A pro-Palestine protest, organized by Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine, received national attention for its chants and rhetoric following the demonstration on Wednesday, Feb. 8, outside the Shapiro Campus Center. 

The protest was a joint demonstration between Brandeis SJP and the Brandeis Leftist Union. A BLU member spoke on behalf of Warm-Up Boston, a volunteer organization that aids the unhoused community within Massachusetts, and another BLU member spoke on behalf of the Boston chapter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement,  an international anti-Israel, pro-Palestine organization. These groups came together in a display of support for the numerous Palestinians who were murdered by Israeli forces from the start of the year. A post that SJP shared on Instagram a week before the protest specifically referenced the killing of 10 Palestinians by Israeli troops in a Jenin refugee camp on Jan. 26. 

The president of SJP, a Palestinian international student who asked to remain anonymous for safety purposes, spoke on the megaphone multiple times throughout the protest. Early on, she spoke about their high school classmate who was studying for a degree in medicine and was recently killed, along with his brother, by the Israeli military. 

A Jewish student also spoke on behalf of the BLU: “The Brandeis Leftist Organization stands totally and completely with Palestine and her martyrs. We recognize that Israel is nothing more than an enlarged military base for the United States and its European allies to meddle in the Middle East. We, therefore, recognize that the liberation of Palestine is not a religious issue but, in fact, an issue of imperialism and injustice.” 

The BLU member explained that they were protesting to “stand up for a different yet familiar apartheid — one where religion and ethnicity determine citizenship status, movement, and overall livelihood,” likely referring to policies such as Israel’s Law of Return that grants “every Jew in the world a right to settle in Jerusalem,” according to the Jewish Virtual Library. This right does not extend to any other population of people, such as Palestinians who were forced out or fled their homes in present-day Israel. Palestinians and their supporters cite this disparity as one of the primary examples of colonialism and racism within Zionist beliefs and policies, with this discrimination perceived as part of a systematic attempt to keep Palestinians out of their homeland and disenfranchise the Palestinians who remain. To clarify, Zionism is the general belief that Judaism is a nationality and a religion, and that the Jewish population deserves a state within their ancestral homeland.

At the end of their speech, the BLU representative added, “All power to the people, all glory to the martyrs, and all solidarity with Palestine!” 

While these were rallying words to BLU, SJP, and the unaffiliated students who stood in support of these organizations, students watching the protest had strong reactions to the use of the word martyr. One of the students who had come to watch the protest and also filmed part of it criticized the speakers’ use of “martyrs” as a description for civilian Palestinians killed by Israeli forces and said, “it would be wise to call them victims” of Hamas' propaganda and influence instead. She said the term martyr, along with other meanings, can be associated with terrorist attacks.

Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, shared their thoughts on the protestors’ use of the word “martyr,” saying, it’s “the murdering and the taking of Jewish lives, and to [the protesters] it doesn’t matter because the Jewish [people in Israel are] ‘colonizers’ and it is fighting back against that, so it’s a difference in perspective. To [the protesters], that’s martyrdom, that’s freedom, and to us, [the Jewish community], you’re murdering us, you’re taking our lives.”

A group of around a dozen students came to observe the protest from afar, after hearing about it from friends or on social media, and various passersby stopped to watch the events taking place. A small group of students holding Israeli flags held a counter demonstration across from the protest, and some occasionally shouted at the student speakers on the pro-Palestinian side. 

In the days following the protest, popular Jewish Zionist social media accounts posted about the protest, condemning the protesters for being antisemitic and demanding that the Brandeis administration do the same. These are some of the chants used by pro-Palestine protesters that drew backlash from these accounts’ followers:

“From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free!”

“There is only one solution, intifada revolution!”

“Netanyahu is the new Hitler!”

