Anti-Israel rally at Tulane turns ugly with brawl, injuries

A rally at Tulane University in New Orleans got violent after a pro-Palestinian demonstrator hit a Jewish student in the face, Oct. 26, 2023. Photo by Bali Levine.

By David Swindle (JNS) and Southern Jewish Life reports

Anti-Israel protesters assaulted multiple people at Tulane University in New Orleans on Oct. 26, the most serious being after Jewish students at a rally responded to those aboard a truck who attempted to set an Israeli flag on fire. Several arrests were made. None of those arrested were students, and all have been banned from campus.

A rally organized by Tulane4Palestine, a group that was created a week earlier, was called for 12:30 p.m. at Freret and McAlister. Pro-Israel students took up a position across the street, holding Israeli flags and posters of Israelis who were abducted by Hamas on Oct. 7.

At the same time, Tulane Hillel was co-hosting an Antisemitism Awareness Week event with the university and the Anti-Defamation League, recommending a particular route to the building to avoid the demonstration. Hillel also encouraged students “not to engage in conflict.”

Rabbi Leibel Lipskier from Chabad at Tulane said the day before the rally that he was concerned about the possibility of attacks, and they had arranged for counter-programming elsewhere on campus with “the opportunity to donate, pledge Mitzvot and pray for the safety of the IDF and the rest of our brothers and sisters in Israel.”

Tulane President Michael Fitts, in a message to Tulane students on Oct. 26, said the rally “was intentionally staged on the public sidewalk… over which we do not have control.” The block in question connects two sections of the campus but is not technically part of Tulane.

Photo by Bali Levine.

Tulane4Palestine had distributed a map showing where to meet on the public side, cautioning to stay on the sidewalk and not enter the street or the campus territory on the other side of the street.

Dylan Mann, a Jewish freshman studying homeland security at Tulane, told JNS that he saw Jewish students waving Israeli flags and handing out fliers about kidnapped hostages. Across the street, others were rallying against Israel and its actions in the Gaza Strip after the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7. Soon, the two groups were responding to one another.

The protesters “were screaming hateful things like ‘From the river to the sea’ and calling us ‘genocide supporters’,” Mann told JNS. “I knew at that point, I wasn’t going to leave. I was gonna stay.”

The pro-Israel activists began calling those across the street “terrorists,” and “it got very hateful very quickly,” he said.

A red pickup truck with two people in the back passed the rallies a few times, then stopped. While one person in the back of the truck waved a Palestinian flag, another began to burn an Israeli flag, and a pro-Israel student ran to the truck to grab it. The person waving the Palestinian flag started hitting the pro-Israel student with a flag pole, and Mann intervened to try to protect the student. The person who had tried to burn the Israeli flag gave a double-barreled middle finger to the pro-Israel crowd.

“The driver starts punching me, and there were a couple of people who joined them,” Mann told JNS. “That’s where someone blindsides me with the megaphone and hits me in the face. And they instantly broke my nose with that.”

“Thank God, there were two girls on the Jewish side who were able to pull me out; they risked their safety for that. They are true heroes for that.”

Mann suffered a broken nose after being struck in the face with a megaphone and spent several hours in the hospital, where a CT scan revealed no brain damage, he told JNS.

“It was just unlike anything that I’ve ever experienced before,” Mann told JNS. “I was mostly just in shock. You see the monsters and what they do on videos, and you hear on the news, but when you’re really experiencing it, it’s a new level of shock.”

Anti-Israel protesters start to burn an Israeli flag during a rally at Tulane University in New Orleans on Oct. 26, 2023. Photo by Pnina Sasson.

In a letter to the Tulane Hullabaloo, Nathaniel Miller said he was the one who grabbed the flag. He said “several pro-Palestinian protestors battered me and other pro-Israel supporters with flagpoles, a belt and a megaphone. My head throbbed, and one of my peers’ faces was bleeding.”

He said his action was an “impulsive” reaction to “an act of hate.”

Miller said Tulane4Palestine is not a recognized student group at the university, and the crowd seemed to be “a mishmash of pro-Palestine individuals” from outside Tulane. He said they chose to target Tulane, which has a 44 percent Jewish undergraduate enrollment, as a provocation. “They were not trying to educate us about Palestinian rights or the humanitarian issues that are affecting Gaza residents,” he said, and considered it to be a hate march, not a political rally.

‘A bunch of rioters’

Bali Levine, a junior double-majoring in public health and Jewish studies, was one of the students who pulled Mann away from his attackers.

“I wasn’t gonna let him be beaten by a mob, by a bunch of rioters,” Levine told JNS.

Levine told JNS that the truck driver then “got out of the car, unbuckled his belt, and began to whack and whip the belt on students.”

The event Levine was helping to plan was meant to be a positive gathering with a table outside the university’s student life center, complete with baked goods like brownies.

“We had no political statements going on — nothing of the sort,” Sasson told JNS. There were Hebrew songs, including the Israeli national anthem “Hativkah.” “It was very much a peaceful protest on our side.”

But when she saw other Jewish students standing against the anti-Israel demonstrators, “I wasn’t going to let them stand there alone,” she said. “I felt it was important for me to go. I’m glad I went. I witnessed the hate firsthand.”

Even after the assaults appeared to have ended, the fear did not abate, Levine told JNS.

