Pro-Palestinian protesters assault several Jewish students at Tulane, witnesses say
JI spoke with Jewish students who witnessed the violence, including an attempted Israeli flag burning; the students now they are ‘scared to go to class.’
A pro-Palestinian rally in New Orleans near Tulane University, which has a student body that is more than 40% Jewish, spiraled out of control on Thursday afternoon and led to violence.
According to video footage posted on X, and confirmed by two Jewish Tulane students who did not want their full names used, two men, one of them masked, drove through the protest in a pickup truck waving a Palestinian flag. One of the men attempted to set an Israeli flag on fire.
Pnina, one of the Tulane students, told Jewish Insider that she witnessed a student trying to prevent the flag from burning, only to be hit in the head by the masked man with a flag pole. Her friend was punched by a pro-Palestinian protestor and hit in the head with a megaphone, leading to his nose being broken.
The entire ordeal lasted four hours, according to Pnina, who said three Jewish students were physically attacked, with at least one of them needing to go to the emergency room. Two arrests were made, according to the university. “It would be comforting if the administration would at least tell us who was arrested so students could know if their abuser is still out there,” Pnina said.
“I’m scared to go to class,” Eliana, the other Jewish Tulane student, told JI. “I stayed in my dorm for hours until I knew the rally was over – until I got text messages from Jewish groups saying it’s safe for students to come out. Tulane police should have shut down the protest immediately after it got violent. Instead it went on for hours.”
The protest started after the group Tulane Students For Palestine – a local chapter of the group National Student for Justice in Palestine – posted an open letter on Instagram on Tuesday condemning Tulane’s response to the Hamas attack, followed by a post promoting a rally for Palestine. In a statement, the Tulane administration ”unequivocally condemned the attacks by Hamas on Israel and all forms of terrorism and hate.”
The SJP group called on Tulane to “denounce the Israeli genocide of the Palestinian people,” “divest from Israeli occupation” and “protect Muslim and Arab Tulane students and others who speak out against Israel.”
The demonstration on Thursday along Freret Street near Tulane and Loyola New Orleans University was reportedly attended by “several hundred,” a mix of students and locals who are not affiliated with either university.
Pnina, a freshman at Tulane who is Israeli, said that upon hearing the rally would take place, she and a handful of pro-Israel classmates “set up a table far away from the protest. We baked brownies. We were trying to encourage students to not let it get them worked up. But inevitably, students went to the protest – I myself am one of them. We weren’t even there to intentionally counterprotest. But we can’t hide, we have to stand up for what we believe in. Still, we didn’t bring any major posters. We weren’t shouting anything. It was obviously disheartening but it started out as us trying to have fun. We were singing songs and someone brought an Israeli flag.”
The arrested individuals have not been identified, but Jewish Voice for Peace’s New Orleans chapter posted an Instagram story claiming one of its members had been “taken into custody.”
In a letter to Tulane students sent on Thursday, a copy of which JI obtained, Michael Fitts, the university president, noted that the rally was “intentionally staged on the public sidewalk… over which we do not have control.”
Neither of those arrested is a Tulane student, according to the university. “We want to underscore that this rally was not sanctioned by Tulane University and was not approved in any way by our university,” Fitts wrote, adding that an “investigation into today’s incident continues and additional arrests may be forthcoming as video evidence is reviewed. Campus is secure.”
Eliana, a sophomore, chose the school in large part because its student body is 43% Jewish. Looking for a change from the antisemitism she faced at her New Jersey high school, Eliana said she had found that on the New Orleans campus, the first Southern university to admit Jewish students.
But despite the school’s sizable Jewish population, even Tulane hasn’t been immune from the violent protests against Jewish students in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks. The Israel on Campus Coalition has tracked six physical incidents across five schools since Oct. 7. In addition to Tulane, there was one at Columbia University, one at Harvard University, one at Brooklyn College, and two at University of California, Berkeley.