Members of the Jewish community, who reacted both in-person at the protest and online, say these chants incite violence toward the Jewish population in Israel. The first quote references the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, which surrounds Israel, a Jewish state. The second chant references two series of Palestinian uprisings and demonstrations that aimed to end Israel’s occupation of the land in the 1980s and the early 2000s, referred to as the First and Second Intifadas. While Britannica defines intifada as “shaking off” in this case, it is also used in the context of “uprising” to which some perceive as a call to violence against the Jewish population specifically. 

A student bystander at the Feb. 8 protest explained the controversy of the term intifada. “The point that [the pro-Palestine protesters] are making is that the whole area must be cleansed of the Jewish people, and must be cleansed of the land [of] Israel, which is inherently a Jewish state ... They’re saying the whole area needs to be free of Jewish views,” a perspective that incites violence toward the Jewish community. They described how the word intifada insinuates a “call to murder” to a broader Jewish audience, as opposed to the intended “uprising.”

However, the president of SJP explained in an interview with the Justice after the protest that this definition of the word is inaccurate and that it is not a call for violence or hate against Jewish people. Instead, she defined it as a revolution against the Israeli government. “‘Intifada’ in Arabic, it means revolution. Basically, we are just resisting against the Israeli occupation. The revolution is against the Israeli occupation. That’s just what it means,” she said.

The same student also addressed the SJP’s comparison of Netanyahu to Hitler. They explained: “Benjamin Netanyahu, who is the current Prime Minister of Israel, who many don’t like, rightfully so. … for the Jewish students to hear that … My grandmother was in Auschwitz. My grandmother was in seven concentration camps.”

Concerned alumni, students, and others flocked to one of Brandeis’ most recent Instagram reels, demanding the University make a statement to condemn the protest as antisemitic. On Feb. 13, University President Ron Liebowitz emailed a statement addressed to students, faculty, and staff in which he stated that both the SJP protest and counter protest groups “followed the proper protocols for scheduling a protest on campus” and University staff was on site to maintain student safety, which was the priority.

He proceeded to say that freedom of expression is protected and valued at Brandeis. “However, the protections of speech will not shield from criticism those who evoke the horrors of the Holocaust in a disgraceful manner, seek to promote violence, or call for the eradication of a country,” he continued. 

Liebowitz stated that protesters included “members of non-Brandeis groups known to be antisemitic.” However, a spokesperson for BLU told the Justice on Feb. 13 that while Brandeis students read statements sent in by outside organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace and BDS Boston, only two non-students were present at the pro-Palestine protest and that these individuals were “unaffiliated” with any organization, calling them “just friends and sympathizers.”

The concerns voiced in Liebowitz’s email were at the heart of the counter protest that formed across from the SJP and BLU protest. The pro-Israel protesters were a group of five to eight individuals, holding large Israel flags, a sharp contrast to the pro-Palestine group’s Palestine flag. 

Unlike the pro-Palestine group, these counter protesters did not belong to any particular organization or group. Instead, they were a group of individuals who organized the counter demonstration to represent the opposite side of the same conflict: the Israeli claim to the land. There were also two individuals who have been confirmed to be representatives of the Israeli-American Council New England, though it is unclear which organization or individuals organized the counter demonstration. 

Speaking to the Justice, this non-student, who asked to remain anonymous, said he has gone to other small-scale protests like this one and said that his work is “educating people about what Israel is, Holocaust Awareness, and [emphasizing] the fact that Israel is very much not an apartheid state. There aren’t two different laws for anybody in Israel. Everybody has the same rules … There is no such thing as apartheid in Israel.” He suggested that those who are curious about Israel should go see the country for themselves to form an opinion about the conflict, rather than listen to his or anyone else’s opinion.

As a part of the pro-Israel counter protest, Zachary Moskovits ’26 explained, “I view Brandeis University as a refuge from an antisemitic culture.” He considered the SJP protest a threat to that protection from antisemitism and felt he had to “stand up” in defense of it. 

