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(CNN) -- Beyond the heavy iron gates of Columbia University adorned with the words "May all who enter here find welcome and peace," graduate student Alessandro Prosperi, 25, said he felt immense pressure to "pick a side" in the war between Israel and Hamas.

Prosperi, who is from Italy and is working on a doctorate in statistics, recalled that friends on both sides of the conflict repeatedly approached him and he refused to lend his name to requests or statements on this fraught issue.

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"I'm not an expert. I don't have an opinion," said Prosperi, president of the university's Italian Society. "It's not easy and a lot of people are dying. My opinion is that it's sad."

U.S. college campuses, longtime bastions of political discourse and protest, are seeing widening fissures created by intense debate over a conflict that has sparked contention for decades. While students on both sides say they feel ignored and abandoned by the university administration, young people who don't take a stand on the war argue that those feelings hold true for them, too.

Students protest at Columbia University in New York City on Oct. 12, 2023.
(Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

"You can act like you don't care and avoid what they say, or you can try to reason and understand what's going on to see an ideological way to choose a side. But the situation is very complicated," said Prosperi, who moved to New York in August after studying in Texas.


"Either you don't care or you feel lost. It's too much to try to handle."

"I don't even want to get involved on campus"

Entrenched views on the long-standing conflict have not only led to disciplinary action against faculty members, but have also created a fierce backlash against the most vocal students. As a result, many graduates and college students nearing the end of one of the most tumultuous semesters in recent history agree that the highly charged environment is impacting college life, turning a place of learning into a place of distrust and disorder.

"I don't even want to get involved on campus," said a second-year Columbia law student, who is Jewish and did not want to give his name, looking exhausted after the recent pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus. "Now I want to graduate and get out of here."

On a recent November afternoon, protesters gathered on both sides of Low Plaza, the heart of Columbia's campus in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. That day, and at other times this fall, school administrators closed the sprawling grounds to the public in part "to help maintain safety and a sense of community through planned demonstration activities," according to a statement.

The words "Peace Corner," which had been scrawled in chalk on a bench on Campus Walk, the university's main thoroughfare, had now been erased.

With the campus closed to the public that day, a university spokesperson accompanied a reporter and noted that the war-related events were not sanctioned by Columbia and violated school policy.

On the steep granite steps leading from the wide concourse to the portico surrounding the entrance to the Low Library, protesters chanted "Cease fire now" with a measured and restrained cadence.

A Palestinian refugee, Mohsen Mahdawi, gave an impassioned speech about his experience of being shot in the leg in a refugee camp. Mohsen, a university student, then led protesters down the stairs and surrounded a group of Jewish students, who waved Israeli flags and refused to move, to stage a "die-in."

"We're not going to die under an Israeli flag," he said, prompting demonstrators to keep their protest away from flags.

At the top of the stairs, a biology senior — "a reformed history student" — gave only his first name, Daniel. He's half Iranian. The tension on campus, he said, made him uncomfortable: a "mental discomfort."

Daniel said he has no problem speaking his mind. But he warned that "picking a side" can lead to one's name and face being displayed on a mobile "doxxing" poster that a conservative nonprofit has used to shame pro-Palestinian students. Daniel only shares his opinions with close friends and family, he said.

"Physical peace and ideological peace are two different things," he said as the demonstration broke up.

In October, the university's chancellor, Minouche Shafik, addressed doxxing (an online invasion of personal privacy) in a statement.

"Some students, even at Columbia, have been victims of (doxxing)," Shafik said. "This form of online harassment, which involves the public publication of names and personal information, has been used by extremists to target communities and individuals. This type of behavior will also not be tolerated and should be reported through appropriate school channels. Where appropriate, we will refer these cases to external authorities."

Columbia has created a resource group to address issues related to doxxing, harassment, and online safety.

The university postponed its massive Giving Day fundraiser in October amid simmering tensions on campus over the war between Israel and Hamas.

"At this time, we know that the atmosphere on campus is extremely charged and many are concerned for their personal safety," Columbia officials said in a statement Oct. 12.

University leaders issued a separate statement condemning "disturbing anti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts, including intimidation and open violence."

That statement came after a Columbia student who hung posters on campus in support of Israel was assaulted.

Shafik urged the university community to avoid language that "vilifies, threatens or stereotypes entire groups of people," adding that such speech "will not be tolerated" when it is illegal or violates university rules.

Outside Butler Hall, two Filipino-American students and a friend (all of whom asked to remain anonymous) said the campus is full of people talking about the war even though it doesn't affect them personally. One woman said the heated debate made it difficult for her to concentrate at school.

In a November sit-in at the Graduate School of Social Work, about 50 protesters accused the university of being one-sided and pro-Israeli. One student was holding a megaphone; another hit a drum.

The university's senior executive vice president, Gerald Rosberg, appeared at one point. After about 20 minutes, he informed the students that they were violating school rules and facing possible penalties. The students didn't leave.

"When someone doesn't meet your demands, that doesn't mean you're not listening to them," Rosberg said.
A protester filmed everyone entering the building, forcing some students on their way to class to take shelter behind the counter to avoid being recorded.

Rosberg, who chairs the special committee on campus safety, later issued a statement announcing the suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) as official student groups until the end of the term.

Rosberg said the groups "repeatedly violated University policies related to holding events on campus, culminating in an unauthorized event (Nov. 9) that unfolded despite warnings and included threatening rhetoric and intimidation."

In a statement on Instagram, the groups called the suspension "an attack on free speech." The groups accused the university of "selective censorship of pro-Palestinian student organizations to prevent protests against Israel's increasingly brutal attacks" and "silencing our voices."

Prosperi, the doctoral student from Italy, said Americans are more concerned about not offending someone than expressing their opinions. The conflict between Israel and Palestine, he said, makes it extremely difficult to connect with people because "everything you say can be misinterpreted and offend someone."

As the fall semester comes to a close, Prosperi will avoid protests and study at home. He prefers to talk superficially about the weather or lunch, he said, because when you talk about politics "people will talk back to you and play the victim."

"So people don't talk," he said.

CNN's Elle Reeve, Eric Levenson, Ramishah Maruf and Matt Egan contributed to this report.

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