After weeks of marching, chanting, and drumming against the ongoing war in Gaza, pro-Palestinian demonstrators kicked off their Nov. 17 protest at noon outside Wilson Commons by laying out the meaning of their chants.

The question has become an international lightning rod. Chants like “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” “from New York to Gaza, globalize the intifada,” and “resistance is justified when people are occupied” have polarized two camps. One, which includes prominent Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), contends the chants are a call for violence against Israelis and Jewish people more broadly.

The pro-Palestinian protestors at the University, firmly in the other camp, rebuke these accusations. Their calls, they say, are for the end of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and for the end of Israel’s alleged apartheid system that disadvantages Palestinians.

Most protests don’t kick off with exercises in linguistics, but this moment is unusual. A magnifying glass has been thrust over college campuses as demonstrations, both for and against the war, have kicked off nationwide –- prompting loads of discourse about protestors’ intentions, the responsibilities of college administrations, antisemitism, and Islamophobia. 

Amid the release of several administrative statements about the war — vigils, protests, and counseling sessions have hit UR’s campus alongside other colleges in the area. Read on for a full breakdown of the last month.

The wake of the Oct. 7 attacks

On Oct. 7, Palestinian militants belonging to Hamas — the group that governs the Gaza Strip — and several other Gazan armed groups launched a surprise attack on civilians and soldiers in the south of Israel. They killed over 1,200 people — 845 of them civilians — and kidnapped about 240. Among the dead were babies, children, and women, and their brutal assault included the rape and mutilation of many of their victims, according to Israeli responders to the scenes.

That same day, Israel began bombing Gaza in response to the attacks, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally declared war on Oct. 8. 

The next day, the UR President’s Office released its first official statement on the war via email and the University’s Facebook, Instagram, and X (the site formerly known as Twitter) accounts. 

The statement, titled “Message on the conflict in Israel and Gaza,” broadly addressed “the recent escalations within Israel and the Gaza Strip and the ensuing violence.” It was signed by President Sarah Mangelsdorf, Provost David Figlio, Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Adrienne Morgan, and University Medical Center CEO Mark Taubman.

“The University of Rochester stands in support of our community, especially with those with ties to the region and those who have lost loved ones,” the statement read. “As a place of healing and higher learning, we denounce violence, hatred, and prejudice in favor of a world that embraces diplomacy and discourse.”

The statement was met with outrage on social media — primarily for its lack of open condemnation of the Hamas attack on Israel, for its lack of any mention of the state of Palestine, and for its lack of recognition of Israel’s ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“Not recognizing the state of Palestine is crazy, and ignoring all the trauma, murder, and destruction done by Israel on Palestine for more than 50 years is worse,” wrote Instagram user @alyarndrscr.

“It is extremely disappointing that my alma mater won’t come out and unequivocally condemn Hamas terrorists and the thousands of innocent Jews they have killed and kidnapped,” wrote Instagram user @cantorstef. “Shame on you, @uofr. I stand with all the Jewish students, faculty, staff, and alumni of @uofr @uofralumni @jewofr @hillelatuofr.”

The next day, UR Hillel announced a student-run vigil to be held on Oct. 11 to “remember and honor the victims of terror in Israel,” according to Hillel’s Instagram. They additionally shared a community night hosted by Rochester Students for Israel (RSI) slated for after the vigil.

On the day of the vigil, the University administration broadcast a “follow-up” to their message on Israel and Gaza. The message was included in the next day’s @Rochester, which was titled “Partial eclipse on Saturday; Indigenous population health equity (October 12, 2023).”

The follow-up statement apologized for the lack of consolation provided by the initial University response and then stressed the University’s stance against the “act of terrorism” committed against Israeli citizens by Hamas. The statement made a single reference to Palestine: “We are also devastated by the ensuing loss of lives among Israelis and Palestinians alike, and we continue to hope for a non-violent resolution to this terrible conflict.” 

