More than 100 students at New York University (NYU) demonstrate on campus in solidarity with the students at Columbia University while being stopped by the police in NY.

Police arrested more than 100 students over protests at New York University on 22 April.Credit: Fatih Aktas/Anadolu/Getty

Protests over the war in Gaza have rattled and divided university campuses across the United States over the past few months. Now some university leaders are preparing to testify before the US Congress about their handling of the protests and accusations of antisemitism on campus. Some researchers fear that the hearing will further inflame a volatile situation.

The protests have been unprecedented — both because of their scale and because of universities’ use of law enforcement to exert control. Thousands of US students and some faculty members have been arrested during the past few weeks in confrontations — some violent — with police.

“I have personally protested every war that has happened in my lifetime, and I have never seen a reaction like this,” says David Hogg, an astrophysicist at New York University (NYU).

Here, Nature examines what’s happening now on campuses, what’s at stake in the 23 May hearing and what researchers studying the protests are learning.

What is happening now on campuses?

The student protests began on many US campuses last year after Israel invaded the Palestinian territory of Gaza following the 7 October attacks on Israel by the Islamist organization Hamas, designated by some nations as a terrorist group. Although researchers who spoke to Nature say that the campus encampments have been mainly peaceful, the protests have often featured controversial pro-Palestinian chants that some argue are antisemitic.

Some staff members are now responding to their institutions’ handling of the protests: for example, the union representing some 48,000 academic workers across the ten University of California (UC) campuses has commenced a rolling strike, starting with UC Santa Cruz on 20 May.

What is the US Congress investigating?

After tensions at many universities escalated last month, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Louisiana Republican Mike Johnson, announced a “crack down” on antisemitism on university campuses. The next day, 1 May, the House passed bipartisan legislation that, if made law, could enable federal agencies to more easily withhold funding if universities do not protect against antisemitism, which the legislation defines as including certain criticisms of the state of Israel.

This week’s hearing, which will be held by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, will feature the presidents of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. In letters to the three presidents, released in advance of the hearing, the chair of the committee, North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx, accused the institutions of enabling and even encouraging antisemitism, through actions including failing to disband “unlawful pro-terror” encampments.

This congressional hearing follows a high-profile one in December that called on the presidents of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also in Cambridge, to defend their efforts to protect against antisemitism. The presidents’ testimonies, which focused on freedom of speech but failed to condemn antisemitism outright, drew fierce criticism that ultimately led to the resignation of University of Pennsylvania president Elizabeth Magill. Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, resigned some weeks later, amid accusations of plagiarism.

What do researchers studying the protests say about them?

Some US researchers contacted by Nature dispute characterizations of the protests as unlawful, violent or antisemitic. In addition to describing them as being mostly peaceful, they say that the encampments often include educational programmes, Muslim and Jewish prayer services, and basic food, sanitation and medical services.

“The encampments I have seen are very safe, very friendly spaces, with students of every which background trying to figure out how to imagine a world where they can live together,” says Nazita Lajevardi, a political scientist at Michigan State University in East Lansing who is studying the protests.

Students and residents camp outside Northwestern University during a pro-Palestinian protest.

A pro-Palestinian encampment outside Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, on 27 April.Credit: Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu/Getty

But not everyone sees them that way. Some Jewish students and organizations have felt threatened by the protests, which have at times led to conflict between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli activists. “I can’t monolithically speak for every Jewish student out there, but many, many Jewish students feel unsafe, scared, nervous, discomforted in one way or another,” says Aaron Kaufman, who heads Penn State Hillel, an organization that represents Jewish students at Pennsylvania State University in State College.

But Kaufman also stresses that there are more than two sides to the story. For instance, researchers contacted by Nature say that they have witnessed confrontations in which Jewish counter-protestors have challenged other Jewish students in anti-war encampments, calling them ‘fake Jews’ for joining the demonstrations. The pro-Palestinian protestors have also occupied university buildings on some campuses, and administrators have said that their decisions to clear encampments were necessary to preserve order. In other cases, conflict seems to have been driven by external instigators. At UCLA, for example, the situation turned violent on 30 April when counter-protestors, many of whom are thought to have come from off campus, challenged a student encampment.

