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How these University of Texas-Austin students view Gaza war protests on their campus

Ammer Qudummi was arrested at a UT Austin protest on April 26, but all charges have been dropped.
Michael Minasi
Ammer Qudummi was arrested at a UT Austin protest on April 26, but all charges have been dropped.

The war in Gaza sparked protests at dozens of college campuses across the United States over the past month and led to hundreds of arrests.

At universities like Columbia and New York University, protests were broken up after law enforcement was called in to remove and arrest students who barricaded themselves in a campus building and take down encampments.

On the other side of the country, police responded to the University of California, Los Angeles to break up fighting between pro-Palestinian demonstrators and counter protesters. Some universities have reached agreementswith protestors to begin steps to divest from companies associated with Israel, which is one of the main demands of the protesters. Others have decided to cancel graduation ceremonies and continue to crack down on protests.

At the University of Texas in Austin, law enforcement showed up in riot gear on April 24, the first day of demonstrations there, and arrested nearly 140 demonstrators, including a video journalist from the local FOX news station.

Largely peaceful demonstrations at the university have continued as the Israel-Hamas war nears the seven-month mark following the Oct. 7 attack, when 1,200 Israelis were killed by militants. Another roughly 240 were taken hostage, according to Israeli authorities. Gaza's health ministry says Israel's military response has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, a majority of them women and children.

Ammer Qaddumi, a protestor and student at UT Austin says that he keeps the daily horrors of the war at the front of his mind when he goes out to protest.

"It's not a demonstration for the sake of demonstration," Qaddumi said. "It's a protest for the children of Gaza. I think that's something that people cannot lose sight of."

Qaddumi, who is Palestinian American, was arrested on April 26 while trying to help disperse the crowd of protestors after police and state troopers came to the campus.

"This was their first resort, which was to use this brutal force to silence their students instead of trying to understand, you know, why their students were protesting, why we're calling for an end to UT's, investments in the genocide happening in Gaza right now," Qaddumi told NPR's Lelia Fadel.

Qaddumi and other protestors view the war in Gaza as genocide, a charge Israel denies, saying its goal is to eliminate Hamas after the Oct. 7 attacks and continues to hold hostages and lob rockets at the state. In late January, the International Court of Justice found it was "plausible" Israel had violated the Genocide Convention of 1948. The International Criminal Court was weighing issuing arrest warrants against Israeli officials.

Elijah Kahlenberg , another student and protestor at UT Austin, was injured during the protests after a state trooper on a horse ran into him. Kahlenberg, who runs Atidna International, a group dedicated to bringing Jewish and Arab peopletogether, sprained his ankle as a result. He says that he's faced antisemitic comments for participating in these protests.

"I've been called a self-hating Jew. I've been called a Kapo, which is a Jew who sells out fellow Jews to the Nazis," Kahlenberg told NPR's Morning Edition. "But I know what I'm doing has no anti-semetic undertones. I'm just calling for the equality of all peoples in the land."

Some Jewish students say they've faced harassment at protests

Jacob Sanders, one of the presidents of Texas Hillel, a Jewish student group on campus, says that the protests have made him feel unsafe

"There's been some speech on campus that a lot of Jewish students can interpret as anti-Semitic," Sanders said " I feel like if students who were chanting that knew how it made us feel, I would feel a little better on campus right now.

Sanders was specifically concerned about chants like "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," and chants calling for an intifada. In Arabic, the word intifada means "uprising or shaking off." In the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the second intifada refers to a period of violence in the early 2000s, while the first intifada referencing a period of largely civil and nonviolent disobedience from the 1980s.

"For me, as a Jewish student, calls for an intifada in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Remind me of the violence, the stabbings, the bus bombings," Seth Greenwald, a law student at UT Austin told Morning Edition.

Greenwald has been going to protests and trying to talk to as many people as possible about the conflict.

"I was spit at twice and told to go back to Poland," Greenwald said. "Also, a friend of mine was told that all Zionists should die."

Incidents like these have made students like Greenwald and Sanders feel unsafe at their university.

"I agree that people have the right to protest. But when it's encroaching on other students' rights on campus, that's when it becomes an issue," Sanders said. "And with some of the speech that was being said on campus, I do feel a bit safer with a bit of a police presence."

Qaddumi and Kahlenberg both said that any incidents of antisemitism need to be immediately condemned.

They both said the discriminatory sentiments being said against Jewish students don't represent the larger movement. Qaddumi added that the Palestine Solidarity Committee, which has organized the protests on UT's campus, asks anyone holding antisemitic signs or posters to leave immediately.

"Our movement is one that calls for the liberation of Palestinian people," Qaddumi said. "It does not call for violence or hate against anyone else. That's not what's going to liberate Palestine."

As for the phrase intifada, and other calls that chants are antisemitic, Qaddumi says students are misinterpreting the meaning of those phrases.

"For anyone who hears the word intifada and associates it with violence against a group of people, this is not this is not a complete picture," Qaddumi said. "For anyone who doesn't understand what the intifada is, I think they only need to look at what's been happening across the country on college campuses. This is the uprising, it's people waking up to the systems of oppression all around us. It's not violent. These are all peaceful demonstrations, like we've seen college students do in the past."

Mansee Khurana and Lindsay Totty produced the audio version of this piece. Mohamad ElBardicy edited the audio version. Obed Manuel edited the digital version.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: May 7, 2024 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story misstated that the International Court of Justice was considering arrest warrants against Israeli officials. It has been corrected to reflect that it is the International Criminal Court that is considering the warrants.
Mansee Khurana
[Copyright 2024 NPR]