The University’s statement was met with mixed reactions on social media. Some community members with initial concerns about the University’s failure to condemn Hamas commented with thanks and support, while others expressed disappointment for the administration’s failure to condemn the killings of Palestinians by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

“Thank you for this apology. As an alumna, and as a daughter, wife, mother, cousin, sister and aunt of many alumni, I was deeply ashamed by the original statement,” said Instagram user @rabbibeth.

“Why is there still no acknowledgement of the disproportionate response from Israel?” asked Instagram user @roaczcoarms. “Acknowledging the obvious fact that Hamas committed acts of terrorism is the bare minimum that the University should be doing right now on one front, but to have no condemnation for the retaliatory attacks on civilians and committing of war crimes by Israel is not acceptable.”

To address the traumatic conflict, the University Counseling Center began hosting virtual, drop-in, group counseling sessions. The first set of these sessions, which have always been separated for students mourning the deaths in Israel and the deaths in Gaza, took place on Oct. 20. The first “Grief for Israel” session was held from 3 to 4 p.m., and the first “Grief for Gaza” session being held from 4 to 5 p.m. 

Subsequent group sessions have been promoted on @Rochester every other week. The most recent “Grief for Israel” session was held on Nov. 14 and “Grief for Gaza” on Nov. 16, as of the publication of this article.

On-campus schisms emerge

On Oct. 18, UR Hillel promoted an online conversation titled “Israel/Gaza: Learning and Reflection” via their newsletter. The conversation was scheduled for Oct. 22 and featured a talk by Joy Getnick, UR Hillel’s executive director, about the history of Israel and Gaza and the current war. Those on the email list were asked not to invite people outside of the Hillel community, as they would be asked to log off and schedule a separate time to chat.

“We’ll also provide space for students to ask questions, and reflect on what all of this – the Hamas attack on Israel, the subsequent war, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the unknown future – means to us as individual American Jews,” the email announcement read.

An event in the Interfaith Chapel titled “Understanding and Healing: the Palestinian genocide” was hosted on Oct. 20 by UR’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the Student Association for the Development of Arab Cultural Awareness (SADACA), the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students (MAPS), and the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA). The event was promoted on Instagram as a place to “discuss the history of Palestine and honor the lives lost during the war in Gaza.” 

A week later, UR SJP released a statement on Instagram about the University administration’s response to the event.

“On Thursday, October 19th, the day before our event, the event organizers were made aware of the University Leadership’s attempt at shutting down the event, given that it would be held at the Interfaith Chapel around the same time as Shabbat services,” the statement read. “When the organizers requested another venue for the event, the University Leadership did not help. Additionally, we were told that the use of the word, ‘genocide,’ was inflammatory and insinuated the instigation of violence.”

The healing circle’s timing was shifted to “accommodate the concerns posed by the University,” according to the UR SJP statement. During the event, UR SJP members noticed a plainclothes Public Safety officer near the chapel’s lobby. UR SJP claims he was one of three at the event, and the Office of the Provost later said they authorized the officers’ monitoring of the event. According to UR SJP, the administration approved the presence of Public Safety officers without the knowledge or consent of the club — unsettling both attendees and organizers alike.

Dean of the College Jeffrey Runner apologized on Nov. 12 for his comments to the Minority Student Advisory Board about UR SJP’s use of the word “genocide” in a Read This newsletter titled “Thanksgiving shuttles | spring registration.” A speaker at several UR SJP-organized protests said Runner compared the use of the word “genocide” in reference to Israel’s killing of Palestinians in Gaza to waving a Confederate flag in a Black person’s face.

“I was wrong to suggest what a Black person might feel when confronted with a confederate flag or how a Jewish person might react to the word genocide,” his apology read. “As a linguist I know that the intention behind words is only a small part of the power and impact of language, and I was not careful in my choice of words, nor thoughtful in a moment that requires thoughtfulness and sensitivity.”