“Three minutes later, people started saying that ‘the truck’s gonna come back around. The truck’s gonna come back around.’ I don’t want to speak for everybody. I personally did not feel protected by the police.”

‘The most violent act I’ve seen’

According to Pnina Sasson, a freshman who is considering a journalism major, two others were in the truck with the driver. Those two, who appeared to be of middle or high school age, were the ones lighting the Israeli flag on fire and displaying the Palestinian flag. (She added that many of the protesters appeared to be middle-aged.)

When the young person, whose face was obscured by a scarf, began setting the Israeli flag on fire, Sasson and others knew “the line had been broken and had been crossed.”

Blood on the sidewalk after a Jewish student got hit in the face by an anti-Israel protester during a rally at Tulane University in New Orleans on Oct. 26, 2023. Photo by Pnina Sasson.

She told JNS that the whole incident hit very close to home: “It’s very frightening, especially seeing people that were protesting against us who live in my dorm and are in my classes.”

“I just cannot get that image out of my head—the moment that he was hit in the head with that megaphone. It was just so violent,” Sasson said. “This is the most violent act I’ve ever seen in my life, period. Antisemitism aside.”

“Having it happen to my friend was just absolutely traumatizing,” she added.

Tulane Hillel issued a statement, “horrified that Jewish students were attacked violently yesterday at what was supposed to be a peaceful event.”

On Oct. 27, a day after the incident, Tulane’s president Michael Fitts and two other senior administrators said there were “no active threats,” and that the campus was “secure.” They went on to state that the Tulane University Police Department is increasing its numbers and visibility of officers on the ground, among other precautions.

“The several individuals who have been arrested in the last few days have been issued a restricted presence by TUPD, which prevents them from entering and engaging on any of Tulane’s campuses,” the three officials added. “We must unite in our efforts to protect one another and to stand against all forms of violence and hate including antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism.”

While those arrested had not been named, the newly-revitalized New Orleans chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a fringe group opposed to Israel’s existence, posted on Instagram that one of its members had been “taken into custody.”

Posters on the anti-Israel side included “Globalize the Intifada” and “There is only one solution: Intifada revolution.” The two Intifadas were violent Palestinian uprisings, targeting Israeli civilians in the late 1980s and early 2000s. Targets included bus stops, restaurants and even a hotel Passover Seder, and the Second Intifada killed over 1,000 Israelis, mainly civilians.

Other posters used the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The phrase is commonly seen as calling for the erasure of Israel.

The day before the rally, “From the river to the sea” was spray-painted on a wall on Freret Street. A student who has not been named was arrested and charged with criminal damage to property. The student reportedly claimed the message was not intended to be antisemitic. The university had the graffiti removed.

Before the rally, Tulane4Palestine had issued a statement as “Jews, Muslims and others who condemn Tulane’s endorsement of Zionism and Israeli apartheid.”

The group stated that Zionism has nothing to do with Jews, meaning anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. They called on Tulane to “denounce the Israeli genocide of the Palestinian people” and Israel’s actions since Oct. 7, as well as “the ongoing terrorism Israel has inflicted on the Palestinian people for the past 75 years,” meaning from the founding of Israel.

After the Oct. 7 Hamas invasion of Israel, Fitts had issued a statement saying “We are grieving over the truly horrific attacks by Hamas on Israel, and the ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza.”

Tulane4Palestine also demanded divestment from Israel, including initiatives like the U.S.-Israel Energy Center at Tulane, along with other collaborations with Israeli universities.

They also demanded the protection of Muslim and Arab students, as well as any others who speak out against Israel.

A visiting professor of communications, Cheree Anna Franco, promoted the rally in messages to all of her students.

Twisting a peaceful event

Photo by Pnina Sasson.

After video of the attack at the rally went viral, Tulane4Palestine issued a statement decrying the media trying to “twist this peaceful protest into an attack on Jewish students.” They said the event “featured Muslim and Arab students sharing their experiences of discrimination and harm on campus, Jewish students sharing how they had been ostracized by speaking on how Zionism is not antisemitism (sic),” and they were met with jeers and taunts from students “garbed in Israeli and IDF flags.”

They claimed that “the peaceful nature of our rally” was disturbed by “Zionists who rushed into the street, violently attacking Palestinian youths, including two minors.” The attempt to burn an Israeli flag was not mentioned.

They also posted a video featuring members of JVP stating that the “river to the sea” chant is not antisemitic, but a call for justice, and statements that it involves expelling or killing Jews reflects racist and Islamophobic tropes.

The video was posted in response to Fitts’ condemnation of the “River to the Sea” graffiti of Oct. 25.

On Oct. 28, a letter signed by over 1200 students, alumni and parents, coordinated by Alpha Epsilon Pi, called for a university investigation into the protest, and disciplinary measures for those who became violent or promoted hate speech.

The letter faulted the university for not shutting down several instances of antisemitism, including the attempt to burn an Israeli flag. “While we fully and wholeheartedly respect the right of EVERY individual and group to express their views and engage in free speech, free protest, and free assembly, it is the central responsibility of the university to ensure that such expressions can NEVER escalate into violence, endanger safety and lives, or perpetrate any form of hate or hate speech.”

Among the signatories was Zeta Beta Tau, Sigma Delta Tau, Alpha Epsilon Phi and Students Supporting Israel.