Fadwa Wazwaz attended a pro-Palestinian protest at the University of Minnesota recently and intentionally took a picture with a Jewish attendee to show they could coexist despite the war in the Gaza Strip.

"This has to stop," Wazwaz, a Palestinian U employee, said of the violence.

Jewish student Jon Greenspan felt unnerved a couple weeks ago when his group, holding Israeli flags and pictures of people taken hostage by Hamas, was surrounded by a few dozen people.

He worried what might happen to Jewish students if no one spoke out and decided "that fear completely outweighs any other fears I have standing up for myself."

The war between Israel and Hamas, unfolding thousands of miles away, has reinvigorated a wave of activism on college campuses in Minnesota and across the nation. More than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested at Columbia University, prompting the Ivy League school to cancel in-person classes and religious leaders to encourage Jewish students to celebrate Passover elsewhere. That spurred a flurry of other demonstrations across the country.

Protests in Minnesota have been less disruptive, though nine people were arrested for trespassing at the U earlier this week. And the issue hovers over many aspects of university life.

"These are really fraught times," said Macalester College President Suzanne Rivera.

The last six months have corresponded with what the U.S. Department of Education has described as an "alarming nationwide rise" in complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobia since Oct. 7. On that day, Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel that killed an estimated 1,200 people and resulted in hundreds being taken hostage. Israel responded by invading the Gaza Strip, where the Palestinian death toll has now surpassed 34,000, according to statistics released by the United Nations.

College leaders find themselves facing renewed pressure to protect free speech rights while ensuring students' safety — and lamenting that two values they have long held dear are increasingly being pitted against each other.

"Most people will tell you they believe in the importance of free speech and that they believe free expression is important on college campuses, right up until they hear a word they don't like," Rivera said. "And then, at that point, it seems like there is an urge to expect presidents and other leaders to step in and limit free expression."

An open forum?

Leaders at Macalester College say this is a moment to teach students how to make a difference in a messy world. They've hosted events aimed at reducing the rancor in political discourse and invited officials from different parties to come debate hotly contested issues.

Interim University of Minnesota President Jeff Ettinger has received requests to block speakers from coming to campus, remove faculty members' statements on the conflict or quash protests.

"To me, as the months have gone by, it has reinforced in my mind the notion that a campus needs to try to be an arena of public discourse and try to avoid being one of the participants in it," he said, emphasizing that college should be an open forum.

Bias complaints at the U have more than doubled, with 122 reports filed so far this year. Of those, 42 "reported bias against Israel/antisemitism," while 16 "reported bias against Palestine/Islamophobia." Ettinger said the university has boosted security when appropriate.

The U is also working to create a policy that aims to better outline when and how faculty can issue statements on high-profile issues. Members of at least four U departments issued statements on the war, some supporting Israelis and some supporting Palestinians. Some were referenced in a complaint asking the U.S. Department of Education to investigate concerns about antisemitism. One drew a rebuke from Republican state lawmakers who noted they would consider the U's response while vetting funding requests.

In the meantime, U faculty are approaching the conflict differently. Some have joined pro-Palestinian rallies and sent letters reaffirming students' right to protest. Others have avoided discussing the war.

Bruno Chaouat, an antisemitism scholar who teaches about the Holocaust, avoids discussing Oct. 7 in class but will talk about it during office hours. That's partially an effort to stay closely on topic, but Chaouat also said, "I was overwhelmed by the event and frankly didn't have words."

"The Holocaust has become extremely difficult to teach," said Chaouat, who previously ran the U's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. "It is relativized, and there is a trend toward accusing the Jews of monopolizing suffering and victim status."

A search for peace

A pro-Palestinian rally on the U campus earlier this week drew hundreds of people, enough to cover the lawn outside Coffman Memorial Union. Many people approached by the Star Tribune said they didn't want to talk. Some said they feared retaliation.

Wazwaz suspects many also worry about a scenario where "the whole movement becomes misinterpreted as antisemitism" and harms the effort to get help to the 1.7 million people in Gaza.

She was born in Jerusalem and regularly sees videos from the war-ravaged areas.

"You'll see people crying for help," she said, adding that some of those killed are aid workers trying to provide people with food or medical care. She worries that in some of the debates over protests, some are losing track of the fact this violence is "costing people's lives."

Rally organizers have called on the U to divest from companies supporting Israel, ban defense recruiters on campus, and issue statements supporting Palestinian students. Some also lamented the nine arrests earlier this week. Ettinger said the university has a policy prohibiting encampments and aims to ensure it's enforced neutrally, for all groups.

At the rallies, some speakers said they believed protesters of color were being unfairly targeted and were receiving fewer protections than their Jewish colleagues on campus. People participated in group chants calling for a ceasefire, describing the violence in Gaza as genocide and accusing Israel of promoting terrorism.

Graduate student Imogen Page, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace Twin Cities, has attended some of the pro-Palestinian protests.

"We know that we have a moral obligation to do everything in our power to stop our government from supporting this," Page said.

Page helped coordinate a Seder meal at the U protest site earlier this week.

"The way they participated was so moving," said Page, who noted this was the first time many had experienced the meal celebrating the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.

Greenspan, who is trying to revive a chapter of Students Supporting Israel, spent the first half of the week trying to balance his final classes of the semester with Seder meals held elsewhere. It's been a long few months full of unnerving protests. At one point, he and some others spotted a poster where someone had crossed out the Star of David.

He worries some of their messages are getting lost.

"I think there is a confusion when pro-Israel people come out and there's the idea that the Zionists or the pro-Israel people, we want this war to continue," he said. "We just want peace."