On Oct. 27, the same day they released their statement about the administrative response to the healing circle, UR SJP held an afternoon protest on Eastman Quad. The protest, promoted on Instagram under the name “SILENCE IS VIOLENCE,” pushed back against the lack of a University statement on the “humanitarian crisis and genocide happening in Palestine.”

On Nov. 6, UR Hillel sent an email to their mailing list promoting their weekly events, including a conversation scheduled for Nov. 8 called “Israel, Gaza, and All The Words.” The conversation was intended to focus on “different ways to think about and possibly respond” to online and on-campus rhetoric concerning the conflict, according to the email. Similar to the Oct. 18 talk, the event was only open to signups for Hillel-affiliated students.

The email also highlighted President Mangelsdorf’s attendance at the Hillel Shabbat dinner on Nov. 3, and it said Provost Figlio would attend a future Shabbat.

“The University is very committed to supporting Jewish student life on campus – as they are for all students of all backgrounds and identities,” the email read. “They hope you know and feel that, even if you can’t always see the work happening behind the scenes.”

On Nov. 6, that very same day, UR SJP posted another update on the University’s handling of the Oct. 20 event and pushed for a public apology from the administration. 

“They did not apologize or offer any sympathy for the way their words have perpetuated racist and Islamophobic stereotypes,” the statement said. “Additionally, during this conversation, administrators made numerous insensitive remarks that made students feel increasingly marginalized, uncomfortable, and were blatantly offensive.” 

The statement was accompanied by another on-campus demonstration advocating for support against administrative pushback. The several-dozen protestors — brandishing Palestinian flags, signs, a drum, and a speaker — proceeded up the steps leading to Gleason Library and then through the library itself to Douglass Commons before heading to Hirst Lounge.

At that point, the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health reported that Israel had killed over 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza — including over 4,000 children — and that figure didn’t include the several thousand people they suspected were trapped under the rubble. Israel had bombed civilian homes, hospitals, refugee camps, and schools, justifying the targets by claiming that Hamas was using protected civilian sites as “human shields.”

At each site, the protestors — which included community members — gave speeches blasting Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza as a genocide, calling for students to demand an end to the U.S. government’s support for the war, and decrying the administration’s response. They shouted chants — mostly “free, free Palestine,” but they also used the three chants (mentioned at the start of this article) alleged by many prominent Jewish institutions to be antisemitic, prompting a response from UR Hillel.

On Nov. 8, the Office of the Provost released a statement titled “Ensuring campus safety and respectful discourse” that explained the Public Safety presence at UR SJP’s Oct. 20 demonstration. They said the plainclothes officer’s presence was due to “the likely size of the gathering and the potential for non-student disruptors,” according to the statement.

We made a mistake by not communicating this in advance to the event’s organizers, who consequently and understandably felt marginalized and othered by the University. Our intent to keep our students safe, with a particular concern about outside agitators, made some students feel profiled,” the email read. “We acknowledge the offense and fear this may have caused, and we regret that we made some of you feel this way.”

In an email to the CT, Provost Figlio elaborated on the administration’s “mistakes” in handling the pro-Palestinian protests.

“We recognize that some of our actions have led Palestinian students to feel devalued over the past six weeks,” he wrote. “We have publicly admitted our mistakes and we have changed our language to make clear that we believe that the tragic loss of life of an innocent Palestinian as just as important as the tragic loss of life of an innocent Israeli.”

Discourse about protests grows

UR Hillel’s email statement in response to UR SJP’s Nov. 6 protest directed students feeling unsafe in public campus spaces to submit a Bias-Related Incident Report Form. Students were also encouraged to reach out to a newly-established national campus antisemitism hotline run by ADL, Hillel International, the Brandeis Center, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP International Law Firm. 