Eliana said she doesn’t feel secure. Even though the rally was “staged on the public sidewalk,” she got caught up in the chaos while leaving class. “There was no way this wasn’t targeted at Tulane students,” she said. “There was no way to avoid it if you’re on campus because they were right in the middle of where students need to go to access their classrooms. This took place on the main street that divides our uptown and downtown campus.”
She said the administration’s statement was “vague,” adding that she wished it had explicitly clarified that the rally involved “adults attacking Jewish kids.” She noted that the letter from Fitts only came after an initial post on the university’s Instagram page did not condemn the rally. Eliana called the statement posted to Instagram “disgusting” and said the follow-up letter seemed to only come because “all the Jewish students are outraged.”
The rally was promoted by a Tulane department of communications professor. “A student in one of my classes is helping to organize a rally tomorrow and asked if I would let my classes know about it,” the professor, Anna Franco, wrote to students, attaching a photo of the flier.
Ron Gubitz, executive director of Tulane Hillel, told JI that the “climate on campus right now feels unsafe for Jewish students, which was exacerbated by [the rally].”
Gubitz said when students ask him whether they should hide their Jewish jewelry, or be fearful while walking to class, his answer is “no.”
“We of course are horrified by Jewish students feeling fear and intimidation right now. We are about community and making sure our students are feeling supported and safe. We are making sure to have even more spaces for students to come together as Jews in a safe and secure way, including things like our bagel brunch this morning and our Shabbat dinner this evening.”
Pnina said that because she is “feeling afraid to go to class,” she’s turned to Chabad on Campus and Hillel for support. “Hillel offered a pumpkin carving event during the rally so Jewish students could avoid it if they wanted,” she said.
Eliana said that prior to Thursday, she felt “very safe” as a Jew on campus. “I came here looking to be safe and have felt that way up until lately.”
“I’ve been spending more time at Jewish organizations on campus since Oct. 7,” she said. “The increased security on the one hand makes me feel safer but also seeing them inside does serve as a constant reminder that we are at heightened risk.”
In the nearly three weeks since Hamas’ massacre, Jewish students at American universities have expressed frustration and sadness at official university statements viewed as weak — in addition to being fearful of pro-Palestine student groups and faculty, some of whom have outright applauded Hamas’ attacks. Now, in anticipation of Israel’s likely ground incursion in Gaza, armed guards are becoming a new normal at some Jewish centers on college campuses around the country.
Last week, Hillel International’s CEO, Adam Lehman, addressed the security situation in a webinar, saying that armed guards would be hired to protect students at Shabbat activities. “It might seem unimaginable that students going to a simple service would have to walk through armed guards, but that is in some cases what we need on the campuses,” Lehman said.
A letter to nearly 200 university presidents that claims SJP “provides vocal and potentially material support to Hamas, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” demanding that schools investigate the campus group, was sent jointly by the Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law on Thursday.
Jacob Baime, CEO of ICC, told JI that the group will hold “universities responsible for protecting the physical safety of all Jewish and pro-Israel students. These groups have used violent words for years. It’s no surprise that actual violence follows.”
The ICC announced on Friday it will launch a 24/7 first-of-its-kind emergency hotline number for students and professionals to call a centralized number for any emergency issue they need given the surge in requests ICC is getting amid the rise of antisemitic incidents on campus.
Eliana said there’s been chatter among Jewish students about organizing a pro-Israel rally. “Some don’t think it will be productive and others want to take a stand,” she said. “I think giving up is never the solution to take. I definitely want the administration to address antisemitism as a whole. When we start school, we have to do these modules to learn about sexual harassment, discrimination, the civil rights movement. Antisemitism was never a part of that – it has to become part of our education.”
Pnina added, “I don’t feel supported by the university. Everyone is saying they thought Tulane would be the last place something like this could happen. I’m still going to Shabbat dinner [tonight].”