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The war in Gaza is a big story on campus. These student reporters aren't shying away

Students Hannah Levitan, left, and Lindsay Ruhl launched <em>The Tulane Hullabaloo</em>'s first student podcast in response to campus tensions over Israel's war in Gaza.
Emily Kask for NPR
Students Hannah Levitan, left, and Lindsay Ruhl launched The Tulane Hullabaloo's first student podcast in response to campus tensions over Israel's war in Gaza.

Hannah Levitan, a 21-year-old senior at Tulane University, takes her job as a student reporter very seriously.

"As a journalist you're never off the clock," she says.

She was leaving an interview the Thursday before Halloween when she heard students were gathering near the school's New Orleans campus in support of Palestinians.

"I walked into that rally and instantly realized this is something that people are going to talk about for months to come, years to come maybe."

The rally turned heated, and then violent. It marked a turning point both on campus and for the reporters of The Tulane Hullabaloo.

Tensions have been high on U.S. college campuses, ever since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, and the resulting war in Gaza. There have been demonstrations, backlash and even violence on campuses from New York City to Cambridge, Mass., to Ann Arbor, Mich.

Even college leaders have come under fire – notably the presidents of Harvard University, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, who faced withering criticism for their Capitol Hill testimony on antisemitism.

For student journalists, like Levitan, what's happening on their campuses is likely the biggest story they've ever covered — and it's tricky to write about when friends and classmates are so deeply divided.

Things are especially complicated at Tulane.

About a third of students at the private, highly-selective school identify as Jewish, according to the university's Hillel chapter. That includes Levitan, The Hullabaloo's digital director.

"I mean, people literally call it Jewlane," she says.

The school doesn't track how many students identify as Muslim, or any other religion. There is a Muslim student group, but they did not respond to NPR's requests.

Lindsay Ruhl, The Hullabaloo's breaking news editor, says when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking more than 240 hostages, the campus appeared united in its grief.

But as the days passed and Israel launched its air and ground campaign in Gaza — that's since killed more than 20,000 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza — Ruhl says things fractured.

"It was good to see everyone come together," she says of the unity following Oct. 7. "But looking at it now, it's a different issue."

The divisive rally near campus marked a turning point

Levitan says the rally on a sunny day at the end of October started out peaceful. But as counter-protestors gathered, both sides started hurling insults.

A video posted to social media — and referenced in Levitan's reporting — shows a red pickup truck pulling into the middle of the street, between the two groups.

Someone standing in the bed of the truck holds a lighter up to an Israeli flag and another person runs up and pulls the flag away. For a brief moment, the protest becomes violent.

The Tulane University Police Department confirmed the details of what happened at the rally. Three students were assaulted and several people were arrested, none of them students, according to a Tulane spokesperson.

The demonstration wasn't the only sign of tension on campus. The night before, a student was arrested for spray-painting the divisive phrase "from the river to the sea" on a building near the library.

Ruhl, who isn't Jewish, says after those incidents, "Some of my friends were scared to go to class. And regardless of how they were feeling, their parents were texting them."

Tulane officials described the rally and the spray-painted message as "deeply distressing" and said they would increase security, even though the rally technically happened off-campus. Since then, Tulane has been added to a list of dozens of schools under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for possible "discrimination involving shared ancestry."

The Education Department didn't give details about Tulane's possible violations, but a university spokesperson said in a statement that the rally is at the center of the investigation.

A Hullabaloo podcast puts students with different opinions side-by-side

Ruhl and Levitan say student opinions on the conflict vary widely. And not everyone at the rally was there for the same reason — even if it seemed like they had picked a side.

"There are people who are standing on the pro-Israel side against Hamas or against antisemitism," Levitan says. "Or they're standing on the pro-Israel side because they support [Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. You don't know that unless you speak with them."

Which is exactly what she and Ruhl did on both sides of the protest.

"We talked to a guy who was sobbing," Ruhl says. "I almost cried interviewing people on both sides."

Those emotions came through in the recordings Ruhl and Levitan made of their interviews, and they wanted to do more with the sound they'd captured.

"It became apparent as we were going through them, that these are things that you need to hear because the emotion is something that you cannot read in print," Levitan says.

So they decided to make the paper's first ever podcast, Breaking Waves.

The first episode puts students with different opinions side-by-side, something Levitan says hasn't always been happening at gatherings on campus.

Tulane senior Anaya Rodgers attended the rally in support of Palestinians. "Israel doesn't need support, they have the U.S. support," she said in the first episode of Breaking Waves. "The Palestinian people, people of color, Muslim people, my people, we need the support that we so desperately haven't gotten yet."

Searching for words, and breath, first year student Gabriel Rudelman told the podcast he feared for family members' safety in Israel.

"It's scary to be a Jew right now ...We're not safe. If Israel didn't exist, we would all be dead right now. None of us would be standing here right now."

Friends and classmates are deeply divided

Levitan and Ruhl say reaction to the podcast and the paper's coverage has been largely positive.

But Ruhl says she felt like some of her classmates saw her differently after she covered the pro-Palestinian demonstration.

People told her they were hurt when they saw photos of her at the rally. They didn't understand her role as an impartial journalist, charged with writing about both sides.

"It's kind of frustrating," Ruhl says.

Levitan says social media is making the problem worse. She says college-specific platforms like Fizz can serve as echo chambers, where one-sided misinformation is framed as news, further entrenching students in their views.

"We're 18 to 21, how could you possibly have made up your mind and decided that you are standing on one side and you are unwavering?" Levitan says. "You are not going to ever consider speaking to people on that other side?"

She says The Hullabaloo and the university have a chance to bring students together to listen and learn from one another. It's an opportunity they can't afford to miss.

Edited by: Nicole Cohen
Visual design and development by: LA Johnson

Copyright 2023 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio

Aubri Juhasz
Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.