At noon on Oct. 25, students at more than 100 colleges and universities staged a walkout in support of Palestinians following the Hamas terror attacks in Israel earlier in the month. At Princeton, a coalition of graduate students organized a gathering on the north lawn of Frist Campus Center, holding signs and chanting while a much smaller group supporting Israel staged a silent counterprotest nearby.
About 25 minutes before the demonstration was to begin, the University’s Department of Public Safety issued a Tiger Alert saying that it had become aware of a “threatening social media post” (later determined to be unfounded) and that state and federal law enforcement had been notified. Public safety officers erected temporary barriers to separate the two groups of protesters, and administrators from the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, known as Free Expression Facilitators, circulated through the crowd to ensure that University guidelines were observed.
Some of the rhetoric during the hourlong protest was hot, even for a political rally. Pro-Palestinian students chanted in Arabic, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” and in English, “Intifada! Intifada! Long live the intifada!” statements that many took to be supportive of terrorism and the eradication of Israel.
Other incidents, fortunately isolated, also put the campus on edge. For three days in mid-October, a truck sponsored by a group calling itself Alums for Campus Fairness roamed town blazing an electronic sign that accused Amaney Jamal, dean of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), of failing to denounce the Hamas terror attacks. (When it learned that Jamal had already denounced Hamas, the group apologized privately. Jamal has asked them to do so publicly, as well.) While filming video of a pro-Palestinian rally in Palmer Square on Oct. 28, Emanuelle Sippy ’25, president of the Alliance of Jewish Progressives, had her hair pulled and her phone snatched by a woman later identified as a University employee. Some Jewish and Arab students have reported feeling unsafe in recent weeks, while Palestinian supporters have begun wearing masks at rallies to protect themselves from doxxing and other retribution. Not surprisingly, rhetoric has been even less restrained on social media than it has been in person.
All in all, campus tension has been as high in recent weeks as it has been in several years. Furthermore, not in recent memory has a political issue so publicly and vocally divided the student body. On a campus that leans heavily toward the political left, fractures have emerged between people who until recently considered themselves progressive allies, only to find that, on this issue, they are bitterly divided.
It may be grading on a curve, but at least as of mid-November when this issue went to print, Princeton had avoided the uglier incidents that had taken place at other schools. Cornell, for example, was forced to cancel classes after a student threatened to kill Jews, and a Jewish student was assaulted at Columbia. At Harvard, Yale, Stanford, NYU, and elsewhere, student groups and individual faculty members issued statements that justified or even celebrated Hamas’ terror attacks. Those and other incidents, widely reported in the news media, have led some outsiders to denounce college campuses as hotbeds of illiberalism. Donors at the University of Pennsylvania have threatened to withdraw support unless the administration roots out campus antisemitism.
Against this backdrop, the discourse at Princeton has been restrained, a point on which administrators and activists broadly agree. In addition, various student groups and academic departments have offered panels and lectures on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an attempt to do what universities are supposed to do — educate.
“There is still a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear, and a lot of shock,” says Jamal. “But I do feel like things are more contained on our campus.”
“I’m not saying we got everything right,” adds Rabbi Eitan Webb, co-founder of Princeton’s Chabad House. “But for some reason, it has not exploded here, and I think Princeton can take some credit for that.”
PAW interviewed more than a dozen students, faculty members, and administrators who offered several possible causes to explain this phenomenon: Princeton’s historic reputation as the least political of the Ivies. Its relative lack of graduate students, who tend to be more politically engaged. The relative absence of “scholar-activists” on the faculty. Even that the war broke out when students were distracted by midterms and fall break.
Jamal says she believes that unrest is greater when students feel that their side is not being heard. She credits the speed with which discussions, featuring scholars offering many points of view, were organized here. “That set the tone that there are different positions and we’re going to bring them to the table,” she says.
Senior administrators also emphasized the importance of civil discourse, early and often. President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 denounced the attacks while also calling for calm. “Even in a world wearied and torn by violence and hatred, Hamas’ murder and kidnapping of hundreds of Israelis ... is among the most atrocious of terrorist acts,” Eisgruber said on Oct. 10. “I hope that Princetonians from all backgrounds will treat each other with grace and compassion during this difficult time.”
