Brandeis community holds diverse range of opinions on the administration’s safety policies
The Justice talked to Brandeis community members to gauge how the Israel-Hamas war has affected students’ security concerns on campus.
In the aftermath of many complex developments on campus regarding the Israel-Hamas War, debates centered on students’ safety, the boundaries of First Amendment rights, and increasing tensions permeating discussions on campus.
The rise in discrimination against Muslim, Arab, and Jewish people in the U.S. raises the question of how universities will ensure their students’ safety. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the U.S.’s largest Muslim civil rights organization, stated that its national headquarters and chapters received 1,283 requests for help and reports of bias from Oct. 7 to Nov. 4. In comparison, there were 406 complaints sent to the organization in an average 29-day period in 2022.
According to initial data from the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, “312 incidents of harassment, vandalism, and assault were recorded from Oct. 7 to Oct. 23 — a 388% increase over the same period last year, when the ADL received reports of 64 such incidents, the organization said. More than half of the recent incidents (190) were directly linked to the Israel-Hamas war.”
In a Nov. 14 interview with the Justice, Sivan Adams ’26, the communications coordinator for the Hillel student board, talked about the war’s impact on her academics and mental health. She said that it took up “a lot of brain space,” and that the first week of the conflict was challenging. Adams had a hard time focusing because of incoming news coverage and worries over her friends’ and family’s safety. In the following weeks, she has been able to compartmentalize more, but it’s still difficult to focus on schoolwork, an issue exacerbated by the increased workload that comes with midterm season. Adams told the Justice that she is “much more attuned to the news, checking in the morning and evenings … a news update can sort of throw my entire day out of whack.”
The Justice asked Adams if she felt safe on campus, and she said that “I think it would be naive to think that nothing could happen to me on this campus, but I feel very fortunate to be on this campus where in general I feel physically safe.” She stated that nothing had threatened her safety on or off campus, but she has been more careful off campus.
In a Nov. 17 statement emailed to the Justice, Eitan Marks ’24, president of the Hillel student board, expanded on specific situations that made him feel unsafe on campus. “I can only speak for my community, but I think that when people chant hateful slogans calling for the violent murder of Jews and destruction of the only Jewish state in the world, Jewish students feel unsafe,” Marks wrote. He “never imagined that at Brandeis, Jewish students would feel unsafe wearing a [Star] of David or attending a Shabbat prayer service.” Marks clarified that this response is his own personal statement, rather than a statement on behalf of the Hillel student board or Hillel’s broader organization.
The rally on Nov. 10 protesting the derecognition of Students for Justice in Palestine was the first time Marks felt unsafe on campus. Before leaving his dorm for Shabbat dinner, he checked in with Public Safety. “I am reassured that the [University] is taking all necessary measures to protect members of our campus community,” Marks stated.
Rabbi Seth Winberg, the executive director of Hillel and the University’s senior Jewish chaplain, similarly appreciates the security on campus. “I have found Public Safety to be excellent,” he said in a Nov. 8 interview with the Justice. While Winberg recognized that others may have more contentious relationships with law enforcement, he also believed that many Jewish students are worried in general. “I think the combination of the largest attack on Jews since the Holocaust plus the news from other college campuses affecting students and their peers, has been terrifying for some Jewish students,” he explained.
The Oct. 7 attacks were the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. More people died on Oct. 7 than during the Second Intifada, which was a Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005 that resulted in the death of 1,000 Israelis. According to The Economist, “The bloodiest atrocity committed by Arabs during Israel’s war of independence, a massacre at Kfar Etzion, an Israeli settlement, in May 1948, left 127 people dead,” and the Oct. 7 attacks surpassed that.
The University of Connecticut’s campus faces the same dilemma that Brandeis does; both campuses discuss how to protect students of all backgrounds while acknowledging some groups’ negative relationships with law enforcement. According to NBC News, members of UConn’s Hillel are recruiting and training students to provide more security for the building. Students are collaborating with the local police and fire station to train student security guards. The Department of Homeland Security gives universities and K-12 schools security assessments through the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency for free. However, members of UConn’s Students for Justice in Palestine stated that given the history of Muslim Americans feeling profiled and targeted by DHS, they wouldn’t trust DHS to protect them.
In a Nov. 16 interview with the Justice, two members of the Revolutionary Student Organization talked about the strained relationship between some students and the police. One RSO member, who was arrested on Nov. 10 at the rally, believed that Brandeis is an unsafe space for students who support Palestine. Both students claimed that there were people at the Nov. 6 vigil who filmed attendees. There were further claims that people mocked them; the Justice was unable to verify said claims as of press time. When RSO members put up flyers for the rally, they said that Brandeis Police “harassed” them and allegedly followed one of them off campus without an explanation why. At the rally, the arrested RSO member was one of the first people tackled by police. “They held my leg in a way so that my knee cap in particular was held out of place,” they said, which resulted in a dislocated knee cap. They asserted that the police put their hands in their pants. The other RSO member agreed with the arrested member and added that the “police do not keep us safe, and police should not be the method of safety that is advocated by the University.”
The Waltham Police Department released a statement on X (formerly Twitter) on Nov. 11 regarding their response to the rally. According to the statement, Brandeis University Police asked the Waltham police for assistance at 3:30 p.m. “after a demonstration on their campus became unruly.” The protest started around 3:30 p.m. Moreover, they claimed that “No major injuries occurred as a result of these arrests.”
