Tensions over the ongoing Israel-Hamas war surge on college campuses

On Tuesday, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT will testify before Congress about antisemitism on college campuses that exploded after Hamas’ bloody attack on Israeli civilians October 7th… and Israel’s bombardment of Gaza that’s led to more than 15,000 deaths, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. It’ll be the first time these leaders will be questioned about what’s happening on their campuses, where raw emotions have revealed Islamophobia and antisemitism alike. Columbia University in New York City – has experienced this “chaos on campus” like no other.

We went to see a rally in support of Palestinians on the campus of Columbia University – this was five weeks after the Hamas terror attack on Israel. Campus gates were locked. Entrances were guarded by the NYPD.

We witnessed a sea of phones held high in solidarity with the people of Gaza and the West Bank … passions were high as well.

The following afternoon…

Another pro-Palestinian rally – this one outside the gates.

We saw posters of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas being defaced.

While later on campus we observed this vigil in support of Israel.

Normally, students at Columbia are encouraged to be open to ideas and debate. But these are not normal times. When we visited, police were guarding Hillel, a center for Jewish life on campus.

Bill Whitaker: How do you feel on campus? You feel safe?

Eden Yadegar: Short answer is no.

We met third year student Eden Yadegar at Hillel. She’s the head of Students Supporting Israel at Columbia. She told us students on all sides of the issue feel unease on campus.

Eden Yadegar: It’s tense. It’s hostile. There have been days where I’ve had to walk through not one but two protests on campus in order to get to my classes.

Bill Whitaker with Eden Yadegar and David
Bill Whitaker with Eden Yadegar and David

60 Minutes

Another student, David, asked that we not use his last name for safety concerns.

David: I was leaving the library late at night and I had a star of David visibly out, just like this, and somebody came up to me and yelled, “Free Palestine! Free Palestine!” 

Bill Whitaker: Yelled it at, at you?

David: Yes, at me. And I don’t know if I can say this on TV, but he goes, “F*** the Jews. F*** the Jews,” a few times.

Maryam Alwan is one of the leaders of Students for Justice in Palestine, or SJP. She told us she has faced repercussions for speaking out publicly.

Bill Whitaker: You’ve said you’ve been avoiding campus?

Maryam Alwan: Yeah, I don’t know if I’m going to graduate anymore, like. I haven’t really been going to a lot of my classes.

Other pro-Palestinian student protesters have had their names and faces paraded outside campus on a digital billboard. Alwan’s group, the SJP, was suspended from campus for holding unauthorized rallies.

Maryam Alwan: It’s been very scary.

Bill Whitaker: What makes it scary? 

Maryam Alwan: There have been a lot of death threats. There have been professors at the school who have been calling us terrorists.

She says the university has made things worse.

Maryam Alwan: So they close all the gates. They bring hordes of NYPD. And then they make all of the students of color feel unsafe.

Bill Whitaker and Maryam Alwan
Bill Whitaker and Maryam Alwan

60 Minutes

Minouche Shafik: Navigating these past couple of months on campus has been a challenge, to say the least.

Columbia’s new president, Minouche Shafik, has largely been absent from the turmoil. This past Thursday she opened a panel discussion on the crisis and protesters tried to shut it down.

In her few cautious statements to the campus she’s managed to offend both sides – by not condemning Hamas by name or the killing of thousands of Palestinians.

Shai Davidai: University just thinks this will just quiet down. But we’ve been there before. Hatred doesn’t disappear.

Shai Davidai is an assistant professor of management at the Columbia Business School who grew up in Israel. He says he was shocked to his core by the Hamas atrocities on October 7th…and then by what he saw as the university’s failure to condemn the perpetrators by name.

Bill Whitaker: Why do you think that is?

Shai Davidai: I think it’s a mixture of cowardice, and part of it is callousness.

Davidai’s frustration erupted two weeks after the attack in a video that went viral … 

Shai Davidai (in viral video): President Minouche Shafik of Columbia University, you are a coward!

Bill Whitaker: What can the university do at this time? 

Shai Davidai: If you support Hamas, you should not be allowed to be an organization on campus.

Bill Whitaker: Universities, colleges are supposed to be bastions of free speech. Is this not a free speech issue?

Shai Davidai: So, is a student organization celebrating a lynching of an African American male free speech? I’m not asking for restrictions of free speech. I’m asking for equal treatment. That’s it. 

Shai Davidai
Shai Davidai

60 Minutes

Bill Whitaker: You have spoken out. Have you been reprimanded in any way by the university?

Shai Davidai: I have not done anything wrong. I’m only saying what thousands of Jewish and Israeli faculty, staff and students are feeling.

Mohsen Mahdawi: Shame on Israel!

We met another leader who has emerged on campus. Mohsen Mahdawi is co-president of Columbia’s Palestinian Students Union. When the SJP and another group, Jewish Voice for Peace, were suspended last month – Mahdawi stepped up to lead a diverse, growing coalition of more than 80 campus groups.

Mohsen Mahdawi: We come here, and we stand tall, to raise our voices.

He called the university’s response one sided.

Mohsen Mahdawi: When the president sent the email, she did not acknowledge the Palestinian side, at all.

Bill Whitaker: You know that Jewish students and faculty on campus say pretty much the exact same thing.