“We are actively working with the University to understand their plans for future protests, as well as big picture thinking about community member access to Wilson Commons, if that should be a location in which protests are allowed (which it currently is), how to prevent a group from blocking the entrance to a location like Douglass, and more,” the email read. “Universities are places for free speech, but when free speech becomes hate speech (or an incitement to violence, imminently or broadly), or makes other students feel unsafe or unwelcome in central community spaces, that’s a problem.”

The email also endorsed the Jewish Federation’s “March for Israel” at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 14. While UR Hillel did not directly participate in the march, the organization offered students compensation for their bus tickets to Washington.

The march featured demonstrators from across the country — including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries — with many wearing or carrying Israeli flags in support. Speakers and the crowd voiced support for Israel’s war in Gaza, chanted against a cease-fire, and called for the release of the hostages being held by militant groups in Gaza, particularly Hamas. A heavy security presence guarded the event.

UR SJP and off-campus organization Free The People Rochester (FTP ROC) urged their followers to participate in a national academic and work strike on Nov. 9, and they organized a protest for noon that day. The demonstration also began at the steps leading up to Gleason and continued through the tunnel system, stopping at the Rush Rhees Library entryway for additional speeches. Protest facilitators in high-visibility vests kept watch to make sure attendees kept spaces clear enough for passersby.

The protest then stopped in Hirst Lounge with more speeches and chants before the demonstrators headed to the final location — Wallis Hall. The last speakers delivered their criticisms of the University’s response to their protests outside the building’s doors, focusing particularly on the Office of the Provost’s Nov. 8 apology for the handling of the Public Safety officers’ presence at UR SJP’s event. Speakers noted the doors to Wallis, which houses the Provost’s office, were closed — something uncommon for a workday. 

The University published yet another update on the protest in the next day’s edition of @Rochester. The statement said the protest was allowed to proceed due to organizers’ adherence to University policy “with a few exceptions.” 

“The activities taking place on our campus have been orderly,” the statement read. “We have not seen the incidents of vandalism, property damage, or physical injuries that have taken place elsewhere in the country. We’re thankful for that, and we expect all members of the University community to commit to making sure that remains the case.”

The University further maintained in the statement its right to review its codes of conduct in order to maintain the safety of those on campus while balancing University community members’ rights to peacefully protest and freely express their convictions.

Local pro-Palestine organizing strengthens

On Nov. 11, a newly-founded local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which is not formally affiliated with the University, called for a cease-fire via Instagram and pushed back against concerns about UR SJP protests threatening the safety of Jewish individuals on campus.

“We recognize the presence of Jewish fear and grief within our campus community,” the post said. “We also recognize that this fear is deeply misplaced when it is turned towards people advocating for Palestinian liberation.”

At this point, pro-Palestinian protests resounded throughout Rochester’s collegiate sphere, with a demonstration at RIT on Nov. 13 and another at Nazareth University on Nov. 16. UR SJP-affiliated students from the River Campus spoke at both events. Members of both universities’ public safety departments were in attendance.

The backlash against the University’s administrative response continues, both on campus and online. On Nov. 16, a statement from an Instagram account called UR Alumni for Palestine criticized the University’s senior leadership group and the Board of Trustees for their actions towards the pro-Palestinian protests, for their statements, and for supporting Israel financially.

Nov. 17 demonstration preceded by tension

UR SJP’s most recent protest on Nov. 17 — which was mentioned at the start of this article and which was co-sponsored by Rochester’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter, FTP ROC, Roc Committee to End Apartheid (RCEA), ROC Voices for Palestine, and the Finger Lakes chapter of the Party for Socialism and LIberation — was preceded by a litany of statements.

The day prior to the protest, UR SJP and RCEA posted an informational graphic on their Instagram accounts reminding protesters to adhere to a list of conduct standards. The list dissuades protesters from using hate rhetoric “of any kind towards any group” and further advocates for kind and respectful behavior to all.

