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Fear and trauma as Israeli universities finally resume classes

After a three-month delay due to the war, Israeli students are back on campus but tense relations between Arab and Jewish students are casting a shadow.
Ben Lynfield
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Crowd of students, one wearing a keffiyah

Israeli Arab students at Tel Aviv University (Eddie Gerald/Alamy).

Published: 17 January 2024

Last updated: 19 March 2024

After a three-month delay due to the war, Israeli students are back on campus but tense relations between Arab and Jewish students are casting a shadow.

The commencement of studies has not thus far led to violence or major turmoil. But the mix of Jewish students jarred by the Hamas massacres and Arab students reeling from the huge death toll among Palestinian civilians in Gaza remains potentially volatile.

“The academic year started relatively well, which is not to say that there aren’t concerns and fears,” said Maya de Vries, a program director at the Hebrew University’s aChord Center, which draws on social psychology to advise higher learning institutions on how to lessen tensions.

At the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, the normally thronged hallways were quiet last week because many students were on reserve duty in Gaza and elsewhere. The war setting was highlighted by numerous posters with the pictures of hostages held by Hamas. But it seemed the university was trying to make everyone feel welcome, with stickers proclaiming in Hebrew and Arabic “We learn to live together”.

Still, Lauren Barakat, an East Jerusalem Palestinian studying education, said as she sat with friends at a café bar near the social science library: “I feel a little racism. I feel that I can’t say that I’m in solidarity with the children of Gaza.”

Nearby Yossi Cohen, 25, was hitting the books after just coming back from combat service as a reservist in Gaza. “The atmosphere is good, but you really feel the [war] situation. There are a lot of questions in the air. Of course, it’s a little tense here.”

Many students said the proliferation of guns brought by reservists to campus add to a feeling that they have lost their aura of calm havens.

Asked what it was like in Gaza, he said: “You really need to digest the experience. It’s shitty. I’m going back this weekend,” he added.

Many students said the proliferation of guns brought by reservists to campus add to a feeling that they have lost their aura of calm havens of academic pursuit.

“Every lecturer started class by saying this semester will be complicated,” said a statistics and data student from the central city of Modiin, who asked that his name not be published. “There’s a tension you can’t miss. There’s an Arab population here and you can’t know what each of them thinks. What do they think of all these Israeli flags and posters about the hostages? They are probably uncomfortable. Most of them will just carry on but there are probably extremists, too.”

“Imagine if you are a student from the south who witnessed killing and you hear Arabic. It could trigger a certain feeling.”

In a courtyard where Palestinian students were taking a break, a student from Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem said many of his Jewish classmates were in the army. “I feel generally safe on campus but the problem is that on the way here Israeli extremists might cause problems.”

"you are considered an enemy. There is hatred and pursuit.”

Arab Union of Students head Yousef Taha

Surveys taken by the aChord center in November indicated that nationally, half of Arab students and a quarter of Jewish students planned to stay away from classes largely out of safety concerns. But the dire forecast didn’t materialise, de Vvries said.

One major unresolved issue is the feeling of many Arab students that they cannot express themselves freely about the carnage in Gaza after some universities pursued what they viewed as unjustified disciplinary actions against students for social media posts seen as supporting Hamas or the October 7 killings. “Most of the posts weren’t actually identification with the massacre or Hamas but rather identification with the suffering” of Gazans ,de Vries said.

Yousef Taha, a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University and head of the recently formed body, the Arab Union of Students, went further in remarks to The Jewish Independent. “Despite the fact that our political leaders conducted themselves responsibly and no one supported the killing, you are considered an enemy. There is hatred and pursuit.”

He said that Haifa University, which suspended eight students for posts while a disciplinary committee reviewed their cases, was the most hostile, from the viewpoint of Arab students. The suspensions were rescinded last week as the university and the Haifa-based Arab legal advocacy group Adalah, which represents the students, agreed on mediation. But the university did not cancel the disciplinary committee’s review.

University officials did not respond to queries for this article but Haaretz quoted university rector Guy Alroey as saying that students had shared photos of the Hamas onslaught with captions “good morning” and “they deserve it”.

Adalah said it has monitored 120 disciplinary cases since October 7. In some cases, students have been expelled without any proceeding, the group says. Adalah spokesman Ari Remez alleges “there is Islamophobia. People are being charged just for posting verses from the Koran”.

De Vvries added: “There were complaints that were baseless where the posts didn’t support terrorism or Hamas. They were taken out of context, were old, or had a photo unrelated to the war. There was a wave against Arab students that was unjustified. People were accused because of high threat perception and collective trauma in Jewish society.”

Asad Ghanem, who teaches political science at Haifa University, said of the eight students, “they might have made a mistake. I hope that if they say they regret it, it will help them.” But he said the university is on a slippery slope.  “When a university starts using different means to follow students’ thoughts or ideas, this will harm the university’s mission as a place of free speech within certain boundaries.”

However, the right-wing Im Tirzu organization, which has student branches across the country, says Haifa and other universities aren’t going far enough in response to complaints the organization makes about students posting incitement to terrorism.

“Unfortunately, many universities are lenient. Our monitoring exposes a lot of calls by students on social media and also lecturers who are pro-terrorism. We see posts expressing joy over the murders,” the group’s media office said in response to questions.

Im Tirzu considers this alleged leniency to be dangerous. “When you are sitting in class with a terrorism supporter who is happy about what happened on October 7, you don’t know where it could lead.”

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About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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