As debate rages on campus, Harvard's Palestinian and Jewish students paralyzed by fear

The controversy on campus reflects the divide on the conflict.

Long a place of political and philosophical debate, college campuses, like Harvard University, are now at the center of a controversial debate over the war in Israel and bombing of Gaza.

Harvard students told ABC News their campus is divided and people are scared in the aftermath of the breakout of the Israel-Hamas war. Student groups, led by the Palestine Solidarity Committee, issued a statement on the conflict saying the Israeli regime is "entirely responsible for all unfolding violence."

"Today's events did not occur in a vacuum. For the last two decades, millions of Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to live in an open-air prison. Israeli officials promise to 'open the gates of hell,' and the massacres in Gaza have already commenced. Palestinians in Gaza have no shelters for refuge and nowhere to escape. In the coming days, Palestinians will be forced to bear the full brunt of Israel's violence," the Harvard student groups said in their statement last week.

After the statement was released, Jewish student groups pushed back and accused them of supporting the Hamas attack. Students in the pro-Palestinian groups have denied those claims and said the statement was misinterpreted.

"This is the most tense campus has ever been by far," Hejir Rashidzadeh, a Harvard law student, told ABC News.

The debate on campus has made Harvard a microcosm of sorts, reflecting the national debate on the conflict.

Students alleged to be in those student groups are now facing intense backlash on campus and online. Students in pro-Palestinian groups and in the Jewish community at Harvard told ABC News they are feeling scared and isolated.

PHOTO: Smoke plumes billow during Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on Oct. 12, 2023.
Smoke plumes billow during Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on Oct. 12, 2023.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images

Jacob Miller, the president of Harvard Hillel, the center of Jewish life on campus, said he was "appalled" at the letter. "The last thing to do -- the absolute last thing to do -- is to blame the victim and that's exactly what that letter did," he said.

Miller said he is worried about the tensions on campus, wondering how Jewish students can feel comfortable sitting in classes with students "who are rationalizing and justifying the rapes and murders that are targeting our people."

Pro-Palestinian students and groups at Harvard, however, rejected that they are blaming the victim. They said they are also afraid to speak their mind on campus.

"It's a really, really scary time to be Palestinian and to be someone who feels morally compelled to speak about the Palestinian perspective in an environment that is so hostile to it and also in an environment that where it feels like that perspective is not present at all," a student, who did not want to be named, told ABC News.

After the Palestinian Solidarity Committee canceled a vigil scheduled for earlier this week to mourn all lives lost in the conflict planned on campus due to "credible safety concerns," the student groups released a statement saying they have been "flooded with racist hate speech and death threats" and alleged that "hundreds of students have been persecuted" on campus and online.

"Our statement's purpose was clear: to address the root cause of all the violence unfolding. To state what should be clear: PSC staunchly opposes all violence against all innocent life and laments all human suffering," the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee said in a subsequent statement released. "We reject that Palestinian solidarity groups are always expected to preempt their statements with condemnation of violence while overlooking the structures that produce said violence."

The vigil was held Thursday evening, with the student groups telling participants to wear masks, and masks handed out on site, to conceal their identities.

Gaza, labeled the world's largest open-air prison by human rights groups and home to around 2 million Palestinians, has been under siege in response to Hamas' attack. Hamas, the terrorist group that carried out the attacks on Oct. 7, has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, but many Palestinians do not support the group -- even before the latest attack.

The deadly conflict between Israel and Hamas is deeply personal to many students who spoke with ABC News. Students said they've had family members who died in the war, but that they are afraid to speak out in campus.

A Palestinian student at Harvard told ABC News through tears Wednesday that 10 of her family members have already been killed in Gaza.

"On the first day, when everything started, I just got a message from my grandmother just letting me know that 10 members of our family had been killed," the student said. "This isn't the first time this has happened."

"Imagine feeling like the place that you're from is going to get wiped off the map. I feel certain that in a week I'm going to wake up and it's going to be that Gaza has been flattened and that there is nothing left. I can't breathe. I can't see."

