Content warning: This article discusses violence and death. Please refer to the end of the article for on- and off-campus resources.
U.S. college campuses have been at the center of a heated debate over how students and universities should respond to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas that is dominating global headlines.
Walking through Georgetown University, particularly Red Square, the heart of free speech expression on campus, it is clear the Hilltop is no exception to these debates. Responses from student groups with ties to the conflict have been immediate and intense, with posters plastered on the brick walls and chalk messages covering the promenade.
Some signs read “Free Palestine” and call for a ceasefire, while others display the names and photos of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas, a militant-political organization based in the Gaza Strip whose armed wing is considered a terrorist group by many countries.
As the war reaches new heights, activism continues to engage the student body as communities grapple with their grief and hope.
Gershon Stein (SFS ’24), an organizer of the Oct. 11 vigil in support of the people of Israel, said in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack on Jews — the deadliest since the Holocaust — that saw Hamas militants kill more than 1,400 people, the Georgetown Jewish community proved to be perseverant and supportive of one another.
“It’s been a hard week for all of the Jews on campus at Georgetown and at other schools, so just being compassionate to people and recognizing that people are scatterbrained, or they’re mourning. For them it’s very personal” Stein told The Hoya.
“I’m proud to do anything that I can to try and make a difference, or try and make a change in this world, and hopefully some good comes of it,” Stein added.
Besan Jaber (GRD ’24) is a graduate student who has been involved in organizing efforts, including drafting statements and attending vigils calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, where Israeli forces have killed at least 8,000 Palestinians as of Nov. 2. She said this work is integral in her grief as a Palestinian Jordanian.
“I actually felt a sense of community a week after. I felt ‘Oh, there’s something to be done here,’ and that all together we can do something. I remember everyone was crying and at a certain point I was like, I don’t think we have time to cry. Let’s just get up and do work. Let’s finish the work that we have to do,” Jaber told The Hoya.
Voices on the Hilltop
In part because of how fresh and raw this latest violence is, leaders on campus like Rabbi Daniel Schaefer, the interim director for Jewish Life at Georgetown, said they have focused on providing support for students amid sorrow and mourning.
“We recognize that nobody has an exclusive claim on pain and suffering. Just because we’re mourning doesn’t mean we don’t recognize that other people are mourning and suffering too,” Schaefer told The Hoya.
“We want people to say that Jewish lives matter, and also I know that Palestinian lives matter, and that I want to see an end to the war and an end to the violence, and that nobody else has to die because of this,” he added.
Jewish and Israeli student groups and Georgetown Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) held separate vigils on the steps of Healy Hall and in Red Square, respectively, in the days following the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and subsequent Israeli retaliation to mourn the conflict’s human toll.
Students from Chabad Georgetown, Georgetown Israel Alliance, Jewish Life at Georgetown and the Georgetown Jewish Students Association organized an Oct. 11 “Vigil for Israel” in support of the people of Israel.
Georgetown Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) held a “Vigil for Our Martyrs” the following evening on National SJP Day of Action in Red Square. The vigil featured speeches by students or faculty who wanted to speak, and many students wore keffiyehs, a scarf that is a symbol of Palestinian national pride.
“We describe all Palestinians that have been killed under the occupation as ‘martyrs’, for they have been killed not only on account of their belief that Palestinians deserve to live freely and with basic human rights, but also for their sheer existence as Palestinians,” members of SJP wrote in a joint statement to The Hoya.
Anna Wessels (GRD ’24), a graduate student in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS), said the SJP rally allowed students to come together in support of justice.
“It’s a call to action, and it’s a call to join, no matter what their background or no matter what they know,” Wessels said.
The creation of safe spaces and candlelit community gatherings have been pursued alongside activist efforts, including an Oct. 26 SJP walkout that saw Red Square again filled with students and professors. Demonstrators called for an end to the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip, an area about twice the size of Washington, D.C., that is home to over two million people, roughly half of whom are under the age of 14.
Wessels said that as a Palestinian American, headlines in the media can be dehumanizing to her and others connected to the conflict.
“If you just talk to any Palestinian student at these schools, we can tell you 75 years of Palestinian history just through our own family story,” Wessels said. “Me and my family and friends, we’re not just statistics.”
