In Santa Cruz County, college and university leaders are struggling to find the right words to discuss Israel and Palestine on their campuses.

Some students have direct ties to loved ones who have been killed in the region over the past month and have been traumatized by the ongoing violence. Others, afraid of wading into the discussion, are choosing to remain uninformed about it entirely. At the same time, there has been a rise in reports of speech that crosses the line into Islamophobia and antisemitism, or potentially violates university policies that prohibit using the classroom for political advocacy.

The Israel-Hamas conflict, which has reportedly killed at least 1,200 Israelis and more than 11,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7, has triggered a reckoning for campuses across the country that were already grappling with rising debates over free speech, academic freedom and how to provide a safe and inclusive environment for students, faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds.

UC Santa Cruz Campus Provost Lori Kletzer told Lookout that the past month has been the most challenging in her career. “I have been around long enough that I am willing to experience some pretty difficult times,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “But this is the hardest one I’ve dealt with as a working professional.”

At UCSC over the past month, student groups have hosted vigils, rallies, protests and educational events. When entering the campus at the intersection of Bay and High streets, drivers immediately see “Free Palestine” painted onto the pavement from a rally last week. Walking on campus, students and visitors pass by flyers on bulletin boards mourning the lives lost in the Palestinian territories and Israel.

At Quarry Plaza, a busy converging point on campus that houses the bookstore and Cafe Iveta, a waist-high wall stretching about 100 feet was covered in messages in chalk and flyers Monday. Flyers of Palestinian children killed by Israeli missile strikes are plastered on top of flyers of kidnapped Israelis. Messages in chalk read, “Infants should never be war targets” and, “Israeli lives matter.”

‘It’s a new world, in a lot of ways. It’s scary.’

On Wednesday, about 45 UC Santa Cruz students, staff and community members held an “Israel/Palestine Learn-In” presented by the Center for Jewish Studies. A peaceful event, it touched on the rising dangers of speaking out on such a hot-button issue on campuses. “I can’t remember in my time here anything like this happening before,” said the center’s director, Nathaniel Deutsch. “It’s a new world, in a lot of ways. It’s scary.”

Nathaniel Deutsch, professor of history and director of UC Santa Cruz's Center for Jewish Studies
Nathaniel Deutsch, professor of history and director of UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Jewish Studies, speaks during Wednesday’s learn-in gathering. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Responding to the intensifying climate on campuses, over the past week University of California administrators have issued statements condemning “the alarming, profoundly disappointing acts of bigotry, intolerance, and intimidation” and reminding instructors that while they have academic freedom protections, “university policy imposes limits on using the classroom and courses of instruction for political advocacy.”

Jody Greene, UCSC associate campus provost for academic success, said educators are most focused on trying not to do harm at a time when “our community is unprecedentedly traumatized in at least two directions,” speaking about those supporting Israel’s position and those advocating for Gaza’s Palestinians.

“We are used to taking care of one community at a time. And this is a situation in which it is easy to feel that by taking care of one community, you will necessarily do harm to another,” they said. “We are trying to do something that we haven’t had a lot of experience with, which is to figure out how to take care of two communities when just expressing care for one of them may be triggering to the other.”

At Cabrillo, an event postponed

At Cabrillo College, President Matt Wetstein has sent several emails to the campus community acknowledging the violence and providing resources, while noting that the moment is challenging.

“It is like we feel hamstrung in our ability to talk about war because it might lead to conflict and not love. And so we remain silent and turn inward, allowing the news to feed our uneasy silence,” he wrote in an email to the college community Nov. 3. “And yet silence feels like a failed response.”

Days prior, he started discussions with Cabrillo faculty to plan an event or peace vigil for the campus to mourn lives lost in Israel and Palestine. Several faculty members, however, said they felt the planning was moving too quickly.

“I think our institution needs to slow this down a little bit,” Cabrillo history instructor Michael Pebworth told a Nov. 6 governing board meeting.

He added that he was disappointed that Wetstein hadn’t acknowledged the attacks on campuses across the country against Muslims, Jews and Arabs, and pointed out that Cabrillo has very few Jewish or Muslim instructors. Pebworth said he felt invisible as one of the few Jewish instructors on campus.

“I think there needs to be a lot more discussion at our site with much bigger numbers of Cabrillo College faculty about who this event is for, what are the outcomes that this event is seeking to produce,” he told the meeting.

Wetstein apologized for having said anything that might have offended him. He later told Lookout that the campus is still discussing whether it will hold an event and what it might look like, but acknowledged that the topic is fraught.

“It feels very hard to talk about it,” Wetstein said in an interview. “But silence also is something that is very uncomfortable for me as a higher ed leader.”

The debate over planning the Cabrillo event is just one incident among many that highlight the contentiousness on school campuses around Israel and Palestine at a time when students and faculty with connections to both sides of the conflict feel attacked and traumatized.

