The war in Gaza is leading to deep divisions at Israeli universities
HAIFA, Israel — The University of Haifa sits high on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, offering spectacular views from Mount Carmel for its 17,000 students. It is Israel's most diverse university — about 40% of students are Palestinian citizens of Israel. It's a place where you can hear both Hebrew and Arabic, and where learning — until recently — overrode many of Israel's deep divisions.
That delicate equilibrium changed Oct. 7, when Hamas militants attacked Israel. Throughout the country, Jewish and Palestinian citizens are sharing an increasingly tense space since the Gaza war began, including at universities. That's especially true after some Arab students have been accused of posting pro-Hamas comments on social media.
"For example, one student uploaded a story which in the story you can see an IDF [Israeli military] vehicle burnt," recalls Daniel Amar, a Jewish student and head of the University of Haifa's student union. "And she wrote 'The happiest day of my life.' We can't accept it."
The university suspended at least eight Arab students for their social media posts and for what it called "support for the terrorist attack on towns surrounding Gaza and the murder of innocents," and it launched a disciplinary review in October. Amar believes this was the correct move.
"It's a clear statement, OK, from the university that we ... will not support terror and terror-supporting on our campus," he says.
Others disagreed. At least 25 professors from the school, many of them Jews, wrote a letter to the rector, Gur Alroey, urging the school to investigate rather than automatically throwing the Arab students out.
Alroey wrote back, saying the students were suspended because they published posts that expressed "clear support for the terror of Hamas and the murder of innocents." He said the alternative, which he did not choose, would have been to report them to police.
In his letter, which NPR has reviewed, he told the professors he was "astonished" by the professors' letter, which he said was "detached from all reality" as Israeli society was going through an "unprecedented difficult period" since the Oct. 7 attacks.
"Jewish, Christian, Druze and Muslim students study at the University of Haifa, who came across posts on social media by some of their classmates," he wrote. "It is our duty to protect the entire Haifa University community here — students, academic staff and administrative staff, and students affected by the war need our protection and support now, more than ever."
The university did not respond to NPR's requests for comment, though it did ultimately decide to reinstate the eight suspended students while it conducts an investigation.
As'ad Ghanem, a professor of comparative politics, is one of the Arab faculty members who signed the letter to the rector. He also wrote privately about his concerns to the chair of the university's executive committee, Dov Weissglas.
Ghanem claims Weissglas responded negatively to his private communication. Weissglas did not respond to NPR requests for comment.
"The university should be part of thinking about ways of reconciliation and ... helping our students," Ghanem says.
Repercussions against Arab students stretch far beyond the University of Haifa, says Adi Mansour, a political and civil rights attorney with Adalah, an organization advocating for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Adalah is representing the eight suspended students at the University of Haifa and almost 100 total throughout Israel. Mansour says the Arab Palestinian Student Union estimates there are about 150 cases of alleged persecution on campuses in all.
"The cases vary from posting quotes from the Quran or posting sympathy with Gaza," he says. "In our opinion, all of the cases fall within the limits of freedom of expression."
Mansour says it's not unusual to see a crackdown against Arabs in Israel whenever there is a war with Hamas or Hezbollah. But this, he says, is the worst he's seen it.
"In previous wars, we've never seen universities and colleges operate in such a way against their own students," he says. "This is by far the first time that we see this large amount of disciplinary procedures against students for expressing themselves."
On a clear afternoon earlier this month, Arab and Jewish students sat side by side, enjoying an outdoor lunch on campus.
Yuval Shlisel, with Standing Together, a social movement working for peace between Jews and Arabs, says most students at the University of Haifa don't want to bring the war onto campus.
"The majority of the students do want to keep coming to the campuses, to study together and to have good grades in the final exams," he says. "The majority of the students, they don't want this fight."
But Shlisel, a student at the University of Haifa, says fear and anti-Arab sentiment are being whipped up on social media by students belonging to far-right organizations on campus.
"The far-right organizations, they started to ... convince the other students ... now we don't just fight against the terror organization Hamas. We also need to fight against the terror supporters, so-called, in Israel," he says. "And for them, every Arabs and every Jews that don't think like them is ... potentially terror support."
Some Arab students say they now feel unwelcome at the university because of the war. Twenty-one-year-old Ibrahim is an Arab first-year law student. He has Palestinian friends in Gaza and feels passionately about the soaring civilian casualties there. More than 26,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the Gaza health ministry.
But he's afraid to express himself — or use his last name with NPR — because he may be seen as an enemy.
"If I say that I'm against genocide, I'm against the war in Gaza, if I say I'm against killing civilians in Gaza, I feel like that would classify me in [university students' and administrators'] eyes as a terrorist," he says.
The concern and fear are also felt by many Arab — and some Jewish — teachers.
Students have threatened some teachers, including Ghanem. He says one threatened to punch him, another to deface his office. Ghanem had a security camera installed in his office to deter future threats.
He worries about repercussions if he talks publicly or in classes about the war or Arab-Jewish relations. Some Jewish students won't attend classes taught by professors they deem as not forcefully condemning the Oct. 7 attack.
"I think that now I am more sensitive and I'm limiting myself in certain expressions. And this will harm my ability to teach my students," Ghanem says. "I want to feel more free, more confident that I can say anything within certain limitation."
Earlier this month, the university reversed its decision and reinstated the Arab students while an investigation is carried out. Student union president Amar is angry with that decision. He is a reservist and takes time away from his studies to fight Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia, along Israel's northern border. He says he almost died three or four times in recent fighting.
"And I can't even imagine a situation which I sit in my ... class, and next to me sit[s] a person that want[s] me to die," he says. "He don't deserve to learn here."
As an army reservist, Amar carries a pistol tucked into his waistband. Other reservists on campus are required to carry their army-issued assault rifles.
This worries Ibrahim, the Arab student.
"When I go to a [lecture] hall, I think twice before saying anything, because the one sitting next to me holds a gun," he says. "How can I feel comfortable right after that?"
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