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For many pro-Palestinian college protesters, graphic visuals of war in Gaza on social media had a profound effect


The Palestinian cause is clearly resonating deeply with thousands of college students in New York and across the U.S. with anger over the violence in Gaza exploding into public view during the high-profile campus protests of the last few weeks.

To many, the intensity came as a surprise. But for students at Columbia University and other colleges, the emotional response for many has been building, driven by factors that include the prevalence of up-close and personal narratives and unfiltered visuals of the war that have exploded on social media.

For many pro-Palestinian college protesters, graphic visuals of war in Gaza on social media had a profound effect

Shawn Inglima for New York Daily News

Students and activists protesting Columbia University’s decision to suspend the student groups “Students for Justice in Palestine” and “Jewish Voice for Peace” for holding pro-Palestine events on campus outside of Columbia University in Manhattan, New York on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.

If Vietnam was the world’s first televised war, the conflict between Israel and Hamas has become a 24/7 phenomenon on many young people’s phones.

“It’s how clear the violence is and how readily available that information is,” Emma, a freshman at Columbia, said. “I think students are so deeply plugged into the internet.”

“On campus, it has really come to define the semester and the year. The students here are critical thinkers. If you are living here on campus, it’s impossible not to see what’s happening — and how wrong it is.”

The pro-Gaza encampment at Columbia was dismantled for the second time on April 30, when the NYPD took back Hamilton Hall. But the protests have continued across New York.

For many pro-Palestinian college protesters, graphic visuals of war in Gaza on social media had a profound effect

KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images

NYPD officers in riot gear break into a building at Columbia University, where pro-Palestinian students are barricaded inside a building and have set up an encampment, in New York City on April 30, 2024.

As Mayor Adams, and police and university officials, placed blame on outside agitators for the conduct of protests, experts pointed to a more pervasive  factor that contributed to underlying discontent on campus: Students were deeply affected by graphic images of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza after Hamas’ terror attack on Oct. 7.

“In the course of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, the endless images of dead civilians have shaped young Americans’ understanding of the war,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a African-American studies professor at Princeton University, wrote in the New Yorker. “Palestinians have captured scenes of unimaginable brutality and narrated their experiences.”

“Every smartphone has become a portal into Gaza.”

Some students pushed back against the narrative that outside agitators radicalized students, saying the issue has captured the attention of their classmates. College leaders calling in the cops, they said, only intensified the situation, while officials say the conduct of the students forced them to act.

“I think the mayor is a little too removed from where we’re at to give accurate comments,” said a Columbia undergraduate senior. “There could be, but from what I’ve seen, no. This has really resonated with students.”

Palestinians look at the destruction by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Rafah, Monday, Dec. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

AP Photo/Hatem Ali

Palestinians look at the destruction by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Rafah, Monday, Dec. 4, 2023.

CUNY student Bashir Juwara said he was already struggling with the death he witnessed in posts from Gaza, when he was arrested outside the City College encampment on April 30 for walking in the roadway and disorderly conduct. As student body president at CUNY’s Hunter College, Juwara said he had spent months engaged with college officials on campus issues related to the war.

“I’m always close to in tears whenever I see the videos,” said Juwara, adding he tries not to “because it’s so heartbreaking seeing little kids slaughtered. It’s something my heart cannot take … I cannot wrap my head around what I’m seeing, and it makes me want to take action, but my action is limited. I’m just looking to do as much as I can with the power I have.”

But for many critics of the anti-war movement, it was not so much the underlying sentiment but the conduct of some protesters that crossed the line.

For some Jewish students who identify closely with Israel, the campus demonstrations — and the outside protests and antisemitic incidents they have attracted, such as a sign at Columbia labeling Jewish counterprotesters Hamas’ next targets — have left them feeling at odds with their classmates.

At the CUNY encampment, students demanded the university ban programs that send Jewish students to Israel, while groups elsewhere in the country called on college officials to cut ties with Hillel, a Jewish campus organization that hosts shabbat and services for students away from home.

“Most of us did not choose to be political activists,” a group of Jewish students said in an open letter this week. “We do not bang on drums and chant catchy slogans. We are average students, just trying to make it through finals much like the rest of you.”

But the students — about 650 of them who signed the letter as of Friday afternoon — said others have “forced us into our activism and forced us to publicly defend our Jewish identities,” which they said “cannot be separated from Israel.”

“Our love for Israel does not necessitate blind political conformity,” the letter continued. “It’s quite the opposite. For many of us, it is our deep love for and commitment to Israel that pushes us to object when its government acts in ways we find problematic.”

With Roni Jacobson

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