How New York High-School Students Are Processing the War

Photo-Illustration: New York Magazine; Photo: Courtesy of Satchel Hudson

MESA Charter High School’s flag-football team was getting nervous. In the weeks after Hamas’ attack on Israel, team members at the school in Bushwick were warned not to go to Hasidic Williamsburg. “We didn’t know what the response was going to be in that neighborhood,” says Aisaac, a 16-year-old junior with an air of unflagging sincerity. “I was warned to steer clear out of my own safety.” Then, on October 28, the team had another game, this one in Downtown Brooklyn. A large pro-Palestinian-rights march passed their playing field on the way to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

“The whole street was filled,” explains Aisaac’s teammate Genaury, a senior with curly hair and glasses. The team stayed put, watching, until well after dark. “My coach was asking me, ‘Where are you going?’ He didn’t want me walking out into that crowd. God forbid something happens. At the end of the protest, a bunch of cop cars and vans were following. I felt shocked. It was completely random to me.”

Torn Up and Apart

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MESA shares a low-slung concrete building with two other small schools in Bushwick. It’s tight-knit and working class; 97 percent of students are people of color, and they often have to work and take care of younger siblings along with all the regular high-school stuff. “I’ve got football, National Honor Society, community service,” says Aisaac. “By the time I get home, I’m just ready to collapse, but I still have to do work.” What they do understand of the conflict is filtered through their phones. Jordi, a senior with lime-green hair who’s the team’s wide receiver, recalls seeing “a post that showed the stats of little kids and babies dying. It’s so sad and devastating. They didn’t cause anything, little babies and kids.”

There hadn’t been much discussion about the war in classrooms or among friends or even at home. Aisaac raised it to his teacher in the current-events section of his U.S.-history class: “I brought in an article and I asked for a little more context behind it. She spoke about how she thought it was a negative thing that was happening. She thought it was terrible to see all these deaths.” He was left with a lot of unanswered questions. “It made me want to understand it even more. I’m getting bits and pieces. I’m just somebody watching this happen.”

On the Lower East Side, O., a tenth-grader who is Jewish, says the conversations in her friend group died down quickly: “In the first week after the attacks, we talked about it a lot. I had a few friends who were also Jewish, and we all followed the news together. After the first week, it was almost like old news — no one wanted to talk about it anymore, which was odd. It has gotten more complicated in some ways. I think within my friend group, people are pretty aligned: The attacks are terrible; Israel’s occupation is also terrible.”

When it does come up, though, she sometimes finds herself on the defensive. “Yesterday, I was talking to someone in class. We were supposed to be discussing The Birds, by Aristophanes,” she says. “And war came up, and they were talking about how Israel’s a colonizer and is colonizing Palestine. I said it’s a little bit different — it’s not as simple as Israel being the colonizer because they didn’t have anywhere to go. I didn’t feel great about that. It was troubling that someone I’m friends with could think something I think is so not right. I became the bad guy.” She feels called to defend Israel, but she’s also troubled by what the country is doing. “I have deep moral questions, and I don’t have good answers. What’s the right thing to do?”

Satchel, 17, a pro-Palestine student organizer, goes to a Brooklyn public high school where he is more outspoken than his classmates. “I feel like there’s been this feeling of, ‘Oh, Satchel, you’re doing too much. Let me drink my Starbucks in peace,’” he says.

Growing up Black and Caribbean, Satchel internalized left-wing, anti-colonial politics from his dad. He was too young to go out on the streets during the Black Lives Matter protests. He thinks this is his moment, even if it’s a lonely one. “Being brutally honest, I feel like a lot of the things that kids my age really want to do the most of is to get an okay score on their test, sneak off to the bathroom to smoke on their vape, and go to a party in the park with some lukewarm and terrible alcohol,” he says. “No shade on any of that — I understand the need to dissociate and detach yourself — but there’s almost a stigma around being politically aware. Like activists are holier-than-thou and not normal people.”

He helped organize the student walkout that gathered in Bryant Park on November 9. Hundreds turned out from all over the city, but the response from his friends was not overwhelming: “I only got like six folks from my school to come all the way to the rally. Most other people used the opportunity to skip school. Under the guise of a walkout! It’s really dirty.”

In the East Village, someone drew a swastika on the sidewalk at an intersection nearby Friends Seminary, the K–12 private school. A schoolwide email went out; the NYPD, apparently, was alerted. “Everyone was in shock,” says 16-year-old Zaina, a junior who is a leader of the Muslim students association. “There hasn’t been any big case of antisemitism within our school before — it feels like it’s getting closer.” On TikTok and Instagram, she sees posts documenting the rise of Islamophobia, and it has put her on alert as she commutes to and from school. “There’s a little bit of fear,” she says.

“It’s all happened so fast. It’s like every 20 minutes it’s something new,” says Alizay, Zaina’s older sister and a leader of the Muslim culture club at Friends. “I’m feeling sadness, shock, confusion. A lot of the headlines, it’s really hard to process. There’s just things you would never expect to see at all in your life.”

Aviyah, a senior, is a leader of the Jewish culture club, one of the biggest clubs at the school. She spent the summer in Israel, where she attended protests against Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul. Her family has friends who fled Hamas’ attack on a southern kibbutz and is currently hosting a family friend from Israel, an eighth-grade girl who needed a break. “I have a lot of thoughts on the conflict, and a lot of them contradict. There’s no way you could have a substantial conversation in the five-minute passing period” between classes, she says. Just after the attacks, she and her fellow Jewish club members did take advantage of the school’s weekly Quaker worship meeting to allow community reflection, and they are holding a Peace Week that encourages positive messages from all the cultural clubs to project feelings of unity and positivity.

Zaina says she has been going to her mosque for open learning sessions. Aviyah has been attending Shabbat services with friends. They both say they prefer being in a community for support rather than protesting.

“‘I stand with Israel!’ ‘I stand with Palestine!’ I don’t fully do either,” says Aviyah. “There’s so much gray area.”

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