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College campuses across the country have been steeped in anger and anguish, with countless protests and counterprotests over the Israel-Hamas war taking place.

Whether it’s at the family dinner table or in the halls of academe, figuring out how to talk respectfully, fairly and factually about such a charged issue is hard. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, leaders have stressed the educational role of their institution during a crisis that has ignited powerful feelings. I interviewed scholar David Mednicoff, chair of the university’s Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, about how he and his colleagues have handled the past few weeks.

“As someone who sees many people on campus in pain and many more not knowing what to think, bringing in expertise that can encourage people to engage with one another, potentially across divides, seems needed,” said Mednicoff. So his department sponsored public talks by experts on Israeli-Palestinian relations, followed by discussions among audience members. In one case, that turned into a “respectful argument.” Mission accomplished.

Likewise, Chancellor Javier Reyes’ statements to the community did not take a position on the conflict. Instead, Mednicoff explained how Reyes’ policy of “championing vigorous debate on a far-flung, divisive conflict affirms what our university stands for.”

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Naomi Schalit

Senior Editor, Politics + Democracy

Students at UMass Amherst march across campus following a walkout and rally protesting the university’s “ties with war profiteers,” while also calling for “a ceasefire and end of the blockade on Gaza.” Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Defending space for free discussion, empathy and tolerance on campus is a challenge during Israel-Hamas war

David Mednicoff, UMass Amherst

A scholar of the Mideast at a large public university says that caring and a commitment to free speech have been central to his campus’s response to students upset and angry over the Israel-Hamas war.

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