Students report increased Islamophobia, antisemitism since latest Israel-Hamas war

| Senior News Editor

In the weeks following the start of the Israel-Hamas war, students at Washington University have reported increased instances of Islamophobia and antisemitism. Some of these students spoke with Student Life about their feelings of isolation and fear of vilification from those who disagree with their beliefs.

Reports from students follow a spike in incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia throughout the U.S. since Hamas’ initial attacks on Israel on Oct. 7.

Muslim students who spoke to Student Life expressed feeling outnumbered and unheard, with one of their only resources on campus being the Muslim Student Association (MSA). Students also reported instances of harassment and doxxing on campus that they felt went unaddressed despite complaints filed with the administration.

Many Jewish students described feeling supported within the Jewish community on campus, including by the Jewish Student Association (JSA), Chabad, and Hillel. Regardless, those interviewed said they felt scared by rhetoric at pro-Palestinian protests on campus, threats received over social media, and instances of antisemitism on other college campuses.

Students observe a pro-Palestine protest on Mudd Field (Daniel Huinda | Student Life).

Harassment and doxxing

Haniah, a Palestinian student who requested to be referred to by their first name due to safety concerns, described being harassed in mid-October in a lecture hall before class started. 

According to Haniah, the student saw their earrings, shaped like a map of Palestine prior to 1948, and began a rant that lasted several minutes. Haniah said the student began quietly at first, before they raised their voice to a yell and called Haniah a “terrorist” and a “terrorist supporter.”

Haniah said they froze, staying mostly silent because they felt anything they said could be twisted against them. Afterwards, Haniah continued walking to the front of the class and sat down in their usual seat.

“I had to kind of sit there and be like, ‘I can’t cry right now,’” Haniah said. “I just kept thinking about what [the student] kept saying…It really hurts inside honestly.”

According to Haniah, there were fewer than ten students in the room at that time, none of whom said anything. 

“I did see a few people talk to [that student afterwards], but I don’t know what about,” Haniah said. “No one came to talk to me afterwards though, I think probably because I was teary.”

Haniah filed a form with Student Conduct, who responded that the occurrence did not seem large enough to take action but that Haniah should alert them should it happen again.

Haniah said they were nervous to fill out a report to begin with because they didn’t know whether they would be taken seriously.

“I think I’m sort of a people pleaser, and I phrased it really lightly, basically phrasing it like ‘[this student] teased me,’” Haniah said. “And I think that’s totally different from what happened.”

Now, Haniah said they feel nervous on campus, swerving to avoid large groups and avoiding protests or gatherings.

Several students described feeling distrustful of faculty, citing Twitter posts made by Seth Crosby, Assistant Professor of Genetics, that called the latest Israel-Hamas war a “much needed cleansing.” 

One Jewish student, a junior who chose to remain anonymous out of concern for safety and will be referred to as X, reported receiving several threatening messages via Instagram days after Oct. 7.

One of these messages, sent from an unknown account, said, “Just know people like you and everyone else at the Jewish rally today are the reason why we are antisemitic.”

X said she knew that the message was sent by another University student because the message referenced a chat between University students that X had been involved in. Another message to X regarded an Israeli family killed in the Oct. 7 attacks, saying that the family deserved it.

“I’ve received a lot of horrible messages online, and I don’t know when that’s going to be translated in real life,” X said. “I’m always anxious and anticipating something will happen, so right now I have tried to eliminate any sign that I’m Jewish on my body.”

One Muslim student, a junior who requested to remain anonymous out of concern for her safety and will be referred to as Y, said she was doxxed after an interaction with Barstool WashU and several other students after responding to a pro-Israel Instagram story posted by the account on Oct. 7. 

The Instagram story posted by Barstool had a picture of the Israeli flag and read “Now and always, we stand with the people of Israel.” Y responded: “tf is this?? Stick to the shitty memes, you’re gonna regret this one.”

Y said she felt the story isolated students who were not pro-Israel, and that she meant that Barstool would regret posting the image because they would lose support. Student Life confirmed with screenshots that, after a brief back-and-forth conversation, Barstool messaged Y that they had contacted the lab Y works in, citing her workplace by name. 

“They stalked me and found information about me and that made me extremely uncomfortable,” Y said. “It made me feel like I was under some type of microscope.”

Y said they knew other students who also responded to Barstool’s story, but she was one of the few commenters who wears a hijab. Y said that she felt her profile picture, in which she is wearing a hijab, could have influenced Barstool’s response.