The clashes are arising, in part, from real differences in how people understand the messages emanating from the encampments, says Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. His polling suggests that a majority of both Jewish and Muslim students across US campuses feel threatened. The two groups also tend to interpret many of the chants at the protests differently, he says. For instance, 66% of Jewish students who responded to the poll, which was carried out in December and January, interpret the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as a call for expulsion or genocide of Israeli Jews in Palestinian territories. By contrast, only 14% of Muslim students who responded to the poll interpret the phrase that way; most Muslim students instead say the phrase means that Palestinians and Israelis should either live in two separate countries side by side, or live together in one state.

“Perception of what you hear is what drives your fear and your anger,” says Pape, regardless of the intent of those who chant.

Why are faculty members upset at their leaders?

Decisions at some campuses to clear encampments by force has led to rifts at institutions, with many faculty members siding with students in accusing university leaders of overly aggressive crackdowns and questioning the motivation behind those actions.

One factor at play, researchers suggest, is a generational rift. Eugenia Quintanilla, a PhD student in political science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who studies political movements and has participated in the protests, cites a recent US polling study suggesting that older people — including university administrators and wealthy alumni donors — are more likely to side with Israel in the current conflict. Younger individuals tend to sympathize with Palestinians, and regard Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks as disproportionate.

Two Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students hold signs at an encampment on the campus of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

Pro-Israeli students face off against pro-Palestinian protestors at an encampment on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, on 29 April.Credit: Qian Weizhong/VCG/Getty

Hamas killed more than 1,100 people and kidnapped around 250 others on 7 October, according to Israeli officials; since Israel began retaliatory strikes in Gaza, it has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, the United Nations and Gaza Health Ministry report.

At some US universities, researchers have also suggested that disciplinary action against protestors is unfairly targeting people of colour. For instance, at NYU, more than 70 faculty members of colour signed an open letter against the firing of a Black postdoctoral fellow, alleging that “disciplinary sanctions at NYU have heavily targeted people of color, whose actions are assumed to stem from antisemitic animus rather than legitimate political protest against the politics of a state”. More than 50 Jewish faculty members raised similar concerns in another letter.

NYU spokesperson John Beckman e-mailed a statement to Nature saying that the university is committed to maintaining a safe campus that is free from harassment and discrimination — and that it supports free speech, but not at the expense of violating the university’s anti-discrimination and conduct policies.

What might happen at the congressional hearing?

Academic organizations contacted by Nature fear that concerns about antisemitism, as well as policies designed to protect against discrimination, are being weaponized against universities by conservative politicians who see higher-education institutions as elite breeding grounds for liberalism.

The university leaders at this week’s hearing have been called to defend themselves against various accusations that they failed to protect against antisemitism. At Northwestern, for instance, leaders came to an accord with student protestors on 29 April, stipulating, among other things, that the university would create scholarships for Palestinians and establish a process for disclosing information about its investments to a panel comprised of students, faculty members and other staff. Social scientists and academic organizations contacted by Nature describe that agreement as a success story that preserved the peace by allowing students to negotiate directly with administrators. But it has proved controversial: seven Jewish members of a task force created to prevent antisemitism at the university resigned after the accord was signed, arguing that it failed to appropriately discipline students violating campus policies.

In her letter to Northwestern president Michael Schill in advance of this week’s hearing, Foxx accused administrators of signing a “shameful agreement” with students.

Such hearings are designed as “performative political theatre”, and the university presidents should recognize this, says Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, an organization based in Washington DC that advocates for academic freedom. Rather than trying to appease lawmakers, Mulvey says, they should “stand up and provide a full-throated and robust defence of academic freedom and free speech and assembly rights for students”.