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Philadelphians march during a rally calling for an end to Israel's occupation of Palestine on May 14, 2018. (Photo by Joe Piette | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Penn Students Against the Occupation of Palestine released a statement calling on the University to divest from and terminate contracts with companies complicit in "the illegal occupation of Palestine."

On May 7, the Israeli police raided al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, which prompted the Palestinian militant group Hamas to fire rockets towards Jerusalem, the Washington Post reported. Israel retaliated with airstrikes on Palestinian territory, and the fighting resulted in over 200 people killed in the Palestinian territory Gaza and at least 10 killed in Israel.

The PAO statement, released on May 19, has been signed by nearly 330 members of the Penn community, including Pennsylvania State Representative and 2013 Engineering graduate Rick Krajewski, and 28 Penn groups and Philadelphia-based organizations. The statement demands that the University allow students to criticize Israel without censorship or punishment.

“The goal of the statement is to have Penn acknowledge Palestinian students and their human rights struggles,” rising College sophomore and a member of PAO, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from students, said.

He added that the organization expects that the statement will bring little institutional change from Penn, but hopes that it will start conversations about Penn’s role in the Israeli apartheid.

Rising Wharton junior and Penn Democrats Communications Director Holly Anderson said the organization initially considered releasing their own statement, but decided to sign the PAO statement after a majority consensus from the executive board. She added that the statement helped the board find a way to express their stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“A lot of club members, including myself, were upset with President Biden’s response to the matter,” Anderson said. “The statement aligned with what we as a club thought was important to talk about, and signing this document was a tangible way to express our own views.”

Anderson added that Penn Dems hope that the statement will build awareness and further educate members of the Penn community to form their own opinions.

“[The statement] will help people see that it is not an issue that is far from them, but rather one that they should know and care about,” she said.

Rising College and Wharton junior and Penn Hillel Co-President Avidan Baral said that Hillel did not sign the statement because the organization is concerned that the language used in it could lead to a rise in antisemitism.

“We are disappointed in the statement’s choice of language, which we deem as not only false, but also using inflammatory language” Baral said. “We’ve seen in the past how this can embolden people to become violent.” 

Baral added that supporting everyone, regardless of their stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, is the organization’s priority right now. 

Rising College sophomore and an organizer of Penn Chavurah, a progressive Jewish organization, said that the organization decided to sign the statement because of their stance against human rights violations, noting that COVID-19 has worsened the human rights crisis in Palestine.

“Conflating Zionism with Judaism is wrong,” Wennberg said. “The reason why we decided to sign the statement as a group is because we are neutral on Zionism, but not on human rights. We’re witnessing a human rights issue at a time when [COVID-19] is hitting Palestinian areas especially hard.”

Penn students and organizations have disagreed over pro-Palestine advocacy in the past. 

Penn Chavurah formed in January after progressive Jewish students became disillusioned with Hillel. Hillel International prohibits its chapters, including Penn Hillel, from hosting groups or speakers that support boycotting or divesting from the Israeli government.

In April, the Undergraduate Assembly indefinitely tabled a resolution for Penn to adopt a definition of antisemitism after critics of the resolution alleged that the definition could censor criticism of Israel and advocacy for Palestinian rights.

Correction: A previous version of this article featured a quote from Avidan Baral that read "we deem as using inflammatory language," when it should have read "which we deem as not only false, but also using inflammatory language." The DP regrets this error.