they understand the student movement as being a significant material threat to the Zionist entity and to the entities that are currently supporting this ongoing genocide.”
Hamad’s SJP chapter has been under intense scrutiny by his school, local media, and other external groups in recent weeks. The university president responded to their recent vigil for Palestinian martyrs in a statement saying that she “abhor[s] the celebration of terrorism and attempts to perpetuate rhetoric or imagery that glorifies acts of violence.”
Support our Independent Journalism — Donate Today!
Hamad noted at the SJP has been dealing with these “scare tactics” for decades and advocated that rather than seeking safety in the institutions of U.S. society, including schools and universities, he and others “understand that it’s our role to keep ourselves safe, and we find that safety in the fabric of mutual care and in the fabric of community-centered and collective action” and advocated that students continue “to use our voices to stop genocide, to stop ethnic cleansing.”
After the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, NYU Student Law Association President Ryna Workman was one of the first to face backlash for speaking out in solidarity with Palestinians. Workman had a job offer from a top law firm rescinded and told Democracy Now! that they have been targeted with “hateful and racist and transphobic and queerphobic messages for the past three weeks that have only gotten more vile and more hateful as time has gone on.” Workman added that students are fearful that if they speak out in support of Palestine they “might become the next me.”
Matthew Stein, a second-year law student at Drexel Law School in Philadelphia who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his identity, is a self-described anti-Zionist Jew. While he felt that most of the law students in his cohort were firmly in support of Palestinians, he described a broad fear that speaking out could derail the livelihoods of law students. Stein attended the national student walkout on Oct. 25 and noticed someone trying to film the faces of all the participants and feared this was an attempt to doxx the students. Harvard and UPenn have been targeted by doxxing trucks, which target students, faculty, and in some cases administrators, who are labeled as being antisemitic or “supporting terrorism.”
Stein said he approached the dean of the law school after the event, and while the dean offered what Stein felt was an appropriate support of the free speech of students wishing to stand against Zionism, he said the dean considered any protection against doxxing an infringement on the speech of the doxxers and said leveraging school resources to support students who are doxxed or who lose job offers due to their criticism of Israel or support for Palestinians was “beyond the pale.”
Stein cited a message by Drexel President John Fry which offered support for freedom of speech and condolences to both Palestinian and Jewish students but also referenced a “policy of zero tolerance against any manifestation of anti-Semitism or expression of anti-Israel sentiment that threatens anyone’s safety and well-being.”
Stein was concerned that given the subjective nature of what might be deemed “anti-Israel sentiment,” “harm,” and “well-being” by Zionist students, that any criticism of the nation-state of Israel could potentially be seen as in violation of such a policy.
This aligned with the experience relayed by Oren Panovka, who felt it was politically important to speak out under his real name against Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians as an anti-Zionist Jew who attends Emory University in Atlanta. His student organization, Emory Stop Cop City, held a protest during the Oct. 25 walk-out. They issued demands to the school’s administration, largely directed toward its involvement in Atlanta’s Cop City, its collaboration with police, and its relationships to the military-industrial complex. Panovka noted that because of the linkages between the Atlanta Police Department, the Israel Defense Forces through the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE) program, two of the demands were directly about Palestinians.
In response, the president of Emory issued a statement claiming that the protesters had repeated “antisemitic phrases and slogans,” an accusation that Panovka and his organization deny. The only slogan he can imagine being construed in such a way by Zionists was their use of “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free,” a common call for a free Palestine from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.
The same day as the national student walk-out, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered SJP chapters to be deactivated across the state of Florida. Shelby Rodríguez, a student at Florida International University in Miami who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, attended a student rally and protest at her school that were part of local walkout events and occurred despite DeSantis’ order. Rodríguez described the rally as well organized and well attended, despite the presence of “a small crowd of counter-protesters” and several local police, whom Rodríguez claimed to overhear joking about assaulting supporters of Palestinians.
Rodríguez was unclear whether the organizers with SJP had overheard these comments and noted that SJP at her school was continuing to organize and plan solidarity actions despite DeSantis’ call to ban SJP in Florida, despite concerns over police and vigilante retaliation for their advocacy.
Muslim and Arab student organizers say there’s a lot at risk right now when it comes to speaking out in solidarity with Palestine. Some students told Prism that external security is being brought in to monitor events and that students who wear a hijab are being more heavily policed and followed around campus.
“It feels like the school just wants us all to hold hands and learn through this instead of taking any sort of action or empowering students who want to,” said Samar Awad, a second-year student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who is using a pseudonym to protect her identity. Awad said that she and other Muslim and Arab students have been organizing on campus but have faced a climate of heightened security. She expressed concerns that students who “look visibly Muslim or visibly Arab are targets of increased suspicion.”
Students at California State University, Los Angeles, shared photos of Pro-Israeli graffiti, alongside anti-trans and pro-Trump messaging that showed up after Oct. 7 in King Hall, a building which houses the Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies, History, and Political Science departments. Students and faculty have responded by organizing a teach-in, which they organized through word of mouth. Despite the national attempts to criminalize Students for Justice in Palestine, Ashley Gregory, a student at CSU-LA, told Prism that a group of students at the university intend to start an SJP chapter for the first time at their school.
Gregory says she’s looking to connect with other SJP chapters in the Los Angeles area that “have experience combatting Zionist backlash when they emerge on campus.” After that, a focus of the student organizing would be “finding the campus’ ties to the military-industrial complex so that we can begin to target those.”
Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.