On a brief break from studying for his final in evolutionary biology, sophomore A.J. Rizzo sat on a bench under a big oak tree on the University of Georgia’s campus this week and admitted, with some guilt, what he doesn’t know.

He is willing to acknowledge that he is a pretty good student. He got into UGA, right? He’s a genetics major. He’s also working toward a minor in music and plays jazz for fun, intrigued by the different kind of thinking it requires.

But this Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the one that has been going on long since before he was born, before even his parents were born, and that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since October? He has no answer for it or what side he will take.

“I’m not educated enough to have a position. I probably should. I feel like it’s my responsibility to know what’s going on in the world,” Rizzo said.

In recent days pro-Palestinian demonstrations have settled on college campuses around the nation, including in Atlanta and Athens. One organizing group in Athens suggested UGA’s administration, by not condemning Israel’s war in Gaza following a Hamas attack, hasn’t sided with “the overwhelming force of student opinion.”

But it appears that, like Rizzo, many students at Georgia’s flagship public university aren’t sure what side to take, based on interviews with nearly 30 students around campus on Wednesday.

Several demonstrations at UGA protesting Israel’s invasion have occurred this week, some attracting dozens or 100 or more demonstrators. Another pro-Palestinian rally is planned for Friday.

But at a huge university with around 41,000 studentsstrong convictions on the conflict do not appear dominant. More than half of those interviewed said they didn’t have a stance on the issue. Only a handful voiced firm support for one side or another. And even a few students who said they have taken a stance in the conflict volunteer a nagging self-awareness that there are gaps in their knowledge of the issues.

Meghan Jacobs, a junior majoring in entertainment and media studies, said she wanted to go to a couple of the protests at UGA earlier in the week but had to work at her job instead. Israelis and Palestinians present “a very complicated issue that I probably don’t have all the facts on,” she said. Unprompted, Jacobs said she doesn’t know the full history of the creation of Israel or what the solution is to violence that has roiled the region for generations.

But the carnage in Gaza is too much, she said. “I just know that I think there should be a ceasefire because there are too many lives that have been lost.”

She said her friends side with Palestinians rather than the Israeli government, some strongly, some because they feel a ceasefire is important.

Jordan Roberts, a junior majoring in biology, has a basic hope: “I would like war to stop.” Still, he said, he doesn’t think a lasting ceasefire is a real possibility.

Israel’s invasion of Gaza followed an Oct. 7 Hamas attack in southern Israel that killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took more than 200 hostages, some of whom have still not been returned. In response, Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the local health ministry.

An online petition calling on UGA to support Palestinian liberation and divest from companies supplying Israel’s fighting in Gaza or supporting Israeli settlements had garnered more than 430 signatures as of Thursday. It was unclear how many were students. The petition was organized by Athens Against Apartheid, an umbrella group including UGA Students for Justice in Palestine and Athens Against Cop City, which has accused Israel of “genocide.”

Supporters of Israel have accused pro-Palestinian protesters of being antisemitic and say the Jewish state has to defend itself from continued terrorism.

Some other students said they detect a lean among their friends, mostly siding with Palestinians. But, by far, most interviewed said the topic mostly hasn’t been broached in conversations with friends and only a few had seen friends posting about it on social media.

Doubts were common among students interviewed on a subject that has long vexed policy experts and world leaders.

“I feel like I’m not informed enough to have a very valid opinion,” said Brandon Czech, a fourth-year computer science and cognitive science major, adding later, “I feel like Israel is probably in the wrong, but I don’t know if I trust my own opinion.”

For many college students, this time of year is crunch time. At UGA, they are in the midst of finals. Some students are preparing to graduate, getting ready to start jobs or trying to line up interviews. Undergraduate commencement ceremonies are May 10.

As another pro-Palestinian rally was forming in front of UGA’s famous Arch entrance Wednesday, Cody Murray, a senior art major from Orlando, was taking graduation photos with a friend at Sanford Stadium in another part of the sprawling campus.

She said she deeply researched the conflict early on. But she found so many layers it was difficult to formulate an opinion of her own about who was in the right. And turning to others for advice on such a sensitive topic is touchy.

“It can be nerve-racking to ask about,” said Murray.

Many gatherings around the nation have been peaceful, but some have run afoul of campus rules about where and how students can protest. Some have tried to set up encampments, resisted university and police demands to move out and, in some cases, occupied and barricaded buildings and sparked cancellation of in-person classes.

Students in Athens speculated on why protests at UGA have appeared to be smaller than those at some other universities around the nation, such as at Southern California, Columbia in New York City and Emory in Atlanta. One student suggested that private universities with prestigious reputations and greater resources have attracted more activist students. Another hypothesized that it’s tied to UGA’s small-town locale and somewhat more conservative students focused more heavily on Greek life and football.

No students interviewed volunteered concerns about protests preventing their commencement ceremonies. But they had heard about such concerns elsewhere.

This year’s graduates have missed out before on walking across graduation stages. Four years ago, Murray said when she graduated high school during the worst of the COVID pandemic, she decorated her car and weaved through her high school’s parking lot to pick up her diploma from school officials through the vehicle window. “It was like going through a drive-thru.”

On Monday, police arrested 16 UGA campus demonstrators, including nine students, whom the university also suspended. Students interviewed by the AJC voiced support for free speech, but had differing views on whether the school’s actions were appropriate.

Fatima Aboubakar, a second-year biology and psychology major from Dacula, said some students were afraid to take part in an organized event to make protest posters for later in the week, concerned that alone could lead to their arrest. The activity, which took place at a plaza beside the Tate Student Center, in an area designated area for “expressive activity,” appeared to take place unhindered on Wednesday afternoon.

EJ Clay, a third-year student from the Rome area who is majoring in film, was there and said she had taken part in protests earlier in the week. Clay said the majority of UGA students probably doesn’t support the cause, but another student working on signs nearby predicted more will join the effort as protests continue.

While a small pro-Palestinian protest was underway at the edge of campus Wednesday afternoon, students lined up for graduation pictures under the university’s Arch, directly behind the rally’s speakers.

A senior, dressed in a tight red dress, tried pose after pose as protesters chanted about freedom for Palestinians. The student told a reporter she didn’t know much about the issues. “I’m still researching it.” She seemed to indicate she backed the protesters but then quickly questioned whether that was the right call. Flustered, she said she was there to take photos.

Earlier in the day, across campus, Jack Wise was downing an energy drink to stay focused as he studied for a final in engineering dynamics. A junior majoring in mechanical engineering, he said he hasn’t had time lately to dig into issues in the Middle East, but several months ago, after seeing a pro-Palestinian protest near campus, he watched a video on the conflict. It didn’t help him figure out his own opinions. Nor does he see the conflict as something he’ll be able to influence.

“I can’t control it,” he said. “The only thing I can control in my life is these finals.”


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