In my final column for The Daily Pennsylvanian as a Penn student earlier this year, I wrote about the connection Penn students and alumni have with one another, and how proud I was to feel accepted as a part of a community that I admired and, in a sense, idealised so much. But these past few weeks, what has scared and saddened me is that that unity and togetherness has been lost. Even from an ocean away, I’ve heard and seen accounts which contradict all that Penn stands for: tense and stand-offish demonstrations on campus and online, students and faculty being scared to speak out for fear of death threats or doxxing, and especially my Israeli, Arab, Muslim and Jewish friends feeling scared for their safety after a vicious spike in Islamophobia and antisemitism across the West. I have reached out to as many of them as I can to express my solidarity and empathy in a time that I can only imagine the difficulty of.
The facts on the ground are nothing short of harrowing: thousands of civilians needlessly slaughtered from Hamas’ surprise massacre on Israel, Israel’s unprecedentedly brutal revenge on Gaza, and extrajudicial murders of Palestinians by Israeli settlers in Palestine’s West Bank. There is absolutely no way of justifying any of this as either effective resistance or as a strictly 'defensive' measure. And yes, there are equally condemnable extremists purporting to defend both Palestinians and Israelis: those who cheer Hamas’ terrorism on innocent Israelis, and those who suggest that Palestine be flattened and turned into a parking lot. It is imperative that Penn, as a community, stands up against this hatred and violence wherever we see it.
But the troubling part of this is that frankly, we haven’t. Vigils in solidarity with Israel are publicly emphasised and attended by President Magill, whose statements have expressed the empathy and support that Jewish students deserve while neglecting to even address the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim members of our community, who are also in unfathomable pain as a result of this conflict (despite these efforts, Magill has still been widely criticised for failing to sufficiently combat antisemitism). Vigils supporting Palestinian victims, meanwhile, are sidelined into basements and publicly mischaracterised as calling for Jewish genocide. While the DP has rightfully been able to publish multiple columns supporting Israeli and Jewish students, I feel the need to lend my voice to the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim members of our community, who are too afraid for their own safety to use theirs.
It would be unfair and utterly inaccurate to suggest that those who attend events supporting Israel desire the destruction of Palestine and the slaughter of its citizens. So why is it that Palestinian activists and students feel the need to first distance themselves from the reverse views before they feel welcome to express their pain, their suffering, their solidarity? Though everyone with ethnocultural affiliation with the area feels horrified and unsafe and desperately desires peace, it is inexcusably hypocritical that some of us feel unable to speak lest we receive not just backlash, but threats on our own and our family’s lives.
This plays into larger double standards, which plague the discourse around the issue. Fundamentally, and despite how it often seems to be painted, this is not a fair fight. What we’re looking at here is an oppressed and blockaded population, 47% of whom are children, facing a siege from a nuclear-armed superpower. Over 6,000 bombs— almost as many as the United States military ever dropped on Afghanistan over the course of a year — have been dropped on Gaza this month; this includes use of white phosphorus, a chemical weapon also alleged to have been used by Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Innumerable children have lost their homes, parents, families. Internet, electricity, and water have been knocked out, while sufficient aid is prevented from entering.
The Geneva Convention clearly states that collective punishment is a war crime. Palestinians under no circumstances deserve punishment for the illegal actions of Hamas — a government the vast majority of them were too young to even vote for — any more than Israelis do for the crimes of the IDF.
To reemphasise: every single one of the 1,400 innocent lives violently stolen by Hamas, and the over 200 still held hostage by them, is a condemnable and entirely avoidable tragedy. But why do we not turn around and balk at the over 8,000 human beings already slaughtered by Israel, or the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons without charge, in the same terms — are their lives not worth the same amount to us? Why is it that calling for the peace and protection of innocent civilians on the side which now, as every time, is facing the brunt of deaths in this conflict, suspected of and equated to supporting terrorism and antisemitism? And if Israel, like us, purports to stand for democracy and human rights, why do we look the other way when it commits war crimes rather than holding it to a higher standard?
Where has our empathy, our humanity, our sense of community, gone?
As renowned author and Holocaust survivor Gabor Maté recently made clear, history did not begin on October 7th. The conflict we see today is an extension of a vicious cycle of violence dating back to the “Nakba” 75 years ago, where 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed and Israel was founded. Neither that, nor the countless murders since from either side, can ever be justified; everyone should have the right to live in their indigenous homeland in peace.
But we will never help to break that cycle without the collective unity, and the moral and academic integrity, that I have come to know and love Penn for. That requires us coming together to oppose hatred, violence, and war crimes wherever and whenever we see them, not just when they directly affect us. And to paraphrase the hundreds of Jewish activists who took over Grand Central station in New York last week, as well as responding to my friend and former colleague Lexi Boccuzzi’s recent column: “never again” means never again — for anyone. History will not smile upon those who choose to ignore that message.
Let’s make sure we’re not among them.
ALEX BAXTER is a fourth-year studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Edinburgh. He completed an exchange year at Penn from 2022-23, serving as an Opinion columnist and photographer at the Daily Pennsylvanian. His email is email@example.com.