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They just want to go to class: These college students are stuck in the middle as the Israel-Hamas conflict spills onto campus

By Jeff Winter and Ray Sanchez, CNN

New York (CNN) — Beyond Columbia University’s heavy iron gates emblazoned with the words “May All Who Enter Here Find Welcome and Peace,” a 25-year-old graduate student said he felt immense pressure to “pick a side” in the Israel-Hamas war.

The student, who is working on a PhD in statistics and asked not to be named because of safety concerns, recalled being approached repeatedly by friends on both sides of the conflict and refusing to lend his name to petitions or statements on the emotionally fraught topic.

“I’m not an expert. I don’t have an opinion,” he said. “It’s not simple, and a lot of people are dying. My opinion is that it’s sad.”

Longtime bastions of political discourse and protest, US college campuses are seeing widening fissures created by the intense debate over a conflict that has sparked contention for decades. While students on both sides say they feel unheard and abandoned by the university’s administration, young people who won’t take a stand on the war argue those feelings are also true for them.

“You can either act like you don’t care and avoid whatever they say, or you can try to reason and understand what’s going on to see an ideological way of picking a side. But the situation is so involved,” the student said, who moved to New York in August after studying in Texas.

“Either you don’t care or you feel lost. It’s too much to try to handle.”

‘I don’t even want to be involved on campus’

Entrenched opinions about the long-running conflict have not only resulted in disciplinary action against faculty members but also created a fierce backlash against more vocal students. As a result, many grads and undergrads nearing the end of one of the more tumultuous semesters in recent history agree the highly charged environment is impacting college life, turning a place of learning into a place of mistrust and disorder.

“I don’t even want to be involved on campus,” said a second-year Columbia Law student, who is Jewish and did not want to give his name, looking exhausted after recent pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus. “Now I want to graduate and get out of here.”

On a recent November afternoon, demonstrators gathered on both sides of Low Plaza, the heart of the Columbia campus in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. That day – and at other times this fall – school administrators closed the sprawling grounds to the public in part “to help maintain safety and a sense of community through planned demonstration activities,” according to a statement.

The words “Corner of Peace” – which had been scrawled in chalk above a bench on Campus Walk, the main artery across the university – had now been washed away.

With campus closed to the public that day, a university spokesperson escorted a reporter around, noting the war-related events were not sanctioned by Columbia and violated school policy.

On the steep granite steps leading from the vast esplanade to the portico around the entrance to Low Library, demonstrators chanted “Cease fire now” in a measured, restrained cadence.

A Palestinian refugee, Mohsen Mahdawi, delivered an impassioned speech about his experience getting shot in the leg at a refugee camp. Mohsen, an undergrad, later led demonstrators down the steps and around a group of Jewish students – who waved Israeli flags and refused to move – to stage a die-in.

“We’re not going to die under an Israeli flag,” he said, leading the demonstrators to hold their protest away from the flags.

At the top of the steps, a senior majoring in biology – “a reformed history student” – only gave his first name, Daniel. He is half Iranian. The tension on campus, he said, made him uncomfortable – a “mental discomfort.”

Daniel said he doesn’t have a problem speaking his mind. But he warned that “picking a side” can lead to getting one’s name and face displayed on a mobile billboard “doxxing truck” that a conservative nonprofit has used to shame pro-Palestine students. Daniel only shares his opinions with close friends and family, he said.

“Physical peace and ideological peace are two different things,” he said as the die-in was breaking up.

In October, university president Minouche Shafik addressed doxxing – an online invasion of personal privacy – in a statement.

“Some students, including at Columbia, have been victims of (doxxing),” Shafik said. “This form of online harassment, involving the public posting of names and personal information, has been used by extremists to target communities and individuals. This kind of behavior also will not be tolerated and should be reported through appropriate school channels. When applicable, we will refer these cases to external authorities.”

Columbia has created a resource group to deal with issues relating to doxxing, harassment and online security.

The university postponed its massive Giving Day fundraising event in October amid simmering tensions on campus over the Israel-Hamas war.

“Right now, we know that the atmosphere on campus is extremely charged and many are concerned for their personal safety,” Columbia officials said in a statement on October 12.

University leaders issued a separate statement condemning “disturbing antisemitic and Islamophobic acts, including intimidation and outright violence.”

That statement came after a Columbia student who was hanging up posters on campus in support of Israel was assaulted.

Shafik has urged the university community to avoid language that “vilifies, threatens or stereotypes entire groups of people,” adding this type of speech “will not be tolerated” when it is unlawful or violates university rules.

Outside Butler Hall, two undergrad Filipino American women and a male friend – all of whom asked to remain anonymous – said the campus is full of people talking about the war despite it not affecting them personally. One woman said the heated debate made it difficult to focus on school.

At a November sit-in at the Graduate School of Social Work, about 50 demonstrators accused the university of being one-sided and pro-Israel. One student held a bullhorn; another banged a drum.

The university’s senior executive vice president, Gerald Rosberg, showed up at one point. After about 20 minutes, he informed the students they were violating school rules and faced possible sanctions. The students didn’t leave.

“When someone doesn’t meet your demands, that doesn’t mean they’re not listening to you,” Rosberg said.

One demonstrator filmed everyone entering the building, forcing some students headed to class to take cover behind the front desk to avoid being recorded.

Rosberg, who chairs the special committee on campus safety, later issued a statement announcing the suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) as official student groups through the end of the term.

Rosberg said the groups “repeatedly violated University policies related to holding campus events, culminating in an unauthorized event (November 9) that proceeded despite warnings and included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.”

In a statement on Instagram, the groups called the suspension “an attack on free speech.” The groups accused the university of “selective censorship of pro-Palestinian student organizations in order to prevent protest against Israel’s increasingly brutal attacks” and “silence our voices.”

The PhD student who felt pressure to pick a side said Americans are more concerned with not offending someone than voicing their opinions. The Israel-Palestine conflict, he said, makes it extremely difficult to connect with people because “everything you say can be misinterpreted and offend someone.”

As the fall semester draws to a close, he will avoid protests and study at home. He prefers superficial talk about the weather or lunch, he said, because when discussing politics “people will respond to you and will play the victim.”

“So people don’t talk,” he said.

This story has been updated to remove identifying information about one of the students over concerns for that student’s safety.

CNN’s Elle Reeve, Eric Levenson, Ramishah Maruf and Matt Egan contributed to this report.

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