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The war in Gaza is spilling over into Israeli universities


Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel have shared an increasingly tense space since the Gaza war began. That's especially true at Israel's universities, which teach both Arab and Jewish students. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports from Israel's northern port city of Haifa.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The University of Haifa sits high on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, offering spectacular views for its 17,000 students.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).


NORTHAM: This is Israel's most diverse university. About 40% of the students here are Palestinian citizens of Israel. It's a place where you can hear both Hebrew and Arabic and where learning overrode many of Israel's deep divisions - that is, until October 7, when Hamas militants attacked Israel. The university felt the impact immediately when some Arab students were accused of posting pro-Hamas comments on social media. Daniel Amar, a Jewish student, is the head of Haifa University Student Union.

DANIEL AMAR: For example, one student upload a story, which - in the story, you can see IDF vehicle burn, military vehicle from the October 7. And she wrote, the happiest day of my life. We can't accept it.

NORTHAM: The university suspended at least eight Arab students for their social media posts and launched a disciplinary review. Amar says it was the correct move.

AMAR: It's a clear statement - OK? - from the university that we will not support terror and terror-supporting in our campus.

NORTHAM: But others disagreed with the disciplinary actions. Twenty-five professors from the university, many of them Jews, wrote a letter to the rector urging the school to investigate what happened rather than automatically throwing the Arab students out. Asad Ghanem, a professor of comparative politics, was one of the Arab members of the faculty who signed the letter to the rector. He also wrote privately about his concerns to the chairman of the university's board of directors.

ASAD GHANEM: And he was very negative in his reaction towards me because I think that he thinks that university should be part of the war situation, of the emergency situation, which is - I think that it's a mistake. The university should be part of thinking about ways of reconciliation and helping our students.

NORTHAM: The backlash against Arab students stretches far beyond Haifa University.

ADI MANSOUR: The estimation of the Arab Palestinian Student Union is around 150, 160 cases.

NORTHAM: Adi Mansour is a political and civil rights attorney with Adalah, an organization which advocates for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. He says it's not unusual to see a crackdown against Arabs whenever there's a war with Hamas or Hezbollah. But Mansour says this is the worst he's seen it.

MANSOUR: In previous wars, we've never seen universities and colleges operate in such a way against their own students. This is by far the first time that we see this large amount of disciplinary procedures against students for expressing themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

NORTHAM: On a clear afternoon earlier this month, Arab and Jewish students sat side by side, enjoying an outdoor lunch. It looked peaceful. But fear and anti-Arab sentiment is being whipped up on social media by students belonging to far-right organizations on campus, according to Yuval Shlisel with Standing Together, a social movement working for peace between Jews and Arabs.

YUVAL SHLISEL: The far-right organizations - they started to convince the other students now we don't just fight against the terror organization Hamas. We also need to fight against the terror supporters, so-called, here in Israel. And for them, every Arabs and every Jews that don't think like them is potentially terrorist support.

NORTHAM: Some Arab students say they feel unwelcome at the university because of the war.

IBRAHIM: To be honest, I feel very uncomfortable being in the university.

NORTHAM: Twenty-one-year-old Ibrahim is an Arab first-year law student at Haifa University. He has Palestinian friends in Gaza and feels passionately about the soaring civilian casualties there. But he's afraid to express himself or use his last name because he may be seen as an enemy.

IBRAHIM: If I say that I'm against the genocide, I'm against the war in Gaza, if I say I'm against killing civilians in Gaza, I feel like that would classify me, in their eyes, as a terrorist.

NORTHAM: The concern and fear are also felt by teachers. Some Jewish students won't attend classes taught by professors they deem as not forcefully condemning the October 7 attack. Some teachers have been threatened by students, including Ghanem. He says one threatened to punch him, another to deface his office. Ghanem had a security camera installed and worries about repercussions if he talks about the war or Arab-Jewish relations.

GHANEM: I think that now I am more sensitive. And I'm limiting myself in certain expressions, and this will harm my ability to teach my students. I want to feel more free, more confident that I can say anything within certain limitations.

NORTHAM: Earlier this month, the university reversed its decision and reinstated the Arab students while the investigation is carried out. Student union president Amar is angry with that decision. He's a reservist and takes time away from his studies to fight Hezbollah militants along Israel's northern border.

AMAR: I can tell you that in the last couple of weeks, I almost died for, like, three or four times - like, actually close to death, OK? And I can't even imagine a situation which I sit in my class and next to me sit a person that want me to die. I can't do it. He don't deserve to learn here.

NORTHAM: As an Army reservist, Amar carries a pistol tucked into his waistband. Other reservists on campus are required to carry their army-issued assault rifles. This worries Ibrahim, the Arab student.

IBRAHIM: Like, in what university do students come with weapons, right? When I go to a hall, I think twice before saying anything because the one sitting next to me holds a gun. So how can I feel comfortable, right?

NORTHAM: The University of Haifa is expected to make a decision in the near future about the fate of its eight Arab students. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Haifa.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "BESIDE APRIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.