Mohsen Mahdawi: There is a difference. A huge difference. The pro-Israel side, wants the administration to silence us. Not giving us space to mourn. Or protest the killing of civilians and the destruction of Gaza. It’s a genocide for us.

Mahdawi grew up in a refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, like his father, and grandfather, before him. He told us his childhood was defined by an early encounter with Israeli troops during the second Intifada in 2002.

Mohsen Mahdawi: And I had my best friend with me, Hemida. And suddenly I see an Israeli soldier pointing the rifle at us and he shot my friend in his chest.

Bill Whitaker: You were how old?

Mohsen Mahdawi: I was ten years old. And I still remember when we put him in the grave, I held him and I shook him. I said, “Hemida, wake up, wake up.” He didn’t wake up, and I told him, “I promise, I promise, I will revenge.”

Twenty one years later, he says his revenge is showing the world the human face of Palestinians. At Columbia, he’s reached out to rabbis and Hillel. But the Hamas terror attack aroused old feelings.

Mohsen Mahdawi: When somebody is hurting you, when you see this person is being punched in the face. And this feeling it is you now feel my pain.

Mohsen Mahdawi
Mohsen Mahdawi

60 Minutes

Bill Whitaker: But this Hamas attack wasn’t a punch in the face. This was a horrible terror attack.

Mohsen Mahdawi: I did not say that I justify what Hamas has done. I said I can empathize. To empathize is to understand the root cause, and to not look at any event or situation in a vacuum. This is, for me, the path moving forward.

The search for a way forward took us more than 200 miles north to another Ivy: Dartmouth.

Bill Whitaker: What has been the reaction here on the Dartmouth campus?

Ezzedine Fishere: Thankfully, the reaction here has been I think a lot better than what I hear has been happening on other campuses. 

Ezzedine Fishere is a senior lecturer in the Middle Eastern Studies program and a former Egyptian diplomat.

Ezzedine Fishere: We have protests and vigils and so on. And, overall, they have been very decent and civil.

Visiting professor Bernard Avishai is an American-Israeli journalist who lives in Jerusalem half the year.

Bernard Avishai: I mean, how many campuses when a tragedy like this strikes, the first thing that the head of Middle Eastern Studies, and the first thing the Jewish Studies do is immediately communicate with one another and say, “We have to do something about this together”?

The department heads drew on a seven-year relationship and organized campus forums about the crisis. They served as a kind of pressure valve for the students to vent, lament, and ask tough questions.

Ezzedine Fishere and Bernard Avishai
Ezzedine Fishere and Bernard Avishai

60 Minutes

Questioner during event: Why don’t you say you’re hesitant to condemn Hamas because you don’t want to imply one side is worse than the other?

Susannah Heschel: We certainly condemn Hamas.

Hundreds of students attended in person, more than 2,000 watched online.

Bill Whitaker: So, is this type of collaboration on a topic unusual or usual? 

Bernard Avishai: It was there in the DNA already because you can’t do this at the last minute. You have to start doing it years before the crisis strikes.

Avishai and Fishere have been co-teaching a course called, “Politics of Israel and Palestine” for two years.

We spoke with Yasmine Abouali, Sami Lofman, Jackson Yassin, and Faisal Azizi. They told us they took the class to challenge their beliefs.

Yasmine Abouali: You know, Palestine, Israel has so much media and propaganda and misinformation surrounding it.

Samantha Lofman: I think it’s really valuable to think through why you believe what you believe and, and find the weak points and see where things maybe should change. It allows you to have much more meaningful conversations with others.

Bill Whitaker: Is that sort of central to your message?

Ezzedine Fishere: It is. Yes. You know, If you wanna hate Israel, there are millions of people who hate Israel. You can just join that line. If you wanna blame the Palestinians you know there are millions of people who do that. If you wanna be morally indignant go right ahead. But it doesn’t concern us. What you need to know from me is a method of learning and thinking, identifying biases. That’s what I can help you with.

It’s easy to see the differences between Dartmouth and Columbia. Dartmouth is one-fifth the size, bucolic and less diverse. But they could easily have looked very similar after October 7th. The campus grew tense when the administration had two protestors critical of Israel arrested for trespassing.

Jackson Yassin: I think the potential for temperatures to rise as high as they did at other schools is just as valid at Dartmouth as it is at Harvard or Columbia.

But Dartmouth President Sian Beilock urged the faculty to make this a teachable moment.

Ezzedine Fishere: We have this incredible privilege of having that space of learning and growth. And that is much more valuable than one more violent protest or any of that stuff that we have seen in other places.

Back on Columbia’s New York City campus … we couldn’t help notice the two sides that seem so far apart are united by one thing.

Shai Davidai: It’s clear that we are both in extreme pain. The truth of the matter is there are two people that are not going anywhere, Palestinians and the Israeli Jews.

Bill Whitaker: What I hear are two sides talking past each other.

Mohsen Mahdawi: Yes.

Bill Whitaker: How do you get past that?

Mohsen Mahdawi: I’m inviting them to come and look at my wounds. The pain that I lived and my people are living is real. And I want them to feel it. This is what we all are trying to do. Can you feel me? Can you see me? Can you hear me? And it’s painful.

Produced by Marc Lieberman and Graham Messick. Associate producers, Cassidy McDonald and Jack Weingart. Broadcast associate, Mariah B. Campbell. Edited by Craig Crawford

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