Oct 19, 2023 - News

Bay Area students protest Israeli military actions in Gaza

High school students stand on a platform raising the Palestinian flag and "Free Gaza" signs

Students rally for Palestinians during a walkout on Oct. 18. Photo: Courtesy of Arab Resource & Organizing Committee

Students across the Bay Area participated in a walkout Wednesday to demand a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war and protest Israeli military action against civilians in Gaza.

Why it matters: The walkout, part of a day of action coordinated by the San Francisco-based Arab Resource & Organizing Committee (AROC), spurred concern about escalations as academic institutions across the country navigate student activities around the war.

Driving the news: Footage shared with Axios shows Balboa High School students leading chants at a rally, a crowd of George Washington High School students repeating "Palestine will never die!", and dozens of students at Berkeley High School and Oakland International High School marching with Palestinian flags.

  • Students walked out "to stop the genocide in Gaza and demand that local leaders protect Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and all students against racist attacks," according to AROC's social media post about the event.

Yes, but: Concern for Jewish students prior to the walkout led over 70 parents to write an open letter calling on the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) superintendent, Matt Wayne, to "ensure our students are and feel safe, secure and respected at school."

  • The letter also denounced AROC's mission and accused the group of glorifying those involved in Hamas' attacks on Israel.

State of play: Citing recent increases in both antisemitism and Islamophobia, Wayne wrote in a Tuesday email to SFUSD families that while the walkout is not an SFUSD-sponsored activity, the district "supports the right of our students to express their views in a peaceful manner."

  • The district had issued guidance around rights and expectations to site leaders and staff, but emphasized that safety is the priority and that it would immediately address any violations of anti-discrimination policies.
  • "We hope that as adults you will join us to model the same behaviors that we want to see in our classrooms and schoolyards," Wayne said.

Zoom out: Colleges and universities are also grappling with how to respond to the Israel-Hamas war amid fear of angering students, faculty, donors and alumni.

  • Attempts to leave space for nuance in school statements about the conflict have been denounced for not strongly condemning the atrocities committed by Hamas — in turn prompting apologies and second statements.

What they're saying: "This issue has always been a hotbed for campuses," says Kristen Shahverdian, who runs nonprofit PEN America's programming around free expression best practices.

  • The war is "exposing those fault lines" on school campuses, which are "places to have disagreement, dissent, conversation ... in the classroom or out of the classroom."
  • But in times of crisis like this, schools "cannot use language that's evasive or unclear," she said. "That doesn't serve anyone."
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