In a later conversation, the student told ABC News that a total of 30 of their relatives had been killed in Gaza over the last few days, 10 of whom were killed when their building was flattened.

The student is one of three Palestinian students who spoke to ABC News, but asked that their names not be used, saying they are now hiding in fear and facing intense backlash, including death threats, doxing and harassment. They said they have not left their student housing since the conflict began.

"We have lived under siege and under war," she added of those in Gaza. "We have seen wars time and time again."

Students in the Jewish community at Harvard told ABC News they're hurt and frustrated that some of their fellow classmates did not overtly condemn the Hamas attack. Many declined to speak on camera because they said they feared retaliation and harassment as well as antisemitism.

"Jews are aching," Miller told ABC News. "Everyone is one step removed from someone who's lost their life or has been taken and people in our community are grieving."

Charlie, a Harvard freshman who didn't want his last name revealed for security reasons, said he has family who are sheltering in their homes in Israel.

"It's hard to focus on your work and daily life when you know you have family that you kind of don't really know if they're safe," he said.

Harvard's response

Harvard has increased security for all students. A police car and an officer have been stationed outside the Hillel entrance. Campus police were at the vigil on Thursday and a student told ABC News that police would be posted at the campus' Friday prayers.

At first, many prominent professors, CEOs and lawmakers condemned Harvard for not denouncing Hamas' atrocities and criticized students more quickly. Palestinian students and members of student groups that support Palestinians told ABC News they are being named and shamed in public lists online and flyers plastered on campus.

While on campus, ABC News saw a truck driving through campus streets -- and at times parked on campus -- with LED screens that displayed photos and names of students under a banner that read: "Harvard's Leading Antisemites." The truck purportedly showed the names of students in groups that allegedly signed on to the pro-Palestinian letter.

PHOTO: A truck driving around Harvard's campus identifies people who signed onto a controversial letter supporting Palestinians in the wake of an attack by Hamas.
A truck driving around Harvard's campus identifies people who signed onto a controversial letter supporting Palestinians in the wake of an attack by Hamas.
ABC News

Harvard President Claudine Gay released a statement on Tuesday, condemning "the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas" as "abhorrent."

"Let me also state, on this matter as on others, that while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group -- not even 30 student groups -- speaks for Harvard University or its leadership," Gay wrote. "We will all be well served in such a difficult moment by rhetoric that aims to illuminate and not inflame. And I appeal to all of us in this community of learning to keep this in mind as our conversations continue."

Harvard leadership said they take the safety and well-being of students seriously and do not "condone or ignore intimidation," Harvard Executive Vice President Meredith Weenick said in a statement online.

Gay issued a statement late Thursday saying the university "embraces a commitment to free expression."

"Our University rejects terrorism – that includes the barbaric atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. Our University rejects hate—hate of Jews, hate of Muslims, hate of any group of people based on their faith, their national origin, or any aspect of their identity. Our University rejects the harassment or intimidation of individuals based on their beliefs," Gay said.

Students receive backlash

Some of the Palestinian students interviewed said at least one of their friends had an employer rescind a job offer because of involvement in the letter.

A third Palestinian student, who is a citizen of Israel, said, "We feel that we can just get canceled because we said something against Israel."

"It doesn't make sense that we cannot speak about anything -- to be afraid to say our opinion," he said.

PHOTO: The Harvard University campus is shown on Mar. 23, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Harvard University campus is shown on Mar. 23, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images, File

The statement by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups was also signed by Harvard's Muslim Law Students Association. Rashidzadeh, a board member, stepped down from the group this week.

"I think it's not the right tone in this environment, so I decided to resign," the second-year law student told ABC News.

"It's a very sad moment in the world. Everybody is very upset," Rashidzadeh said. "The loss of life is, you know, beyond comprehension. So we're just trying to all handle this. Deal with it. Learn from it. Hope for a better future for all of the world, especially the Middle East."

ABC News' Tesfaye Negussie and Sabina Ghebremedhin contributed to this report.

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