On campus, the fear of speaking publicly

Lookout attempted to talk to numerous faculty and students at both UCSC and Cabrillo, but most said they either didn’t want to be interviewed or requested anonymity for fear of retaliation for their views. Lookout granted the requests for anonymity so that students could speak freely and because their requests illustrate just how charged the climate on the local campuses has become.

One UC Santa Cruz graduate student worker said that there’s a sense of anxiety around presenting ideas in the classroom that students might disagree with. He said at least one complaint has been filed against a graduate student for sharing “pro-Palestinian” views during a class.

A leading organizer of the UCSC Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group, who requested anonymity, said he and other pro-Palestinian students fear sharing their identities publicly because of concerns that their information will be listed on a website called Canary Mission. The website publishes photos and identifying information about students the website’s users say are antisemitic or hateful of the U.S., Israel and Jews.

A Jewish Cabrillo College student said she was too fearful to share her thoughts for fear of being attacked. She said it feels impossible to have conversations about Israel and Palestine because of the intensity of emotions.

“I’m so worried about how people will react because I’d rather take an objective viewpoint than be emotional about it, which is difficult because I am Jewish,” she said. “So it’s hard to take a side because I don’t think either side is really in the right in this situation.”

She added that she doesn’t feel that college campuses are the right place for educational discussions about Israel and Palestine because of what she feels is a dominant culture of blindly supporting Palestinians among college students and faculty.

“There is a very strong bias on campus, I believe,” she said. “So I’m just not comfortable having discussions because I don’t think it can be objective and I don’t think it really can be factual.”

‘Students are trying to figure out how to navigate very different visions of the world’

Santa Cruz Hillel Executive Director Becka Ross said the center is seeing a rise in reports of antisemitism from students. In addition to “hateful online rhetoric,” she said students have been called “murderer” just because they are Jewish, and individuals have erased messages of Jewish pride on whiteboards.

She said students feel they’ve lost safe places and instead feel isolated and unwelcome.

“Students come to college to learn and grow, and explore who they want to be in the world. I’ve heard from students that they feel they are being deprived of these opportunities, because they are instead spending their time defending their Jewish and/or Israeli identities,” she said. “Jewish students are not a monolith, and they engage with Israel and the Israel-Hamas conflict in very different ways.”

Kletzer, the UCSC provost, said the Israel-Hamas war has compounded what has already been a rise in antisemitism. “And I think that makes this all the more difficult.”

The SJP organizer told Lookout that he isn’t aware of a rise in anti-Arab sentiment or Islamophobia at UCSC. However, he does see a widening gap between groups on campus. “It is very emotionally charged, and I think that might make people hesitant because you want to have a cordial and civil discussion,” he said. “Both sides don’t really know each other that well — they don’t know what the other stands for.”

He added that he feels there are some people who misinterpret what his group stands for.

“There’s a subset of people who believe that SJP’s chants and our mission and our values are all calling for the destruction of Israel, or that we want to kick all the Jewish people out of the Middle East,” he said. “I categorically denounce that. That’s not at all what SJP stands for. Our primary goal is for the liberation of Palestinian people — be it in a single binational state, or whatever, right? That’s not for us to determine.”

An Oct. 11 United for Peace event at McHenry Library at UCSC.
An Oct. 11 United for Peace event at McHenry Library at UCSC. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Camilo Gómez-Rivas, a tenured associate professor of Mediterranean studies in UCSC’s department of literature, said that while he hasn’t had conversations directly about Israel and Palestine in class, he canceled his course last Thursday to allow students to attend the large sit-in protest organized by SJP.

He said he felt it was important to do so because of the magnitude of the violence and what he said was his feeling that members of the campus community have “an obligation to express being against, or [to] call for, peace.”

Last Thursday’s protest, and the decision by some instructors to cancel classes to allow students to attend, prompted Kletzer to send an email to UCSC instructors this week.

The message reminded them of the free speech and academic freedom protections they have, but also the restrictions on using their classrooms for political advocacy. Her email warned instructors of a UC-wide ban on canceling a class in order to encourage students to participate in a protest or rally and reiterated the “importance of ensuring that students are not made to feel intimidated, threatened, and/or excluded in their classes.”

Kletzer told Lookout she didn’t have any numbers or specifics about complaints filed against instructors who have either made students feel unsafe or were using class for political activism, but that she has been hearing more concerns from parents than she was before the Oct. 7 start of the conflict.

“We reach out to everybody and have a conversation. There’s not an uninformed rush to discipline because that would actually be inconsistent with our values to do that,” she said. “There’s also some education that’s going on here.”

While she says she’s less concerned about instances of instructors pressuring students into taking a position or silencing their position on the conflict, Kletzer said she is worried about the more lasting effects on undergraduate students from being immersed in such a charged atmosphere as they form their opinions on complex global issues early in their university career.

“Particularly for our younger students, it’s an incredibly difficult time,” she said. “Students are trying to figure out how to navigate very different visions of the world.”

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