Stein said that the Vigil for Israel offered students a chance to come together in support of one another amid grief.
“It’s very close to home for a lot of people in our community. I know people whose family members are no longer with us. I know people whose family members are being held hostage. I know people whose family members were wounded, or people whose friends are serving,” Stein told The Hoya.
“This sort of vigil was important for people as a place of mourning and a place of recognition of all that’s been lost,” he added.
Members from SJP declined to speak on the record with The Hoya about the vigil on account of safety concerns and instead shared a statement on behalf of the club. They said their vigil provided support for students as they struggled with ongoing violence and concerns that the Oct. 8 letter from President DeGioia fell short of their expectations of the university.
DeGioia wrote twice to community members via email, first expressing sympathy on Oct. 8 for the victims of the Hamas attacks. SJP representatives and other students emphasized that he did not address the deaths of Palestinians, and he released a second statement eleven days later recognizing “devastation felt across Israel, the West Bank, and in Gaza.”
“We sought to create a space where students could recognize and grieve the innocent Palestinian civilians murdered in Gaza,” SJP members wrote to The Hoya. “The university institutionally had refused to even acknowledge Palestinian loss of life at that point, let alone the unimaginable grief and anguish Palestinian student community members are forced to process right now.”
“There is so much beauty in the fact that the vigil was both organized and attended by students from so many different ethnic and religious backgrounds. It reflects the deep empathy and love found in the Georgetown community.”
The Search for Context
Amid an outpouring of social media posts and class discussions about the war, many Hoyas say they have sought to better understand the background of the conflict in order to respectfully engage in discussions they encounter in the classroom and on social media.
To help provide students with nuanced perspectives, the Georgetown University Bipartisan Coalition (GUBC) hosted an Oct. 18 panel discussion titled “Understanding the Conflict in Israel and Gaza: A Community Dialogue Bridging the Divide.”
The panel featured four professors, including the respective directors for CCAS and the Center for Jewish Civilization (CJC), who answered questions from a student audience.
Michaela Cornejo (CAS ’25), president of the GUBC said the group aimed to provide students with information about the conflict without opening the door to potentially harmful, emotionally charged debate.
“We initially wanted to have this kind of very rigid, set-up structure to make sure that it was safe for everyone, so we wanted to have that perspective from professionals, experts in the field, so we could have students ask those people,” Cornejo told The Hoya.
Jonathan Lincoln, director of the CJC, said his perspective on the conflict draws largely upon his years of experience working for the United Nations (U.N.) around the world, including in Jerusalem and Gaza City. Lincoln said though he does see similarities across conflicts, he finds this one especially unique in part due to the extensive history behind it.
“Sometimes looking at the similarities can be helpful, but each one of these conflicts is unique in some respects. When it comes to actually working on the ground with the aim of not just explaining things, but actually trying to reduce conflict, prevent outbreaks of violence, meet humanitarian needs on the ground, provide assistance, then I think your worldview tends to be quite different,” Lincoln told The Hoya.
Fida Adely, director of the CCAS and another panelist at the event, said she similarly works to add a human element to discussion. Adely said students should consult a modern history regarding the founding of Israel and subsequent human rights violations in order to better understand today’s conflict.
“There’s a very specific history to this, and it’s tied to oppression of Jewish people in Europe, it’s tied to British colonialism, it’s tied to ethnic cleansing 75 years ago in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven out of their homes,” Adely told The Hoya.
The U.N. formally recognized the state of Israel in 1948 after decades of British occupation in what was called Mandatory Palestine. The establishment of the state came on the heels of the Holocaust in Europe that saw Nazi Germany kill over six million Jews and leave many others displaced, but in the decades since Israel has been widely criticized as an oppressive apartheid state.
Leo Lefebure, a theology professor with experience in interreligious dialogue, including at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, said the commonalities between diverse religious communities in both Israel and Palestine illustrate that this is not a black-and-white religious conflict.
“I just caution people not to overgeneralize. Whatever one’s political perspectives are, there’s a large area of moral agreement in principle among all three of the Abrahamic traditions regarding what constitutes a just conflict, and how to act in a conflict in a moral way,” Lefebure told The Hoya.
According to Lefebure, some Jews and Muslims believe that the land of Israel and Palestine is rightfully theirs, though many others are interested in cooperation. Both Zionists, or supporters of a Jewish state, and Hamas lay claim to all of modern-day Israel and the Palestinian territories.
