At UCLA, where police are clearing encampment, Jews on campus say pro-Israel violence has undercut them


LOS ANGELES (JTA) — For the past couple of days, Eli Tsives has watched a video of himself spread online.

It shows him trying to enter his campus, the University of California, Los Angeles, and go to class, only to be blocked by a growing number of pro-Palestinian activists wearing keffiyehs, or Palestinian scarves.

Tsives, who is in his first year, handed his phone to another Jewish student who filmed the interaction. He posted the video, but says he didn’t mean to go viral. The newfound fame, he said, has made his life more difficult.

“For the first time in my life, I actually have to say, yeah, I don’t feel safe,” Tsives told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Wednesday morning. “Other students used to not feel safe, and I would advocate for them. But personally, I always used to say, ‘No, I’m fine.’”

He continued, “But now that I’ve become so public, I’ve been receiving hate calls, people have been publicly posting on Instagram about me. So it’s very difficult for Jewish students right now on campus.”

The episode was one example of rising tensions at UCLA in the days since pro-Palestinian students set up an encampment akin to those at dozens of other schools. It turned out to be a relatively tame altercation.

The day after Tsives went viral, another video of clashes did so as well: This time, it showed pro-Israel activists physically attacking the perimeter of the school’s pro-Palestinian encampment as well as at least one protester.

The demonstrators arrived just before midnight on Tuesday night, many dressed in black clothing with white masks. Photographs and videos from the scene show numerous fights breaking out, objects being thrown into the camp, and at least one firework being set off. Security guards were present at the scene but did not intervene. Police eventually cleared the area around 3 a.m.

UCLA canceled classes on Wednesday. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass condemned the violence as “absolutely abhorrent and inexcusable” and called for an investigation. According to the Los Angeles Times, at least 15 people were injured, though it is unclear if anyone was arrested. As of Wednesday afternoon, the area remained restricted to law enforcement and credentialed media, while campus and L.A. police maintained a heavy presence. Police began clearing the encampment early Thursday morning, clashing with protesters and making arrests as they moved into the area.

Among those condemning Tuesday night’s pro-Israel violence are Jewish leaders in L.A., and Jewish students at UCLA, which, according to Hillel International, is home to 2,500 Jewish undergraduates among a total of about 32,000.

Tsives, who said he witnessed Tuesday night’s clash, said the incident “slows down” those who advocate for Israel. He also laid blame with the university administration, which he said should have removed the encampment days ago when it was found to violate campus rules.


The pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA has been closed off with multiple layers of barricades and a heavy police presence. (Jacob Gurvis)

“If you’re a student who’s not biased in this situation, and you’re looking at the sides, and you see a pro-Israel mob rush what they think is a peaceful encampment — even though we know this is not a peaceful encampment — it makes us look really bad,” Tsives said. “I’m here to let them know, this was a small group of what the majority of the Jewish people actually believe. We don’t support what they did.”

That message was echoed by the L.A. Jewish federation in a rare statement criticizing the actions of Jews on campus. Like Tsives, the federation also said the violence was a result of the administration failing to act.

“We are appalled at the violence that took place on the campus of UCLA last night,” the Wednesday statement said. “The abhorrent actions of a few counter protestors last night do not represent the Jewish community or our values. We believe in peaceful, civic discourse. Unfortunately, the violence at UCLA is a result of the lack of leadership from the Chancellor and the UCLA administration. The Chancellor has allowed for an environment to be created over many months that has made students feel unsafe.”

Some Jewish students who condemned Tuesday’s violence also said they were made to feel unsafe on campus. One sociology student said that, like Tsives, he was blocked from crossing campus by pro-Palestinian activists.

“It’s been surreal. Surreal is an understatement,” the student told JTA. “I just don’t feel safe on my campus as a Jewish student… It’s kind of gotten to a point where, what are we doing here? This is America.”

But the student, who requested anonymity because of the tensions on campus, said the scenes from Tuesday night “just made our stock plummet.”

“If this was the stock market we’d be a penny stock right now,” he said. “It’s over. Anyone pro-Israel looks like a barbarian right now, which isn’t a fair representation of most of us.”

Many schools with encampments have also experienced counter-demonstrations by pro-Israel students. But UCLA has stood out for the intensity and persistence of pro-Israel protests, which included a mass rally outside the encampment on Sunday that appeared to exceed the encampment’s footprint.

Israel rally

Israel supporters held a rally at UCLA Sunday, April 28, 2024, just yards from a pro-Palestinian encampment. (Michael Marom)

A sophomore who gave her name as Stella V., and who wears a Star of David and a Hebrew “Shalom” necklace, said a Jewish professor of hers had recently asked if she felt safe wearing visibly identifiable Jewish jewelry at school.

“I told her yes, but in reflecting on that, I realized no, it’s not comfortable for me to wear my necklaces on campus,” Stella told JTA. “And yet, I’m going to anyway. Because it’s important that we stay proud and stay true to who we are in this tense situation.”

