As Israel's war against Hamas rages in Gaza — and the civilian death toll continues to climb — the conflict is playing out in schools across the United States, where threats to Jewish and Muslim students and faculty are on the rise.
The uptick prompted the White House to announce new actions this week to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia on college campuses, which have been roiled by threats and protests since the conflict began.
At Cornell University, Patrick Dai, a 21-year-old junior from Pittsford, N.Y., was arrested on federal charges Tuesday after allegedly calling for the deaths of Jewish people and threatening to “shoot up” a dining hall that caters predominantly to kosher Jewish students.
According to the FBI, Dai “allegedly threatened to ‘stab’ and ‘slit the throat’ of any Jewish males he sees on campus, to rape and throw off a cliff any Jewish females, and to behead any Jewish babies” in an online post. Dai also threatened to “bring an assault rifle to campus and shoot all you pig jews.”
Cornell canceled Friday classes so the school could observe a community day “in recognition of the extraordinary stress of the past few weeks,” the university said.
Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack against Israel, which left more than 1,400 people dead and more than 200 taken hostage, and Israel’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza, which has left thousands more dead, tensions over the rights of Jews and Palestinians have boiled over on campuses across the country.
The Cambridge, Mass., school has seen perhaps the most clashes and tension between Jewish students and vocal supporters of Palestinian freedom of any college in the country.
A viral video posted online Wednesday appeared to show a group of pro-Palestinian activists surrounding a male student — identified in the video as Jewish — waving flags and refusing to let him walk away.
“Jewish students in American universities are unsafe,” a caption on the video reads. “What is Harvard doing to support the freedoms, liberties, and rights of Jewish students to merely exist on campus?”
On Oct. 7, the night of the Hamas attack, a coalition of more than 30 student groups posted an open letter on social media saying that Israel was “entirely responsible” for the violence that ended up killing more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians.
Within days, the New York Times reported that students affiliated with those groups were being doxed, with their personal information posted online.
“Wall Street executives demanded a list of student names to ban their hiring,” the Times said. “And a truck with a digital billboard — paid for by a conservative group — circled Harvard Square, flashing student photos and names, under the headline, ‘Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.’”
The school announced Wednesday that it has launched an antisemitism task force to address the “terribly resilient” hatred that has swept across its campus in the weeks since Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel.
“One would hope that by the twenty-first century, antisemitism would have been relegated to the dustbin of history,” Columbia University President Minouche Shafik wrote in a message to the school community. “But it has been rising here in New York City, across the country, and around the world in recent years.”
The same day, the school activated a doxxing resource group to protect pro-Palestinian students.
Thousands of students at Yale University signed a petition last month calling for the resignation of an associate professor who allegedly made a series of posts celebrating the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
"Israel is a murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle, solidarity,” Zareena Grewal, the professor, wrote in one post on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.
Grewal also allegedly reposted a news video detailing the Hamas attack with the caption, "It's been an extraordinary day!"
In a statement to NBC News, the school said: "Yale is committed to freedom of expression, and the comments posted on Professor Grewal’s personal accounts represent her own views."
University of Florida and University of South Florida
On Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered two state universities to deactivate chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, claiming that the groups distributed a “toolkit” that promotes “discriminatory and violent behavior towards Israelis or Jews” and supports “terrorist organizations.”
In response, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the heads of more than 650 American colleges and universities to defend the free speech rights of students protesting the war.
The letter urged university leaders “to reject calls to investigate, disband, or penalize student groups on the basis of their exercise of free speech rights.”
“Schools have a responsibility to address discrimination and harassment wherever it occurs,” the ACLU said. “But the experience of our country’s universities during the McCarthy era demonstrates that ideologically motivated efforts to police speech on campus destroy the foundation on which academic communities are built.
“We urge you to hold fast to our country’s best traditions and reject baseless calls to investigate or punish student groups for exercising their free speech rights,” the letter concludes.
“Colleges and universities around the country are managing heightened threats and anguished tensions, and it’s especially in times like these that they need to remain firm in their commitment to open debate and peaceful dissent,” Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, told Teen Vogue. “We think a blanket call to investigate student chapters of a pro-Palestinian student group for ‘material support to terrorists’ — without even an attempt to cite evidence — is unwarranted, wrong, and dangerous.”
Since Oct. 7, there have been at least five incidents that authorities are investigating as potential hate crimes. The latest occurred Friday, when an Arab Muslim student was struck by a car.
The student, Abdulwahab Omira, was walking to class on when he was hit. He said the driver, a white maile, screamed out "f*** you and your people' as he drove away. Omira was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.
According to the the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, a preliminary investigation by the California Highway Patrol determined the incident was a hate crime.
“We are profoundly disturbed to hear this report of potentially hate-based physical violence on our campus,” Stanford President Richard Saller and Provost Jenny Martinez said in a joint statement. “Violence on our campus is unacceptable. Hate-based violence is morally reprehensible.”
Even before the threatening online posts, tensions at Cornell were raw after an associate professor of history, Russell Rickford, spoke at a pro-Palestinian rally in Ithaca, N.Y., and called the Oct. 7 attack on Israel “exhilarating” for those who support Palestinian freedom.
“It was exhilarating,” Rickford said. “It was energizing. And if they weren’t exhilarated by this challenge to the monopoly of violence, by this shifting of the balance of power, then they would not be human. I was exhilarated.”
Rickford has since taken a leave of absence for the remainder of the semester.
Threats go beyond campus
The Anti-Defamation League said it recorded a total of 312 antisemitic incidents between Oct. 7 and Oct. 23, including 190 that were “directly linked to the war in Israel and Gaza.” By comparison, the ADL received preliminary reports of 64 incidents during the same period in 2022.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said it received 774 complaints of incidents motivated by Islamophobia between Oct. 7 and Oct. 24, the “largest wave” it has seen since December 2015, after Donald Trump, who was then running for president, declared his intent to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
The figure included the fatal stabbing of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy, in what law enforcement officials said was a targeted attack against the Muslim child and his mother due to the Israel-Hamas war.
What the White House is doing
On Monday, senior administration officials convened a meeting with leaders of major American Jewish organizations to discuss the rise of antisemitism on campuses.
The same day, the Biden administration announced new actions to combat antisemitism in schools and on college campuses, with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security partnering with campus and local police to track hate-related rhetoric online and provide federal resources to schools. The Department of Education also said it would expedite the process of filing a complaint under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for students and others who experience antisemitism.
According to the White House, the actions were an extension of President Biden’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, which was unveiled in May.
And on Wednesday, the administration announced plans to develop the first-ever U.S. National Strategy to Counter Islamophobia.
“We can’t stand by and stand silent in the face of hate,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a briefing earlier this week. “We must, without equivocation, denounce antisemitism. We must also, without equivocation, denounce Islamophobia.”
• NBC News: Israel-Hamas war continues to roil American colleges, sparking walkouts
• New York Times: How posters of kidnapped Israelis ignited a firestorm on American sidewalks
• Los Angeles Times: Berkeley professor: Nothing prepared me for the antisemitism I see on campus now