“I really feel like my identity was used against me – for them to think that I was trying to threaten them, because they just view me as dangerous,” Y said. “I feel like that influenced how they interpreted my message.”

The Barstool account did not respond to requests for comment from Student Life. 

In the following days, a screenshot of Y’s original message — with her name and Instagram handle — was circulated by students online.

Y said that these interactions, combined with the news and social media discourse on the war, took a significant mental toll on her.

Coming back onto campus, Y went to the Office for Religious, Spiritual and Ethical Life, who told Y that there was nothing they could do because there was no specific violation of University rules. 

In a statement to Student Life, Reverend Callista Isabelle, Director for Religious, Spiritual and Ethical Life, wrote that students who have experienced bias, prejudice, or discrimination should file a report with the Center of Diversity and Inclusion.

“I’m here to support students of any/no religious or spiritual background, whether they’re seeking support for their religious practices or accommodation needs, looking to connect with a community, or wrestling with spiritual questions,” Isabelle wrote. “I’m a confidential listening ear for students who want to talk about anything (religious or not).”

Y said the only tangible resource the Office for Religious, Spiritual and Ethical Life could offer was the Washington University Police Department (WUPD), which Y felt could not provide the support she needed. Because the MSA does not have any faculty support, Y found they could only confide in their peers.

Y described feeling hopeless, outnumbered, and without resources. She also feels nervous to be back on campus and has stopped walking around late at night.

Other students voiced a fear of being monitored and doxxed, referencing the Canary Mission, a site that blacklists any individual determined to “promote hatred of the U.S., Israel and Jews on North American college campuses and beyond,” as one reason to fear voicing their pro-Palestine beliefs.

“I don’t want to be scared anymore, but I do have to be aware of my surroundings at all times,” Y said.

Heightened fear on campus

Jordan Gerson, the Hillel Campus Rabbi, said that following the pro-Palestine rally on Oct. 22, there was a rally on Art Hill from which a crowd of hundreds marched to protest in front of Hillel. Gerson said that while Hillel is Zionist, it is not a political organization, and the targeting of Jewish establishments unveils antisemitism at the root of the conflict. 

“[The protesters] are targeting a religious and cultural organization for another nation’s actions,” Gerson said. “Had [there been students there], it would have been a very scary moment.”

Chief of Police Angela Coonce said that WUPD monitored this rally as it developed.

We observed that the group marched east on Forsyth on its way back to Forest Park, including past the Hillel building,” Coonce said. “The group briefly stopped near the Forsyth and Wrighton Way intersection.” 

Many Jewish students expressed feeling scared by the rhetoric at the recent pro-Palestine walkout, particularly by the chant “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free.” Gerson said that phrase calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and establishment of a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

“While [the phrase is] not explicitly a call for Jewish genocide, it is a call for the destruction of the state and an implied genocide of Israelis,” Gerson said.

Senior Dylan Levy, one of the students that watched the walkout from the side, said that specific chant made him feel uncomfortable.

“I literally felt sick to my stomach standing over there while people were looking straight into my eyes and screaming a phrase that implicates [the destruction] of my existence as an individual,” Levy said.

Several students cited instances of antisemitism on college campuses across the country, such as Cornell, as reasons for feeling afraid at the University. According to Rabbi Hershey Novack, co-director of Chabad, the organization has tripled its security budget since mid-October.

Students attend a vigil for lives lost in Israel, Oct. 12 (Stephanie Chen | Student Life).

Gerson, as well as several interviewed students, referred to anti-Zionism as a guise for antisemitism.

“There’s always been a Jewish presence in the land of Israel, and to deny it is, in my opinion, antisemitism,” Gerson said. “To deny the right of the Jewish state to exist is also antisemitic as it denies the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.”

One student, a first-year who chose to remain anonymous for their safety, said they felt uncomfortable when posters calling for the return of Israeli hostages by the underpass were torn down.

“I’m not sure if some people I know are alive, and you’re telling me that you have an issue with me calling for Jewish safety,” they said. “How do you not see that that is so not your place to say that?”

Junior Hawa Muhando, who wears a hijab, said that she felt physically uncomfortable returning to campus after Fall Break.

“Just being out of my room, it felt like I was under the spotlight, or other people were wary of me, or were intentionally noticing me in spaces, especially if I was in a group with a few of my friends who were also hijabis,” Muhando said.

