Attack on U.C.L.A. Encampment Stirs Fears of Clashes Elsewhere

At a rally at the University of California, Los Angeles, last Sunday, Elan Carr, the leader of an Israeli diaspora group, told more than 1,000 demonstrators that Jewish mobilization at universities was beginning.

“We will take back our streets. We will take back our campuses from Columbia University to U.C.L.A. and everywhere in between,” Mr. Carr, chief executive of the group, the Israeli American Council, told the crowd.

The U.S. and Israeli national anthems were sung, and there were prayers, speeches by Jewish leaders and Israeli pop songs. But close to the rally, hundreds of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian protesters faced off, shouting insults and threats. Fights broke out after a barrier that the university had erected to separate the two sides was breached.

It was a volatile start to what would become one of the most violent stretches of campus unrest. Days later, scores of counter demonstrators stormed the pro-Palestinian encampment at U.C.L.A. and clashed late Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning.

In an interview, Mr. Carr said the Israeli American Council, which describes itself as a nonpartisan group representing Israelis and Israeli Americans, did not condone the violence. But the nonprofit organization’s plans to stage more counter-protests on or near other college campuses has raised the prospect of further confrontations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian factions.

“The fear I have is that this is a combustible situation aggravated by agitators who seem intent on escalating the level of violence against the other side,” said David Myers, a U.C.L.A. professor of Jewish history who, with colleagues, tried to act as a buffer between the two sides. “This could spread like a contagion.”

Since the arrests on April 18 of demonstrators at Columbia University in New York, pro-Palestinian activists have launched similar protests at dozens of public and private universities across the country

Students outraged by the deaths of thousands of civilians in Gaza have called for a cease-fire and demanded that their universities divest from companies that do business with Israel, which has been waging war in the Palestinian territory since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed 1,200 people.

The demonstrations have expanded to more campuses in recent days, with encampments popping up and students occupying buildings and central quads. Access to some colleges has been restricted to students and faculty out of safety concerns More than 2,000 people have been arrested or detained.

Jews have joined the pro-Palestinian protests in many places. But many Jewish students have reported feeling unsafe amid the protests and facing harassment. Mr. Carr says his organization, in partnership with other Jewish groups, is responding to that climate of fear.

The time had come, he said, to shift from “just condemning” the pro-Palestinian demonstrations to “being proactive and bringing real support to Jewish students and faculty who are really suffering and feeling abandoned.”

The U.C.L.A. campus has become a flashpoint for tensions between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators.Credit…Mark Abramson for The New York Times

He said that the Israeli American Council was “leading, or integrally involved in, multiple events” across cities in coming days, some of them planned to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorated in Israel on May 5. A post on the organization’s Facebook page listed rallies in Austin, Las Vegas and New York, among more than a dozen places.

In Philadelphia on Thursday, a counterprotest organized by the Israeli American Council took place at the University of Pennsylvania. Participants presented Penn’s interim president with a petition urging the university to disband a pro-Palestinian encampment that has been on campus for a week.

That evening, counterprotesters played footage of the Oct. 7 attack on a screen erected close to the encampment. Shortly before the film began, a pro-Israel supporter started shouting at the camp with a bullhorn but was quickly drowned out by chanting and drumming by pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

Mr. Carr said that some rallies would be held on college campuses, others adjacent to them and still others far from universities. All of them would coordinate with the authorities, he said.

The clashes that erupted late Tuesday at U.C.L.A. turned the campus into a national flashpoint. Masked counterprotesters entered the encampment set up last week by students opposed to the war in Gaza. The attackers hurled a firecracker into the encampment, tore down its outer walls and threw heavy objects at the pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

No arrests have been made in connection with the attack.

The Jewish Federation Los Angeles, which partnered with I.A.C. for the rally last Sunday, condemned the violence and said the attackers at U.C.L.A. did not represent the Jewish community or its values.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said about 200 people were arrested on Thursday after law enforcement raided the encampment, which had been declared unlawful. Most were charged with misdemeanors such as unlawful assembly and released, she said.

Los Angeles is home to large, active Jewish and Israeli communities, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the first large pro-Israel rally unfolded here.

Some 600,000 Jews live in Greater Los Angeles, second only to New York. Many members of the Los Angeles Jewish community are descendants of people who fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s or survived the Holocaust. More recently, large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Russian, Ukraine, Iran and Israel have settled in the city since the 1980s.

“This is likely the most diverse Jewish community in the United States, and it is also extremely diverse politically,” said Mr. Myers, the U.C.L.A. professor. “That diversity was reflected in the demonstrations on campus.” Jewish students have participated in pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian protests, he said.

Some 250,000 Israelis and Israeli Americans live in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, according to independent estimates.

The San Fernando Valley, the sprawling northern half of the city, has for decades been a magnet for expatriates from Israel who have established synagogues, opened restaurants and promoted cultural events.

The I.A.C. started as a small grass-roots effort in the Valley in 2007 and grew rapidly after it received multimillion-dollar gifts from the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who died in 2021, and his Israeli-born wife, Miriam Adelson.

The organization’s income was $18.6 million in 2022, up from $5.5 million in 2013 and about $500,000 in 2010. It now has chapters in 21 cities, from Atlanta to Las Vegas.

The protests at U.C.L.A. and other schools have been unfolding as students prepare for final exams and graduation. Credit…Mark Abramson for The New York Times

The I.A.C. supports a range of programs for Israeli Americans in Los Angeles and elsewhere, including youth leadership training for pro-Israel advocacy and activities to strengthens participants’ Jewish identity and connection to Israel.

On Wednesday, individual donations from across the United States poured in. A small window that popped up in the corner of the I.A.C. website identified the donors by their first name, the amount they gave and where they lived.

Mr. Carr said that the I.A.C. had not started a specific campaign to raise money for rallies. After Oct. 7, it created an emergency fund for donations that went directly to Israel, he said.

A former prosecutor in Los Angeles and a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, Mr. Carr was the special envoy to combat antisemitism during the Trump administration. He was born in the United States to Israeli parents, and he became I.A.C.’s chief executive in October, just days before the Hamas attack.

The organization has billed itself as apolitical since its inception, though in the last several years some benefactors have stepped away, expressing concern that the I.A.C. has moved to the right, according to several people and reports in the Jewish media. Mr. Carr, a Republican who has run for public office, said that “we have people of all types and stripes.”

U.C.L.A. has become a hub of pro-Palestinian activism. The leafy, 105-year-old campus sits in Westwood, an upscale neighborhood that has a large number of Jewish residents, according to Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

“If I were to have guessed a month ago where the most pro-Israeli reaction to the war would have been, my first guess would have been U.C.L.A,” he said.

But he noted that the clashes ran counter to the long history in Los Angeles of alliances between the city’s Jewish community and other populations who feel marginalized. The views of many of the young people demonstrating this week were shaped, he said, by knowing only Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing prime minister of Israel.

“All these students have seen is Netanyahu and a government there that to them seems autocratic, out of touch and not protecting democratic ideals,” Mr. Guerra said.

Reporting was contributed by Shawn Hubler Campbell Robertson and Jon Hurdle. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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