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Credit: Lilian Liu

Penn alumni who were present in the region during Hamas' attack on Israel and at the start of the ongoing violence reflected on their experiences in interviews with The Daily Pennsylvanian.

The DP spoke with six Penn community members, three of whom are currently in Israel and Palestine, and three who recently evacuated following the initial conflict. The alumni described the fear of the initial attacks and the ongoing violence while critiquing Western media coverage.

The day of Hamas' attack 

The sounds of sirens in Tel Aviv, Israel, woke up 2021 College graduate and 2022 LPS graduate Maayan Waldman on the morning of Oct. 7. Waldman and her roommate were celebrating Simchat Torah and Shabbat, Judaism's day of rest, during which technology use is restricted. 

That day, Waldman's roommate decided to check her phone. Realizing that Hamas was attacking Israel, the two stayed inside for safety. 

After the holiday ended, Waldman and her roommate moved to Waldman’s sister’s apartment in Herzliya, Israel, which has a bomb shelter. 

Drawn in by the city's warm, vibrant, and active energy, Waldman moved to Tel Aviv in August 2022, where she currently works at a venture capital firm. Given her connection to Israel, Waldman told the DP that the war has taken an emotional toll. In the past week, she attended the livestreamed funeral of her friend’s husband, a soldier who was killed in battle, and the funeral of an American soldier whose family moved to Israel. 

“Everyone in Israel is family in a way," she said. "I'm one degree removed or less from every single person who was taken hostage or killed or tortured.”

2007 Wharton graduate Rick Fox, a rabbi and executive director of MEOR Penn, had a similar experience to Waldman. MEOR Penn Director of Programming Rebecca Klamen and Fox were both in Jerusalem during the attack before securing a flight home on Oct. 9.

“The morning of Simchat Torah and Shabbat, around 7 a.m., you could feel the ground shaking,” Fox said, adding, “My mother-in-law asked, ‘Are those rockets?’ and my father-in-law said, ‘No, that doesn't sound like a rocket, that sounds like a war, that sounds like artillery.’ And then at 8 a.m., the siren went off.”

2022 Engineering graduate Shoshana Weintraub told the DP she first heard sirens while she was in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem.

“It was in the middle of the dancing that traditionally marks the holiday, interrupting our joy and transforming into fear,” Weintraub, who immigrated to Israel nearly two months ago, wrote.

2023 College graduate Laila Shadid was teaching English on a Fulbright Scholarship in the West Bank of the Palestinian territories before the war began. On Oct. 15, the Fulbright Commission evacuated Shadid to Jordan, where she is currently staying in a hotel. 

“There were moments where I feared for my own safety this past week,” Shadid said.

From her home in Bethlehem in the West Bank, she reported hearing "missiles fall and shake the ground, gunshots that were not far away from [her], and the constant hum of fighter jets in the sky above at all hours of the day.”

An Engineering graduate, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, was present in Ramallah in the West Bank, her hometown, with her family during the attacks. 

“We went to sleep on Friday and we woke up at 8 a.m. on Saturday with complete chaos. It wasn’t a situation where you knew beforehand that it would happen, it just happened really quickly," she said, adding that the violence was not unprovoked.

The graduate described a positive experience growing up in Ramallah, but she said many experiences that seemed normal to her came as a surprise to her friends at Penn. 

“If you’re a 20-year-old living in Gaza, you’ve probably been through at least five wars,” she said, describing a childhood of hearing F-16s and the explosions of bombs.

"We don’t get scared when we hear those sounds anymore, because we’ve just gone through it so many times," she said. "That’s part of your reality."

Finding hope amidst violence

Amid the violence, Waldman, Fox, and Klamen all said they found hope and support by relying on their communities. 

Fox and Klamen continued their service and transformed the bomb shelter and synagogue into a "joyous" place of healing. 

"People's spirits were high, we were dancing, and when the sirens went off, we ran downstairs and we sang inside the bomb shelters," Fox said.

Now, Waldman, Fox, and Klamen are all finding different ways to support their communities. 

Waldman spends her days supporting her sisters, staying in touch with family members, and reaching out to those with loved ones in danger.

She and others have also been volunteering by supporting the elderly and working at supply drives to collect food and equipment for displaced families and Israeli soldiers. She is helping to collect video testimony from family members of victims, assisting children whose families have been displaced, and visiting Israel’s at-risk youth. 

The Engineering graduate said she is volunteering to create care packages for Palestinians in Gaza. Although she does not personally know anyone there, she has experienced firsthand the grief of those who have lost loved ones in Gaza throughout the conflict. 

“I’ve been seeing men that are 50 or 60 years old break down and cry because they get the news that someone from their family was killed,” she said. 

Shadid said she was thankful that she was safe from the worst of the conflict in Gaza but that she worried for her friends and students if the situation worsens.

“I have the privilege of having an American passport, but it doesn’t make me any better than my Palestinian friends, any more worthy of leaving, of finding safety, of getting away from conflict and violence," Shadid said. 

Reactions to media coverage

Shadid accused social media platforms of silencing and shadowbanning Palestinian voices, including her friends, telling the DP that a story she posted on Instagram only got seven views within five hours. 

"This is an assault on truth," Shadid said. "It is censorship of the truth, and it is censorship of facts that need to be shared in order to contextualize what is happening right now and also report on it accurately."

Waldman said she was troubled by the misinformation surrounding the war, calling attempts to justify Hamas' actions inexcusable. 

“As a kid, I remember learning about the Holocaust and thinking to myself, ‘How could the world have not stopped it?’ and ‘How could the world have stood idly by?'" Waldman said. "This week, for the first time in my life, I actually understood how."

Weintraub said she has been careful about how much — and what — news she allows herself to consume, specifically among American sources and social media.

For many Palestinians, the actions of Hamas are seen as resistance to an apartheid regime rather than terrorism, the Engineering graduate from the West Bank said. She said that it is frustrating to see Western media only focus on and justify the violence from the Israeli side. 

“In general, Palestinian people aren’t pro-violence or pro-killing innocent civilians," she said. "To them, it’s people resisting. It’s people that have been living in a cage, with no electricity, no water, basically nothing.”

She also felt censored while studying at Penn, where said Palestinian students were afraid of voicing their opinions for fear of retaliation. 

“I really hope that people who are just following the trend and sharing on Instagram all these biased reports can actually look into the truth,” she said. “That is all we ask for. We just hope people can listen to our story.”