While experts say trends indicate continued division between supporters of Israel and Palestine, professors and students at Georgetown view an opening for conversations that could humanize discussion of the conflict while being realistic about the path to peace.
According to Cornejo, a number of students reached out to GUBC after the panel in hopes of continuing the dialogue, which she said is a challenging but important move.
“I do think the next step would be to foster some kind of dialogue between students on campus,” Cornejo said. “Obviously that is very difficult to facilitate, but I do think that would be necessary at some point.”
Addressing and Overcoming Hate
Against a backdrop of histories of oppression of both Palestinian and Jewish people, the actions of student groups and the university can often be perceived as harmful or insensitive.
Jaber said she was frustrated at first with the original letter university president John DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) sent to the university community Oct. 8.
“Reading that letter, or talking to my fellow Palestinian students at Georgetown, was very frustrating. I started having doubts about why am I here, what is my role here and that this is the right place for me,” Jaber told The Hoya. “And then I slowly decided that I am here because I deserve to be here. I want to challenge this discourse. I want to make it visible.”
Lincoln said while certain behavior on campuses across the nation has been dangerous, he does not feel that threats such as physical violence are present on the Hilltop. Even so, he said he does not believe that Georgetown has been entirely devoid of problematic rhetoric.
“We haven’t seen anywhere near the polarization that we’ve seen elsewhere and intimidation of students for either their beliefs or for their identity, which is obviously extremely problematic and extremely worrying,” Lincoln said. “I think that it doesn’t mean that a lot of the rhetoric going around is okay. It’s not.”
Officials report that antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise on college campuses in the United States, and the Biden administration recently announced steps to combat hate-related rhetoric through cybersecurity efforts aimed at investigating harmful online activity.
Jaber said that at an event hosted by Jewish students calling for peace, a Georgetown student harassed and recorded her. SJP also reported that their members were harassed and their posters torn down.
A university spokesperson said Georgetown is investigating any reported incidents.
On Oct. 26, a GUPD security guard in Red Square told The Hoya that though the demonstrations had been peaceful, an officer would be stationed for the time being to protect free speech.
In a Nov. 2 email to students, Joel Hellman, Dean of the School of Foreign Service, wrote that the school placed a recently hired employee on immediate administrative leave pending investigation of alleged antisemitic content posted to their social media account.
“President DeGioia has denounced antisemitism, Islamophobia and all acts of hatred and has condemned the Hamas attack on Israel as an unconscionable act of terror,” a university representative wrote to The Hoya.
After student groups at Harvard published an anti-Israel letter widely criticized as being antisemitic, other selective academic institutions have attracted a similar spotlight — including Georgetown, where on Oct. 17 Fox News dispatched a reporter to interview students about their perspectives.
As policy experts and government officials debate questions on proportionality in airstrikes and a ground invasion, students at Georgetown continue to offer support to one another through events intended to foster community during a tough time.
Iklil Bouhmouch (GRD ’24), a CCAS graduate student, said students should prioritize educating themselves.
“I think students are morally obligated to educate themselves as well, because we’re privileged to have access to an abundance of resources,” Bouhmouch told The Hoya. “Especially if you are interested in foreign service or international relations, or really just as a human obligation. There are many teach-ins, classes, and toolkits available at CCAS and the CSJ.”
Adely said she feels Georgetown’s position as a school where many students go on to hold positions of power, including in the federal government, gives it a responsibility to provide students with resources that invite inquiry.
“I do think at an educational institution like Georgetown, that education requires us creating spaces in which people can be challenged, where people are exposed to different ideas. I don’t see it as dialogue per se, but I think we do need to have these difficult conversations,” Adely said.
Lefebure said students can still make a positive impact through actions that may seem small or unimportant.
“Often it’s helpful to ask the question ‘What’s the next right thing to do?’” Lefebure said. “Don’t think that you have to solve the big picture, but you can build little points of community here and there that can be transformative over the long run.”
Caroline Rareshide contributed to reporting.
Resources: On-campus resources include Health Education Services (202-687-8949) and Counseling and Psychiatric Service (202-687-7080); off-campus resources include Crisis Text Line (text 741741).