Stella attended a peaceful pro-Israel gathering at UCLA on Sunday next to the encampment and said it was more characteristic of how most Jews in campus have responded to the pro-Palestinian activism and set a clear contrast between the pro-Palestinian and the pro-Israel advocates.

“It was for the vast, vast, vast majority very peaceful, and very just loving and uplifting,” she said. “It felt so good to be a part of that community. You could really see the difference in the two communities. One was very angry and very aggressive, and the other was full of love and just happiness. I think that doing things like that is a great way to stand up for what I believe in.”

The violence on Tuesday, she said, “gives our name a bad rap, because the vast majority of pro-Israel supporters and pro-Zionists and Jewish people are not violent, and they’re not looking for any type of aggression,” she said. “I think that that type of incident gives our community a really bad representation and a really bad look.”

Tsives, along with many of the students who spoke with JTA on Wednesday, said that he was confident that many of the violent counter-protesters were not UCLA students. Students at Columbia University and other campuses with encampments have likewise said that many of the pro-Palestinian activists filmed being aggressive and making antisemitic comments are not affiliated with the university.

Tsives, who is active with several Jewish clubs on campus, said he did not recognize a single person who participated. Some students who are from the L.A. area told JTA they saw fellow local Jewish Angelenos on Tuesday night who are not UCLA students.

Dov Waxman, a professor and the director of UCLA’s Israel studies program, came to the same conclusion. In a social media post decrying the violence, Waxman also claimed that many of those involved were not students.

“I am absolutely appalled by the violence that took place,” Waxman told JTA. “I just feel totally sickened by it, really, to see those kinds of scenes of violence and mayhem on UCLA’s campus, which is ordinarily a place of peaceful studying and conversations. To see that descend into a kind of warzone is really, really deeply disturbing.”

He had harsh words for the violent pro-Israel protesters.

“I would certainly say they’re not doing anything to support the needs of the Jewish community at UCLA, and their actions, in fact, only increase the tensions on campus, including for the Jewish community at UCLA,” Waxman added. “I also don’t think they are doing anything to advance what they might think of as being pro-Israel, either. They weren’t acting on behalf or in the interests of the Jewish community at UCLA.”

Waxman said he supports students’ right to peacefully protest, adding that he recognized former students of his in the encampment. But Waxman is also a target of sorts: the protesters are calling to boycott UCLA’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, which he runs.

“To call for a boycott of a center that’s based at the University of California at UCLA, which engages solely in teaching and scholarship about Israel — it’s not linked to the Israeli government in any way, it doesn’t engage in pro-Israel advocacy, we’re an Israel studies center — I was really disappointed by that and frustrated by that,” Waxman said.

Michael Sassounian, a Jewish UCLA alum and assistant professor in the university’s psychiatry program, told JTA he visited the encampment last Thursday and was met with aggression and obscene language.

One pro-Palestinian activist, who Sassounian said nearly started a fight with him, called him a “Zionist piece of s—.” Sassounian, who was waving an Israeli flag at the time, also said some of the activists mocked him for mentioning the hostages, while another chanted “globalize the intifada.”

Sassounian said he had no issue with peaceful protest but said the violence Tuesday night as well as the ongoing harassment of Jewish students were both unacceptable. He called on the university to act.

“The university clearly has not done enough,” Sassounian told JTA. “They really have not done anything on the part that really concerns me most, which is the bullying and the barring of Jewish students from certain parts of campus.”

Police face-off with pro-Palestinian students after destroying part of the encampment barricade on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, early on May 2, 2024. (Etienne Laurent/AFP via Getty Images)

Early Thursday morning, police moved to clear the encampment after amassing outside of it for hours and issuing an order to disperse. As at other schools, they began making arrests and clashed with protesters, according to reports from the scene. In an apparent reference to the attack by pro-Israel counter-protesters, some protesters yelled, “Where were you yesterday?”

They also shouted, “Free, free Palestine” as they linked arms and resisted the police incursion, according to reports and videos from the scene, which was unfolding at about 5 a.m. local time on Thursday.

Zack, a fifth-year senior at UCLA who declined to share his last name, arrived outside the encampment Wednesday with the L.A. chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian grassroots organization Standing Together, which is a rare group in Israel calling for a permanent ceasefire. Despite advocating for an end to the war, it has also faced opposition from the movement to boycott Israel.

Zack, who is Jewish, told JTA he had mixed feelings about the encampment but supported the activists’ right to protest and agreed with the calls for a ceasefire.

He added that he was “really disturbed” by the incident Tuesday night, and more generally by the vitriolic dialogue that has surrounded the campus protests around the country, which he said distracts from the real issue: the war itself.

“I think a lot of the rhetoric on both sides is focusing on what’s happening at UCLA, when we should be focused on what’s happening in Gaza,” he said.

Recommended from JTA