Two weeks later, as students returned from break, Dean of the College Jill Dolan, Dean of the Graduate School Rod Priestly, Dean of the Faculty Gene Jarrett ’97, Vice President for Campus Life W. Rochelle Calhoun, and Vice President for Human Resources Romy Riddick issued a joint letter to the University community to rebut what they characterized as “a few attempts to inflame and divide the Princeton community.” Titled “A Call for Respect and Care,” the letter said in part, “We are not one another’s enemies. We are people bound by our proximity in time and space and by our shared commitment to Princeton’s values and its motto: to be in service to our nation and to humanity.”
“I appreciated that email and thought that it was a very important message to send,” says Abigail Rabieh ’25, head opinion editor for The Daily Princetonian and a member of the student board of the Center for Jewish Life (CJL).
This has been an acid test for Eisgruber, who has championed free expression, even on highly sensitive topics, as one of the University’s core values. Over the past year, the University has partnered with the free expression group PEN America to conduct workshops with the Council of the Princeton University Community, administrators, and department chairs. A session with students is planned for January, PEN America senior manager for free expression and education Kristen Shahverdian tells PAW.
Students on both sides of the debate credit the University for setting a good tone. Aditi Rao, a graduate student who spoke at the Oct. 25 demonstration, says, “I find Princeton radically more considerate of free speech than any other institution I’ve been a part of.” Ilai Guendelman, an Israeli postdoctoral student in the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences program, says, “My impression is that Princeton, even these days, is one of the safest campuses for Jewish and Israeli people. But it’s only because your perspective comes from a place where the situation is horrible.”
Still, it must be emphasized, others strongly disagree. Many Jewish students argue that the more radical pro-Palestinian chants were not free speech but harassment that makes Jews, particularly those with family in Israel, feel unsafe.
“I am very grateful that we have not seen the sort of incidents seen on other campuses,” says Rabbi Gil Steinlauf ’91, executive director of the CJL. “But that doesn’t mean that the discourse isn’t painful. It has been incredibly difficult for our students.” Citing calls for intifada and what they regarded as the eradication of Israel, Eden Bendory ’25 and Estelle Botton ’25 wrote in a letter to The Daily Princetonian, “Princeton’s campus should serve as a safe haven for Jewish students, not an institution that turns a blind eye to antisemitic slurs and chants occurring right on its doorstep.”
In an email to PAW, Kathleen Deignan, dean of undergraduate students, and Michele Minter, vice provost for institutional equity and diversity, acknowledge that “a small number” of complaints have been filed concerning recent incidents, adding, “The University is working to respond to these situations and support the wellbeing of the campus community while maintaining the right of individuals to engage in protected speech.”
Supporters of Palestine, meanwhile, have called on the University to show the same level of care and empathy for Palestinian and Muslim students as it does for its Jewish and Israeli students. “Selectively condemning the crimes against Israeli citizens degrades the innocent Palestinian lives being lost by implying that their rights are not worth defending,” Sameer Riaz ’24 wrote in an Oct. 24 column for The Daily Princetonian.
The recent campus protests illustrate just how mixed many of the student messages have been and how difficult it is to apply standards of respectful discourse when the parties use language in such different ways.
For example, a vigil organized by Princeton Students for Justice in Palestine (PSJP) in front of Nassau Hall on Oct. 13 was a diverse gathering that included families with children. Although participants did chant, “From the river to the sea,” the crowd was largely silent and embraced afterwards as speakers urged those present to remember all innocent victims in the region. Shortly afterward, though, the organizers issued a lengthy statement that alternated vitriol with an expression of empathy.
“We, the Princeton Students for Justice in Palestine, hold the Israeli apartheid government responsible for the tremendous loss of life in occupied Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank,” it began, before adding, in the next sentence, “Coming from a wide range of faith backgrounds, ethnicities, and origins, we are in mourning. We hold the Jewish and Palestinian communities in our hearts, including many of our own family and friends, who are living through this trauma.”
Although Rao is not a member of the PSJP, she gives some insights into the thinking of those who organized the demonstration. She and several other grad students met beforehand to draw up a chant list, based on what they had been hearing elsewhere, and then practiced with each other to make sure that they were not agitating the crowd.
While calls for “intifada” arose organically during the march (“It’s a free speech environment,” Rao says), the decision to recite “From the river to the sea” in Arabic stemmed from a desire for authenticity. “My strong belief is that we should take the chants that Palestinians are using to talk about their cause,” she reasons. “And so, using their language, using their literal songs, is kind of an important way of making sure that we’re respecting the culture rather than fighting for somebody else’s liberation in our own way.”
