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February 21, 2024

This Ivy League school took a novel approach to easing tensions sparked by the Israel-Hamas war. Did it work?

This Ivy League school took a novel approach to easing tensions sparked by the Israel-Hamas war. Did it work?

Threats and assaults toward Jewish, Muslim, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students on college campuses have been on the rise since the Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel and the counterattacks in Gaza that have followed.

But at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, students from those same groups told NBC News they still feel safe and credit, in large part, the college’s novel approach to the issue: talking about it.

Sophomore Ramsey Alsheikh, a Muslim and son of a Palestinian refugee, remembers on Oct. 10 walking into his class on the 1967 war between Israel and Arab states. The class included Jewish, Muslim and Christian students and they had been discussing Arab and Israeli relations all fall; now those issues were playing out once again, in real time.

Dartmouth senior Owen Seiner is Jewish and says the professor-led discussions on campus have helped ease tensions that have followed the Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel and the counterattacks in Gaza.NBC News

“There was a sort of silence. Like a sense of, almost like tragedy,” Alsheikh recalls. “Then we talked about it. We unpacked it. … The raw weight of the event was still in all of our minds. We were just kind of processing it together, I guess. It was something.”

His professor, Susannah Heschel, a Jewish Studies professor, then took the same concept to the rest of the college. Days later she convened a forum led by Jewish and Middle Eastern studies professors and rented a room for 70 people. But hundreds showed up and approximately 600 joined by livestream.

“We wanted to explain to the students … that we can’t be reductionist, we have to think in complexity, that this is not a single narrative,” Heschel said. She said many students have ties to Israel and Gaza and may be feeling deeply emotional. Dartmouth has 24/7 counseling, she said, but her job was to present the complex history of the region from an academic perspective.

Dr. Susannah Heschel, a Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, helped moderate two panels in early October about the Israel-Hamas war with professors from the Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies programs. Courtesy Dr. Susannah Heschel

“You can condemn, but you also have to understand,” Heschel said.

Dartmouth President Sian Beilock encouraged students to attend the first event, which was so successful that a second forum was quickly organized. The second time more than 1,300 joined over livestream and in person, at a school with fewer than 5,000 undergraduates.

One of the panelists, Ezzedine Fishere, a Muslim professor of Middle Eastern Studies and a former Egyptian diplomat to Israel, said he “dreaded” the first forum when he saw how many people showed up.

“I was kind of going, ‘This is going to be emotional, the risk of things going out of control is pretty high,’” said Fishere. “But ultimately, although there were strong emotions among the participants, I think both forums went very well in the sense that we were capable of having this dialogue, of talking about the attacks and explaining, but also making clear that there is a difference between explaining and justifying.”

Owen Seiner, a Jewish senior majoring in Jewish studies, attended the forums. He said he feels safe being Jewish at Dartmouth and wears his Star of David necklace without fear he might be harassed by someone with anti-Israel or antisemitic views.

“I think the focus on academics and the presence of professors in the discussions has helped to sort of reduce the intensity of a lot of students feelings on the issues, and sort of channeled them towards more productive approaches, whatever they might be,” Seiner said.

Dartmouth has not gone entirely without friction since Oct. 7. Two students, Roan Wade and Kevin Engel, were arrested in late October after setting up a tent outside the school’s administration building, pushing the school to divest from “Israeli apartheid” and threatening to take “physical action.”

From left, Dartmouth students Roan Wade and Kevin Engel are members of the Palestinian Student Coalition.NBC News

Wade said there is still a lot of fear to speak out among members of the Palestinian Student Coalition, of which both she and Engel are members.

“We’ve had a lot of people say that, you know, they’re too scared (to talk to the media) in terms of whether or not they’d be doxed or physically threatened,” Wade said, referring to doxing, the practice by which someone’s information might be published online in retaliation for their opinion. Some recent doxing at other colleges and universities has called for alumni of colleges not to hire pro-Palestinian students. 

Heschel said other colleges and universities have reached out to her to ask how they can spark similar discussions on their campuses.

Fishere said what Dartmouth is doing is “not really extraordinary.”

“It’s flattering that there is all this positive reaction. But what we did is our job. And our job is to teach, our job is not to advocate,” Fishere said.

He added that students will always protest and advocate for various causes, but “the primary mission for campuses, for universities, for faculty, is to teach and learn.”

Julia Ainsley

Julia Ainsley is homeland security correspondent for NBC News and covers the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department for the NBC News Investigative Unit.

Laura Strickler

Laura Strickler is a senior investigative producer and reporter for NBC News. She is based in Washington.

Didi Martinez

Didi Martinez is an associate producer with the NBC News Investigative Unit. 

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