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What to Know About the Turmoil at Colleges Over the Israel-Hamas War

As the Israel-Hamas war has escalated, many universities have been caught in an often vitriolic debate over how to handle pro-Palestinian student protests.

Many Jewish students and alumni have been alarmed, saying that the demonstrations can veer into antisemitism. Supporters of academic freedom and students and faculty critical of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians have responded that the real goal is to suppress their political views.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has opened dozens of investigations into allegations of antisemitism at colleges and K-12 schools, a dramatic increase from previous years. The Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce has also started investigations into a half-dozen schools and has held hearings, one of which helped lead to the resignations of the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

On Wednesday, the committee will hear testimony from the president and board members of another school engulfed in protests: Columbia.

Here’s what to know about how these issues are playing out on campuses.

The weekend after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel, a student coalition at Harvard, calling itself the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups, issued a public letter holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all the unfolding violence.”

Despite an outcry over the letter from alumni and donors, Harvard’s new president, Claudine Gay, did not initially forcefully condemn the Hamas attack, leading to complaints that the university was letting the students’ letter fill the vacuum and appear to represent the university’s view.

At Penn, the debate over campus antisemitism started before the Hamas attacks, as some high-profile donors and alumni asked the administration to cancel or strongly condemn a Palestinian writers conference, which was being held on campus.

Penn’s president at the time, M. Elizabeth Magill, refused, citing free speech, while acknowledging that some of the speakers had a history of making remarks viewed as antisemitic.

After the Hamas attack, the anger from some Penn alumni grew. Critics faulted the university for not reaching out early to its Jewish students or alumni with an official statement condemning the attack. And the institutional responses fortified the sense of some alumni that the university was not sensitive to what they saw as a rising tide of antisemitism. Many declared they would withhold their donations. Some called for new leadership.

But for others watching the conflict, the campaign was unsettling. Critics, especially among the faculty, accused the alumni of censoring views and inappropriately intervening in academic affairs, where, they said, they had no business.

As the Israel-Hamas conflict escalated, so did the campus conflicts.

At Columbia University, hundreds participated in competing pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations in October that led school administrators to close the campus to the public. Its faculty traded open letters, which were often barbed.

At Harvard, students associated with the anti-Israel letter following the Hamas attack were doxxed.

At Northwestern University, students at a rally accused the university president, Michael H. Schill, of being complicit in the killing of Palestinians in Gaza. At George Washington University, students projected slogans like “Glory to our martyrs” on a building wall.

And at Brown University, 20 students were arrested in November after holding a sit-in where they pushed for a cease-fire and a divestment from weapons manufacturers. Students were also arrested at a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Michigan.

Hillel, a Jewish campus group, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an Arab and Muslim civil rights group, both recorded a rising number of bias incidents on campus.

Nothing heightened the debate more than the Dec. 5 congressional hearing with the presidents of Harvard, M.I.T. and Penn. The presidents, asked whether students would be sanctioned if they called for genocide against Jews, infamously said it would depend on the context.

Their legalistic and dispassionate responses sparked an uproar and widespread condemnation. Dr. Gay and Ms. Magill never recovered from their testimony and resigned under pressure.

There are signs that some colleges have started cracking down on pro-Palestinian protests and events, despite possible free-speech concerns.

Students for Justice in Palestine, the most prominent pro-Palestinian campus group, has been suspended from at least four universities, including Columbia, Brandeis, George Washington and Rutgers.

Vanderbilt recently expelled three students for the takeover of an administration building.

The University of Southern California said on Monday that it had canceled plans for a graduation speech by this year’s valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, who is Muslim. The school cited security concerns, but Muslim civil rights groups have denounced the decision as censorship.

And after a student protest interrupted a school ceremony for high-achieving students, officials at the University of Michigan put forward a proposal that would ban activities that disrupt “celebrations, activities and operations of the university.” Michigan’s president, Santa J. Ono, said the demonstration was “unacceptable.”

In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan expressed concern over the proposal and other actions that it said had “censored, suppressed, and punished student speech and advocacy relating to the ongoing crisis in Palestine and Israel.”

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