Many, however, were indeed agitated and heard it as a call for the elimination of Jews across the region. In Arabic, the chant doesn’t say that from the river to the sea Palestine will be free, Webb points out. “It says, from the river to the sea, Palestine will be Arab. That’s worse.”
Rao insists that she meant something different, that throughout the region there will be a single state in which both Jews and Palestinians will “live safely and participate in a democracy.” Sippy also contends that, having spoken with many of the PSJP organizers, “The vast majority of people who were using those chants are not calling for the obliteration of the Jews who live in Israel-Palestine.”
Jamal notices a generational divide, especially among students too young to remember the laborious Middle East peace process of the late 20th century. “I’m from the old school,” she says. “For those who support a two-state solution, [the chant] means that Israel is not legitimate.” Along the same lines, she adds, the first intifada, from 1987 to 1993, was much more peaceful than the second intifada, which ran from 2000 to 2005. Which type were the protesters calling for?
Many might not have been able to answer that question themselves. Some suggest that a not-insignificant number of students showed up simply to express support for an independent Palestine and picked up what everyone else was chanting. Webb wonders how many of the marchers could even have identified the river and sea they were referring to. “Students are well-meaning,” Steinlauf says. “They see oppression and they seek to show solidarity without understanding.”
Others, though, certainly did understand what they were chanting, and that deserves to be taken seriously. Given the recent emphasis in social justice circles on microaggressions and the need for safe spaces, this is more than a little problematic. American identity politics, several commentators have posited, may prove to be a poor lens for analyzing a foreign conflict with ancient roots.
In an op-ed for The New York Times on Oct. 30, Jamal and Keren Yarhi-Milo, dean of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, laid out some steps colleges can take to make the situation better.
“It starts with countering speech that is harmful, modeling civic dialogue, mutual respect, and empathy, and showing an ability to listen to one another,” they wrote. “Universities should not retreat into their ivory towers because the discourse has gotten toxic; on the contrary, the discourse will get more toxic if universities pull back.”
As Jamal says to PAW, “The bigger problem is that our students don’t understand the history here. That worries me.”
On Nov. 6, she and Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, participated in just the sort of discussion that could teach some of that history, the sort of discussion Princeton is uniquely able to offer. Titled, “Israel-Gaza: Current Analysis and Vision of Post-War Policy,” the event was sponsored by the CJL in partnership with SPIA, the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, Chabad on Campus, and the Center for Judaic Studies. Anticipating a big crowd, it was held in McCosh 50, the largest lecture space on campus, yet attendance was sparse.
After nearly an hour of history and analysis, Jamal and Kurtzer took questions. A student sitting in front first noted that she recognized most of the people in the room as fellow members of the CJL, yet when she had attended a PSJP teach-in, most of the attendees were Arab or Muslim.
“No pro-Palestinian will want to work with the CJL because they’re Zionist,” the student said. “No person from the CJL will want to go to a PSJP teach-in because they’re anti-Zionist. How do you get past these labels to actually be having conversations with people in a civilized way and not have it be an echo chamber?”
Two of the nation’s leading political scientists struggled for an answer. After suggesting that she and Kurtzer might try to organize a peace rally “in a neutral area,” Jamal noted that the campus division into information silos is a problem she had wrestled with even before the current conflict.
“We’re not in a fine moment right now,” Jamal acknowledged. “We need to come together.”
Still, efforts are being made, green shoots from rocky ground. One morning in early November, Rabbi Webb sat down for coffee with a pro-Palestinian student. “He gave me a bunch of reasons why he believes what he believes,” Webb says. “I gave him a whole bunch of reasons why I don’t agree. And we agreed to have coffee again next week.”
Imam Khalil Abdullah, assistant dean for Muslim Life, says that Muslim students are feeling “all the emotions,” including anger, frustration, sadness, and isolation. Still, while the past few weeks have strained friendships, they have not broken them. “Students are already talking,” Abdullah says. “They may not be the loudest voices, but they may be the ones who are keeping this community together.”
Despite the tension, a period of relative calm could buy time in which students could learn some of the history, hear differing points of view, and perhaps even continue some of those difficult conversations, if they will take advantage of the opportunity. The point, after all, is not just to keep calm, but to keep talking and listening.
Or this may all just be whistling past the graveyard. Though it should not be overstated, when judged against many other campuses, Princeton has remained peaceful. So far. But the situation remains volatile, and the peace is fragile.
“I’ve said this to many people,” observes Webb. “To build a community takes years of effort. To destroy it takes five minutes.”
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer. PAW editor Peter Barzilai s’97 contributed reporting to this story.