On Campus | Post-Its

Gaza War Tensions Reflected on University of Arizona Campus

Participants gather Oct. 10 for a vigil organized by University of Arizona Jewish groups in response to Hamas attacks on Israel. (Courtesy University of Arizona Hillel)

Tensions have been high on the University of Arizona campus in response to the war that began with the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

UArizona Jewish groups including Hillel, Chabad, Olami, and Mishelanu organized a vigil on Oct. 10. That event, which drew more than 300 attendees, was peaceful, says UArizona Hillel Assistant Director Kelsey Jannerson. But students are living with grief, anger, and fear, and Hillel has expanded its hours and programming to provide additional support.

David Graizbord, director of the university’s Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, notes that UArizona President Robert Robbins issued two statements via campus-wide email shortly after the Hamas attacks. The first, on Oct. 9, was “rather anodyne,” says Graizbord, adding that Robbins’ Oct. 11 statement “was very forceful and in my view very appropriate. It essentially defined Hamas and support for Hamas as lying well outside of the values of the university.”

Robbins condemned “the horrendous acts of terrorism by Hamas in Israel” as “antisemitic hatred, murder, and a complete atrocity.” Addressing a planned demonstration by the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Robbins affirmed First Amendment protections for speech and demonstrations, “even for ideas and opinions that most find objectionable or hateful” and stated that “SJP is not speaking on behalf of our university.”

In response, SJP postponed its Oct. 12 rally, saying Robbins’ statement was “inflammatory” and they no longer felt safe.

Jewish students who had planned a counterprotest turned it into a silent vigil, says Itay Ozer, a graduate student from Israel who received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona.

Some passersby were supportive but others “screamed ‘Free Palestine’ or they spit in our direction or just some slurs, verbiage,” Ozer said.

Jewish student groups created another vigil on Nov. 8 featuring empty chairs with posters of the 240 hostages.

The negative reaction was similar, Ozer says.

“I want to believe that this was a minority,” he says, but it is hard being on campus “when the pro-Palestinian rallies, they are super big and loud.”

Campus pro-Palestinian demonstrations included a walk-out on Nov. 9 with more than 1,000 participants, including many from the wider community.

When he’s talked with Palestinian supporters, Ozer says, he’s found that some are filled with hate while others don’t seem to know what they are saying.

“Someone told me ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ is a peaceful statement, as opposed to the erasure of Israel and genocide to the Jewish people,” he says, adding that he doesn’t know if people can be educated about this issue, “whether it’s ignorance or whether it’s hate.”

At an Oct. 10 vigil, University of Arizona students place candles to honor people killed or taken hostage in Israel on Oct.7. (Courtesy University of Arizona Hillel)

“We’ve kind of been scared to be ourselves around campus,” says Lea Thomas, a Jewish first-year student whose letter headlined “Your misinformation is endangering our lives” was published in The Daily Wildcat newspaper on Nov. 8.

After members of her Hebrew class said they felt unsafe, a security guard was posted outside the classroom door. The class had initially moved to a virtual space for safety.

It is hard, she says, “knowing that so many people don’t share our feelings. They don’t understand that we’re trying to mourn for the people lost on Oct. 7 and [we] feel for the people that are still in Gaza as hostages.”

Thomas accepts pro-Palestinian rallies as free speech but says a larger issue is UArizona professors spreading misinformation. On Nov. 13, the university suspended two College of Education professors after audio recordings of their discussion of the conflict went viral.

The discussion was “completely unfactual” and “just spreading hate,” Thomas says. “They really misused their platform.”

In a multipart statement posted on Instagram on Nov. 12, UArizona Hillel called for all students, faculty, and staff to be able to express their identities “in an environment of open inquiry, respectful dialogue, and civility.”

“There should be no room in anybody’s discussions or protests for justifying or celebrating the deaths of civilians or engaging in Antisemitism or Islamophobia,” the statement said.

The professors were reinstated on Dec. 1.

Hillel’s Jannerson says that in addition to the College of Education incident, multiple students have described classes “where professors who do not possess subject matter expertise in Israel-Palestine” have shared their opinions.

Cyberbullying and doxxing are among students’ biggest fears, she says. Doxxing is publishing private or identifying information about individuals on the internet with malicious intent.

Last year, pictures of Jewish students observing an SJP rally were circulated on social media with comments “basically saying, look at the Zionists skulking in the corner,” she says.

From conversations with the Muslim chaplain, Jannerson says, she knows there were also incidents of Islamophobia before Oct. 7.

In addition to increasing programming with activities such as a wellness petting zoo and more frequent lunches, Hillel has expanded its security and university contacts, she says, including a weekly meeting with Chrissy Lieberman, the associate dean of students, and the Chabad rabbi, Shmuley Sanowicz.

Hillel’s interim executive director, Jennifer Camano, had worked three days per week but added a fourth day to help address student needs, says Jannerson. The Hillel office stays open later; since the beginning of the school year, Hillel has had individual contacts with more than 700 students, most but not all Jewish.

Innocent Israelis and Palestinians are suffering, and protests arise because people want to feel useful, Jannerson says. While she strongly disagrees with the rhetoric many student campus organizations use, instead of being divisive, she’d rather focus on “what do we all care about, what does everybody need, and what can we do for students actively.”

Asked to imagine what might end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Thomas, the first-year student, says education and empathy are possible keys.

“We are a lot more similar than the world is saying we are,” she says, “and if we can come together with that basic understanding, then maybe there is hope for peace.”