“We are here to honor Palestinians and amplify voices of the oppressed,” the post reads. “Don’t give anyone a reason to delegitimize the Palestinian liberation.”

On that same day, a “security alert” concerning the “Anti-Israel Rally at the University of Rochester” was issued by Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester President Dan Kinel and CEO Meredith Dragon to the Federation’s newsletter recipients. The email advised readers to take security measures such as avoiding confrontations with protesters and mentioned that the organization was “working closely with local authorities to protect our Jewish students, faculty, and staff.”

“While we respect the right to freedom of expression and assembly, it is crucial to recognize that the anti-Israel protest tomorrow, like the several that have already happened, promote an unsafe atmosphere on campus and its environs,” the email said. “These rallies call for intifada and genocide against Israel and the Jewish people. We are deeply concerned about the safety of our Jewish community on the University campus.”

Also before that Nov. 17 protest, University administration released a statement online and in that day’s @Rochester expounding on the University’s specific protocol for protests occuring within public campus spaces.

The statement, titled “University reiterates campus policies and expectations for campus events,” raised concerns about “behavior on campus that disrupts classes or other University activities,” which the statement called “unacceptable.” Such behaviors include chanting, shouting, and drumming — in particular, within campus buildings without advance reservation of the space. According to the notice, “such disruptive behavior violates University policy and will be reviewed for possible disciplinary action as appropriate.”

“We continue to affirm students’ ability to protest Israeli (or Palestinian) actions, US policies toward Israel and Palestine, and University actions,” Provost Figlio said in an email to the CT. “We just need to ensure that this does not disrupt University activities and operations, and that protestors abide by our request to not use specific protest language when we make an explicit reasonable request and direct them not to.”

The administration also said in its statement that they are “instituting new access protocols for campus buildings.” These procedures — which potentially include new swipe access requirements and restrictions on the time, place, and manner of future protests to avoid academic spaces — will be implemented on an as-needed basis to “reduce the potential for disruption.”

In an email to the CT, Provost Figlio said administrators met with students in UR SJP before the Nov. 17 rally to discuss their use of the “globalize the intifada” chant, which he said is the only chant that the University thinks is outside the bounds of free speech because of how it can be construed as advocating for violence locally.

“We met with protest organizers on multiple occasions prior to Friday’s demonstration to explain why this specific slogan causes such distress, as many interpret it to call for violence against Jewish people here,” he said. “That’s what differentiates this particular slogan from other widely-criticized slogans that we consider to be acceptable protest speech.”

The demonstration, like all the others before it, proceeded peacefully, though the demonstrators continued to use the allegedly antisemitic chants after explaining their intentions at the start of the event.

After verbal squabbles with University officials — including fire marshals, Director of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs John DiSarro, and Assistant Dean of Student Life Operations Laura Ballou — about access to the Wilson Commons interior, the protest started outside on the Wilson Commons porch. On that rainy day, healthcare workers, alumni, and current students gave speeches while protest marshals donning high-vis vests kept demonstrators from blocking the entrance to Wilson Commons.

The protest moved to the center of Eastman Quad, where one student read a spoken word poem lamenting Israel’s killing of innocent civilians in Gaza and another student, who was Jewish, spoke about their experience growing up in Jewish cultural institutions that pushed them to identify with Israel despite having no connections to the country. They also talked about how Jewish principles compelled them to speak out against Israel’s war in Gaza.

As the demonstrators spoke around the meridian, a faculty member sang the Israeli national anthem from the balcony of a nearby building.

This protest too ended on the steps of Wallis Hall. The crowd of about 100 people waved their Palestinian flags, wore their keffiyeh, and continued yelling their chants. Speakers made it clear that it won’t be the last pro-Palestinian protest at the University this year.

Correction: This article was edited on Nov. 21 to remove information provided to the Campus Times off the record.

This article was published as part of the CT’s Nov. 21, 2023 Special Edition on Israel-Palestine.

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