Marks also commented on the rally’s outcome. It was “deeply upsetting” to see students arrested, he wrote. Marks was not present at the rally, and Brandeis Police told him to not leave his building around 4:30 p.m. due to safety concerns.
The unarrested RSO member defended the protest, stressing that there was nothing violent or imposing during the demonstration. “There has never been anything that I would constitute as a threat, there has never been hate speech, there [have] never been provocations of violence,” they said. “The University is bringing the idea that these events need to be safer and they should be understanding that these spaces are not unsafe in the first place.” The previously arrested RSO member added that the University is “advancing racism and Islamophobia” on campus instead of working to keep people safe.
Brandeis and other universities have had to find a balance between maintaining students’ First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly while also ensuring students’ safety. According to a Nov. 10 email from Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Stew Uretsky, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Carol Fierke, and Vice President for Student Affairs Andrea Dine, police dispersed and arrested protestors at the Nov. 10 rally for using phrases that are considered hate speech, such as “From the river to the sea” and “intifada, intifada.” According to students’ responses, there is disagreement over whether certain phrases should be considered hate speech. On the one hand, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” can be interpreted as “the desire for freedom from oppression across the historical land of Palestine,” according to an Al Jazeera article. The term can mean the need for equality and the right to self-determination for Palestinians. On the other hand, it can be seen as pro-Hamas and a call for antisemitic violence. The phrase can also mean that there will be only one entity, Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and no Jewish state. Some criticize the slogan for making it harder for left-wing Israelis to promote open dialogue; people would be more unwilling to negotiate with a partner perceived to be supporting the destruction of Israel.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “intifada” as an uprising or rebellion. According to the Institute for Middle East Understanding, “intifada” “is an Arabic word derived from a verb meaning ‘to shake off,’ and is the term used to describe the two major uprisings against Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” Some perceive the word as a call for indiscriminate violence against Israel, however.
In a Nov. 19 email to the Justice, Julie Jette, the interim senior vice president for communications, marketing, and external relations, reiterated points from Chief of Public Safety Matthew Rushton’s Oct 12. email regarding security on campus. She stated, “We have provided additional security at smaller events when organizers have requested Public Safety’s assistance.” Dine and Rushton did not respond to the Justice’s request for comment as of publication.
There were a range of views on how the derecognition of SJP affects students’ safety. The RSO member who was arrested said that the decision “eroded any confidence I had in the University to uphold any notion of free expression or free speech. I don’t know if I’d say it made me feel less safe.”
Marks thought that derecognition “showed Brandeis’ commitment to providing a safe learning environment for all students.” In an Oct. 9 Instagram post, SJP stated that they “rise today in unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian resistance in all of its forms.” They objected to calling Palestinian resistance “terrorism” because they believed that “such a label ignores the ongoing occupation of Palestine, the expansion of illegal settlements, and the denial of basic human rights.” Some thought SJP’s words insinuated support for Hamas, including Marks. Given this interpretation, he believed that the University’s decision was reasonable. Furthermore, “The campus climate being escalated by a small group of extremists such as SJP and RSO is harmful to the entire community. It makes having nuanced and informative conversations about complex issues all the more difficult.” Marks stated that it was “a shame” that there is no student organization advocating for Palestinians that does not support violence against Jews.
Winberg wrote an op-ed in The Forward defending the University’s derecognition of SJP. He recognized that while derecognition “should only be done as a last resort,” groups who support terrorism should not be included in discussions on the conflict. SJP criticized Winberg’s Nov. 5 email to Hillel members before SJP’s vigil and called for “all necessary action against” Winberg. “In the context of serious rising antisemitic incidents on campuses, local law enforcement was concerned enough to assign me personal security for the day of the vigil,” Winberg stated.
Students’ thoughts on the administration’s response varied as well. Adams said she felt “very supported by the administration” and that “the emails make me feel seen and heard.”
However, the previously arrested RSO member took issue with the language used in the administration’s emails. They believed what the University considered hate speech to not be hateful, that Brandeis perpetuates a conception of Palestinians as violent, and that the idea that the Israeli occupation has the right to self-defense is harmful. “Killing over 11,000 civilians is not self defense,” they said.
With rising tensions on campus, it has proved difficult to navigate a nuanced conflict that people may have direct emotional ties to. When the Justice asked both RSO members how people can approach increasing polarization, the previously arrested RSO member claimed that “The tensions on campus are being perpetuated by the University and those who are supporting the genocide in Palestine.” Both emphasized their opinions that the war is not a two-sided conflict, but rather the genocide of one people.
Adams and Winberg proposed more conversations between Israelis and Palestinians could help defuse tensions and foster a better understanding of all sides of the conflict. Winberg talked about his trips with Jewish and non-Jewish students to Israel and Palestine and learning from interactions with those living there. “I don’t always feel that Jewish students know what it’s like to be a non-Jewish student at Brandeis, and I think that many non-Jewish students don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish,” said Winberg, highlighting the need to learn from different communities on campus.
Marks stressed that the Brandeis Jewish community is not a monolith: “We value and appreciate all members of the community as fellow Jews, regardless of any identity or opinion they might hold.” He also hopes “that members of the Brandeis community will continue to treat each other with compassion and kindness that everyone deserves.”
In the wake of a tragedy, it is easy for spaces to devolve into emotionally charged forums and one-dimensional conversations. For instance, after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Muslim Americans suffered a surge in Islamophobia. Similarly, after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, there have been upward trends of hate crimes against Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim people, showing the aggression that all sides are facing. The threat of violence spurs concerns from everyone and creating a security policy that addresses them proves to be a complicated process.