For the past three months, Stanford University’s White Plaza has stood divided as students protesting a wide range of causes related to the Israel-Hamas war occupy its lawns.
The right side of the pavilion is dedicated to the Palestinian sit-in which, despite extreme weather freezing temperatures, and holidays, has persisted nonstop since October 20, 2023. Their camp is scattered with tents, Palestinian flags, and political posters. In the camp’s center sits a long table surrounded by chairs and beanbags where the students meet to strategize their demonstrations, eat meals together, and amidst everything else, Zoom in to their daily lectures.
For the past 111 days, the sit-in has grown from dozens to hundreds of participants and has become the longest sit-in in the university’s history. Outside the sit-in’s main tent sits a poster listing the group’s four main demands. The first demand asks Stanford to “issue an explicit condemnation of Israel’s war crimes and call for an immediate ceasefire.” The second and third demands urge the university to provide resources for Palestinian students and to establish an investigative committee to correct the actions of Stanford faculty and university research. Their final demand asks for Stanford to divest from companies and entities that support and or are “complicit in Israeli war crimes.”
Hana Sbahia is a Stanford undergraduate student and one of the organizers of the sit-in. She said, “Stanford’s financial ties to corporations that are complicit in crimes against humanity and violations of international law is a violation of its own document on investment responsibility.”
Student participants have endured a variety of negative interactions, including verbal harassment, with community members who disagree with the message of the sit-in. Sbahia explained that many of these interactions have been documented and published on the sit-in’s Instagram page @sit_in_to_stop_genocide.
Despite this, Sbahia said, “The vast majority of the community response is positive. We’ve had a lot of productive conversations.” She underlines that the sit-in is “a place of learning”, and encourages people to attend their weekly documentary screenings in the White Plaza.
According to Sbahia, balancing their demonstrations and Stanford’s academic rigor has been difficult. “It requires a certain degree of sacrifice. However, committing to Stanford’s values of integrity and progress for humanity is more important than anything else.”
“We hope for every single member of the Stanford community and beyond to feel included in the movement for Palestinian Liberation. The sit-in is extraordinarily diverse. I can say as a Stanford student, it is perhaps the most diverse space on campus I’ve ever been a part of,” Sbahia said.
Opposite them is a pro-Israeli informational tent, displaying Israeli, American, and pride flags, a variety of pro-Israeli posters, and brochures related to their cause. Though the pro-Israeli students only occupy their tents from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, they too spend their time glued to the protest site, eating together, studying together, and informing curious community members about the Israel-Hamas war.
The tent was first established the week before Thanksgiving by Israeli students on campus. With money from their GoFundMe page, borrowed tents and tables, and help from fellow students and staff, they have been able to support their participants with necessities and maintain a display of political posters.
Omer Shirancohen is a Stanford undergrad student participating in the Israeli cause while simultaneously studying operation research. Shirancohen, along with many other participants, was born and raised in Israel and feels compelled to defend and preserve Israeli culture. He emphasized that their demonstration was created not solely to raise awareness but to also provide a safe space for Israeli students. He said, “We want this to be a place that lets Israeli students know you’re welcome here, you belong, you’re fine, you’re safe, and we’re here for you.”
Shirancohen stressed, “We’re not against the Palestinians, we’re against Hamas, which is a terror organization.”
Elai Vengal, like Shirancohen, is an Israeli-born Stanford undergrad studying physics and participating in the demonstration. Vengal believes that the informational tent is meant to “educate the public more about the conflict, about the fact that it’s a two-sided conflict and to raise awareness on a lot of these issues that have not been properly touched upon.”
According to Shirancohen, though students of Israeli descent mainly operate the information tent, students of other backgrounds are supportive of their cause. “It’s a combination between Israelis, Jews, Zionists, and many people from other countries, like India,” he said.
There have allegedly been multiple incidents between the Israeli and Palestinian tents. “[Pro-Palestinian students] were trying to steal some of our stuff, take down our posters, and threaten some students,” Shirancohen claimed.
Despite the academic challenges of being students at Stanford, students involved in both demonstrations have managed to balance their classes and demonstrations. Many of the students managing the tent make time to zoom into lectures, an arrangement that Shirancohen describes as “very sub-optimal.”
In terms of response from the university, Shirancohen, Vengal, and other Israeli students are far from satisfied. “Stanford administration is being very reactive and not proactive, so the extremists are the people being heard on campus,” Shirancohen said. “As a university, I don’t think they’re doing enough to make students feel safe here, which is a big issue,” he claimed.
“[The university] can help educate people; this is an educational center. They’re not doing anything even to give some information about what has happened over the past 2000 years,” Shirancohen explained. “They’re avoiding taking any action.”
Sbahia explained that the Palestinian cause was similarly dependent on education. “The movement has grown through education because the more we learn about the dire conditions facing Palestinians, for the last 75 years, the more we cannot stand with this injustice,” she said.