Addressing the mental health impacts of campus demonstrations

Masada. (Pexels)
Masada. (Pexels)

Understanding the Mental Health Impacts of the Israel-Hamas War and the Demonstrations at Universities on Jewish Students

In recent weeks, universities across the globe have become arenas for impassioned debates and demonstrations surrounding the Israel-Hamas War. While freedom of speech and expression are fundamental values of academic institutions, the intensity and polarization of these discussions can have significant mental health implications, particularly for Jewish students. As demonstrations regarding the Israel-Hamas War proliferate on campuses, it is crucial to examine the psychological impact they have on Jewish students and the importance of supporting their mental well-being.

For Jewish students, these demonstrations can evoke a range of emotional responses, including fear, anxiety, anger, and isolation. These events often feature inflammatory rhetoric, provocative imagery, and confrontational tactics that create a hostile and intimidating environment for Jewish students who may feel personally targeted or marginalized. The vilification of Israel, often conflated with antisemitic tropes and stereotypes, can exacerbate feelings of vulnerability and alienation among Jewish students, undermining their sense of safety and belonging on campus.

The impact is not solely on the students involved, but their families as well. Recently a friend from High School, expressed her distress at the experiences her college age sons were having on campus. With my own background being in finance and technology I was at a loss for how to help her. Through a Facebook group I met Malka Shaw of a non profit, Kesher Shalom, to which I referred my friend. In the spirit of full disclosure: I soon after accepted a position at Kesher Shalom as their CIO.

The prevalence of anti-Israel sentiment within academic spaces can trigger a profound sense of identity conflict for Jewish students. Many individuals grapple with feelings of guilt, shame, or self-doubt as they navigate the complexities of their Jewish identity in relation to their beliefs about Israel and its policies. The pressure to defend or distance themselves from Israel, coupled with the fear of being labeled as complicit in oppression or discrimination, can contribute to heightened stress and cognitive dissonance among Jewish students.

Demonstrations against Israel’s role in the war in Gaza can also take a toll on the mental health of Jewish students through their social and interpersonal dynamics. The polarization of campus discourse on Israel-Palestine often leads to strained relationships, social ostracization, and even harassment or discrimination against Jewish students who express support for Israel or Jewish identity more broadly. The fear of backlash or social stigma can lead some individuals to silence their views, withdraw from campus activities, or avoid engaging in discussions about Israel altogether, further exacerbating feelings of isolation and marginalization.

Furthermore, the constant exposure to  demonstrations about the war in Gaza and related content through social media and campus events can contribute to a heightened sense of stress and emotional exhaustion among Jewish students. The relentless barrage of negative messages and imagery can fuel feelings of helplessness, despair, and hopelessness, as individuals struggle to reconcile their personal beliefs with the hostile climate on campus.

Addressing the mental health impacts of these demonstrations on Jewish students requires a multifaceted and proactive approach. Universities must prioritize creating inclusive and supportive environments that respect the diverse perspectives and identities of all students, including Jewish students. This includes implementing policies and procedures to address incidents of discrimination, harassment, or intimidation based on religion or ethnicity, as well as providing access to culturally competent mental health resources and support services.

Additionally, fostering open dialogue and constructive engagement around complex and contentious issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can help bridge divides and promote understanding among students with differing perspectives. Universities can facilitate meaningful discussions, educational initiatives, and intergroup dialogue programs that encourage empathy, critical thinking, and respectful discourse, thereby creating opportunities for Jewish students to feel heard, valued, and respected within the academic community.

In conclusion, the mental health impacts of the demonstrations regarding the war in Gaza on Jewish students are profound and far-reaching, contributing to feelings of fear, anxiety, identity conflict, social isolation, and emotional exhaustion.  Through proactive measures and thoughtful interventions, we can cultivate campuses where Jewish students feel safe, respected, and empowered to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.

About the Author
Steve Cohn, is the President and Founder of Belltown Analytics, and also serves as the CIO of Kesher Shalom. His technical and financial background led to a 5 year consulting engagement at the United Nations, where he deepened his understanding of conflict resolution, and gained an in depth exposure to global issues. The experience also intensified his life long interest in issues involving Israel and the global Jewish community. In the private sector, through Belltown Analytics he helps small business improve their web presence and gain meaningful insights into their financials through data science tools. More information can be found at https// In the public sector, he is CIO at Kesher Shalom, a non profit organization providing services to those affected by the recent rise in antisemitism. More information can be found at https//
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