Jack Granahan ’26 said that the group both supported and wanted to defend Israel, because they “believe that [SJP’s] rhetoric is very dangerous, although some of [the pro-Palestine protesters] may be well-intended, well-meaning … the rhetoric that they spout is based on misinformation regarding Palestinian-Islamic Jihad” and that it is “often based [on] antisemitic tropes and the belief that Jews are not entitled to self-determination, and [the pro-Israel protesters] believe that as a campus with Jewish history and Jewish character, [they] should be standing up for Jews.” The Palestinian-Islamic Jihad is a terrorist and paramilitary group, secondary to the Hamas political and militant organization, which has been designated a terrorist group by at least seven national governments including the United States. Both groups intend to overthrow the Israeli government and occupation and aim to install a Palestinian government in its place. 

When asked about the counter-demonstrators, a Palestinian student and SJP member in attendance at the protest said, “we [Palestinians] want to live like they [Israelis] do.” He said he was protesting for the dozens of Palestinians killed in the occupied West Bank since the start of this year, including “friends of [his] friends.” The SJP president also spoke to the Justice about Palestinians who have been killed recently, including her own friends and family members. “Last week, 10 people were killed for absolutely no crime. And five people two days ago were also killed for absolutely no crime just because they’re Palestinians. As well as my friends who died … their own lives [were] taken away from me, from my family, my friends, from my community, and my people for absolutely no reason,” she said.

The conflict that these groups are protesting for is a land dispute, among other disagreements, that comes down to two populations — the Israelis and the Palestinians — each wanting to possess the same land and decide the manner that it’s controlled. While both groups have long standing claims to the land that date back thousands of years each, hundreds of thousands of Jewish people moved from Europe to British-controlled Palestine between 1896-1948 as a result of rising antisemitism within European countries. Although this population immigrated to Palestine in search of establishing a safe space for Jewish people, the existing Palestinian Arab population that was already settled in the land saw the move as the first step toward total colonialism and the destruction of Palestinian society, this destruction referred to as “nakba,” which means catastrophe in Arabic. During the year-and-a-half long 1948 Palestine war, about half of Palestinian’s Arab population were expelled or fled from their homes. Since then, there have been numerous lethal demonstrations and wars instigated by both sides, and even attempts at finding a compromise — but to no avail.

Both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have experienced a large number of fatalities as a result of the conflict, although the number of fatalities has been significantly higher among Palestinians, with the fatality ratios of Palestinians to Israelis being slightly more than 3-to-1 during both the intifadas. However, a number of Palestinian casualties are the result of Hamas intentionally situating their headquarters in civilian schools and hospitals, leading to Palestinian civilians being killed when Israeli Defense Forces carry out attacks against Hamas terrorists. 

SJP and BLU were protesting very recent examples of violence against Palestinian people, notably the Palestinians killed in Jenin and Jericho

The Washington Post refers to the Israeli raid in Jenin as “one of the deadliest West Bank incidents in years.” It resulted in the deaths of 10 Palestinians. Israeli officials said at least six of those killed were armed members of Palestinian militant groups. Two unarmed civilians, a man and a 61-year-old woman were among those killed in the raid, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Alongside these fatalities, 20 people were injured. 

Less than two weeks later, five Palestinian militants were killed in the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp in Jericho. The BBC reported that Hamas said those killed were its members, while the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesperson, Ran Kochav, said the Israeli forces successfully “neutralized the terrorists,” claiming that some of the murdered were involved in a gun attack near a Jewish settlement from the week prior. No one was killed in that attack.  

Since these incidents, there have also been occurrences of violence toward Israelis. On Jan. 27, seven Israelis were killed and three were wounded in a terrorist attack near a synagogue in Jerusalem. Later, on Feb. 10, three Israelis — a six-year-old boy, an eight-year-old boy, and a 20-year-old man — died in a “car ramming terror attack” in East Jerusalem that left at least five other people injured. The attacker was identified as an Israeli citizen and resident of East Jerusalem. An Israeli official believes the attacker was mentally ill and was only released from a psychiatric hospital days prior to the attack. He was also known to support the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad Ziad Nakhaleh. 