She said she has been confined to her room more than usual, as it is the only place she can “breathe for a moment.” Muhando, a Somali immigrant born in a Kenyan refugee camp, said everything she says about the war feels useless.

“To be made to feel like seeing my own struggle in Palestinians on [their] front is being minimized to being a terrorist apologist, or just some happenstance that I’m taking because of the religion that I identify as is frankly insulting, and it’s very frustrating,” Muhando said.

Sophomore Shirine Awad, who is both Lebanese and Palestinian, said she feels like a minority in the minority on campus. She echoed Muhando’s sentiment of feeling unheard, and also has been spending more time in her dormitory in the comfort of her close friends, some of the only people she feels she can confide in.

“I’ve always been surrounded by my Arab and Palestinian friends, and [my high school] was very diverse,” Awad said. “But then when I came on this campus I was like, ‘I can’t say what I want to say anymore because I feel like I’m always being watched.’”

Today, Awad said she is too scared to wear her keffiyeh, a Middle Eastern headdress, because of all the stares and comments she has received  when she does. 

Awad, whose grandfather was exiled from Palestine to Jordan, said that while she feels her voice is being shut down now in the wake of the most recent Israel-Hamas war, that has always been the case.

“I’ve just always had this narrative that my family was kicked out because of these people, and how am I going to be able to live with someone that doesn’t see that side?” Awad said. “I was struggling at WashU just in general, just being Palestinian.”

In a parallel drawn by several other interviewed Muslim students, Y said that the uptick in Islamophobia on campus in 2021 after American flags on Mudd Field were removed on 9/11, and the subsequent lack of University response, hugely shaped how they respond to events today.

“I’m used to what happens at WashU to students that look like me,” Y said. “I know what to expect, and I just can’t handle sitting around and letting things happen anymore.”

Pro-Palestine students wave flags and hold signs on Mudd Field Oct. 20. (Alan Zhou | Student Life).

Social media discourse

One point of contention among students was a Chabad Instagram post on Oct. 9, showing the Star of David under Brookings with the caption, “WashU stands with Israel.” Multiple students were upset by this caption because they felt it was unfair for Chabad to claim to speak on behalf of the University.

In a statement to Student Life, Novack wrote that Brookings Hall has been used as a platform in the past, pointing to a Free Palestine sign posted by WashU Students for Justice in Palestine in 2022. He wrote that Chabad used “WashU stands with Israel” to mimic language used by President Joe Biden.

“Sadly, it appears that even standing with victims hours after a terror attack has become politicized,” Novack wrote. “When things are a bit calmer, I would love to explore this with these students in some appropriate way.”

Muhando described one comment exchange below the Chabad post as very triggering. 

In it, one student wrote, “I believe you shouldn’t associate politics into WashU. You have Palestinian students who can be offended by this. Please can we keep this issue outside of our college?” Another student responded, “If you’re offended by students and a university affiliated organization standing up in the face of terrorism then maybe you should look the terrorist in the mirror.”

Student Life reached out to the latter student, who declined to comment.

“For students to be able to say that to other WashU students just let me know how extreme the tensions were, and that statement in particular just heightened my awareness of myself every time I’m on campus,” Muhando said.

University organization and administration responses

On Oct. 10, a few days after Hamas’s initial attack on Israel, Chancellor Andrew Martin released a statement on behalf of the University administration. On Oct. 26, Martin released another statement condemning antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Several students expressed being relieved that Martin condemned Hamas, but frustrated with the lack of tangible action by the administration. Muhando asked for the University to start taking reports seriously.

“I have a number of friends who have put in reports who are getting to the point of feeling disillusioned from the lack of response,” Muhando said. “I would implore for those reports to be taken seriously past the perfunctory ‘we’re here for you, what can we do’ when nothing is actually being done.”

Rob Wild, Dean of Students, said that he and other faculty members reached out to numerous group leaders after Oct. 7 to meet and offer their support.

“I feel terrible that there are students in our community that feel that the University is not listening to them,” Wild said. “If there are students here who feel that their feedback is not being addressed, that’s concerning to me and that’s something we need to do better with.”

In a comment to Student Life, University spokesperson Julie Flory pointed to a statement released by Dr. Anna Gonzalez, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, on Oct. 19 and encouraged students to use the provided resources.

“Especially in such a complex situation as this and given the diversity of views within our community, there could never be a message that would be satisfying to everyone,” Flory wrote. “The most important thing to know is that Chancellor Martin and the entire University administration care deeply for all members of the WashU community.”

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