In response to anti-Semitic activity in different parts of the country, including vandalism at a Jewish graveyard in Philadelphia, Penn Hillel held a gathering last night at the LOVE statue to support and stand in solidarity with Jewish students.
In a statement released prior to the event, Hillel condemned “these overt acts of hatred, which have no space on our campus or in our country.”
Even though Jews make up only 2 percent of the United States population and 0.2 percent of the global population, reports that 26 percent of Penn’s undergraduate and graduate population is Jewish. Consequently, the recent anti-Semitic acts are disturbing for many University affiliates.
One such act occurred Sunday morning, Feb. 26. Police officers responded to a report of vandalism at the Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Philadelphia to find that more than a hundred tombstones had been overturned or vandalized.
This occurred shortly after a similar apparent hate crime at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, Mo. Both crimes occurred in the same month that dozens of Jewish Community Centers around the nation were evacuated due to bomb threats. Yesterday, 19 Jewish Community Centers and day schools in at least 12 states received threats, including multiple schools in Pennsylvania.
Engineering junior Maddie Gelfand, the student president of Penn Hillel, was the first speaker at the solidarity event. Before introducing the other speakers, she imparted some of her own thoughts.
“This anti-Semitic and hateful rhetoric against the Jewish people is real, but it is incredibly comforting to know that such strong support exists here at Penn,” she said.
Gelfand introduced College junior Alexa Mund and College junior and School of Social Policy & Practice student Nayab Khan, the co-chairs of Penn’s PRISM interfaith group.
“In a time when religious identities are under attack and especially in these recent days where Jewish centers are threatened and cemeteries are vandalized, we want to once again offer ourselves as a resource to every single student on campus,” Mund said.
“Recent events in St. Louis, Philadelphia and the general trend of normalizing anti-Semitic rhetoric and language is absolutely not okay,” Khan added. “It is harmful to all students on campus, and we will not stand for it.”
2000 College graduate and University Chaplain Rev. Charles Howard recognized how frequent these acts of anti-Semitism have recently become.
“We could be having a vigil like this every single week,” he said. “Whether it’s the vandalism of the cemetery in Missouri last week, or the bomb threats that have been happening seemingly almost every week over the last couple of months, we could be doing this every week. And that’s so painful.”
Howard also acknowledged that, in a sense, the fact that students and community members feel this pain is good.
“The fear is that with so much bad news coming, we become numb. And we don’t care anymore. And it becomes just a part of the daily pain that we’re used to,” he said. “I hope we never get used to this. I hope that it continues to hurt until we stop it — that that hurt motivates us to repair the world ... for those little kids at the Jewish day school that were threatened today.”
Howard then read aloud a message from Penn President Amy Gutmann, since Gutmann herself was not on campus.
“Hate is a cowardly thing,” she wrote in the letter. “Our story, the story of my father who escaped Nazi genocide, the story of your families, it’s not a story controlled by hatred. We share something far more powerful — our resilient strength and community and inclusion.”
Rabbi Mike Uram, executive director of Hillel and campus rabbi, spoke about the importance of unity and strength.
“When we build bridges, there’s a huge coalition of people who can do this together,” he said. “So I wish us all the space to be here to hold the sadness and the pain that we feel, and then soon, the strength to go out and change the world for the better.”