In an interview with the Justice, the SJP president said they were protesting for the “36 Palestinians that were murdered [in] cold blood by the Israeli Occupation Forces, early January, the first month of the year … and for the lives of my friends and family who were killed.” The president described how members of her family were killed in the Al-Aqsa Mosque while they prayed, emphasizing that her cousin was killed while they were at the funeral for another one of their cousins who was murdered prior. Furthermore, the president added that they were protesting for the houses in East Jerusalem that were facing demolition and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians that would “go homeless, probably this week,” as a result. 

The SJP president disregarded the counter protest candidly, stating that “[the pro-Israel group] are just anti-protesting, they’re showing that all they can do is steal. They stole my land, they stole my house, they killed my family, and stole their souls, now they’re stealing our protest. Let them be.”

While the pro-Palestine protesters faced backlash during and after the protest, they wholeheartedly rejected these accusations of antisemitism. 

The president of SJP denied that the language they used in their speeches and chants was antisemitic, or meant to incite violence against the Jewish people, and said Jewish people and the State of Israel are not one and the same: “I’m not being anti-Jewish when I'm saying that I want to revolutionize against Israel. Israel, while it is a state for Jews, it should not represent all the Jews in the world,” she said. She also said she has often been accused of being antisemitic simply because she is Palestinian. “Everything that a Palestinian does, even just existing, is being called antisemitic and terrorist. I got called antisemitic so many times just for peacefully existing in this area and on campus.”

The SJP president also said that “people don’t really know what the meaning of antisemitism is,” explaining that Semitic refers to people who are descended from cultural groups who historically spoke Arabic and Hebrew, meaning they consider themself Semitic. “You can’t call me antisemitic when I am a Semitic person,” she said. However, their definition of “Semitic” is considered obsolete and the modern definition of antisemitism specifically means prejudice or hatred against Jews. 

The BLU also responded to accusations of antisemitism. In a public statement on Feb. 10, BLU wrote: “The accusation of antisemitism is on its face ridiculous, as anti-zionism is not antisemitism and we reject this accusation as politically motivated. In addition, many of the members of the BLU present at the rally are Jewish, including the representative speaker for BLU, and one of our members even announced to the crowd ‘this Jew is an anti-zionist’ which has conveniently been left out of Zionist sympathetic coverage of the event as they see to make Israeli apartheid a religious rather than moral and political issue.” In a separate statement on Instagram released on Feb. 13, the BLU condemned the “racist and … inappropriate” behavior of bystanders and counter protesters, explaining that while members of the protest were recounting traumatic experiences such as their close ties to recent victims of attacks in the West Bank, as well as members of their family murdered in the Nakba, “the predominately white Zionist counter-protestors [laughed], [cheered], and [waved] Israeli flags.”

On Feb. 13, shortly after Liebowitz sent out his statement about the protest, Student Union President Peyton Gillespie ’25 and Brandeis Hillel President Eitan Marks ’23 sent a joint statement to students in response to the protest. They said they were saddened by “some of the hateful language and antisemitic language” used at the protest, “especially references to ‘Intifada’ and the Holocaust.” They also announced they would be hosting a silent demonstration on Tuesday to condemn “all kinds of hate speech.” 

Multiple students who spoke to the Justice and expressed support for Israel disagreed with the pro-Israel counter-protest happening behind them. One student bystander, who criticized SJP and BLU’s chants, said, “I don’t condone the [pro-Israel counter protest] either. That’s just antagonizing [the pro-Palestine protesters], it’s just making it worse.” They added that with both sides continuously standing against one another, the tension will only worsen and nothing will be achieved besides mutual disdain and antagonism — much in the same way Israel and Palestine have yet to meet a peaceful solution on the international scale. One Israeli student who was watching the protest said, “Seeing flags on two sides of the SCC kind of diminishes the possibility of working together towards peace and just encourages polarization that can lead to violence.” 

– A student's name was removed from the article due to concerns for their safety. Context has also been added to the quote.