Penn community members gathered in solidarity with victims of the ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza on Wednesday, with supporters of Palestinians and Israel clustering on opposite sides of the Split Button.
Around 200 pro-Palestinian supporters gathered in front of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center for a walkout and vigil, and 50 Israel supporters stood quietly against the backdrop of the Benjamin Franklin statue. Other Israel supporters, separate from the first group, later marched down Locust Walk and stood behind the first group on College Green.
The walkout in support of Palestinians, which was organized by Penn Against the Occupation and Drexel University Students for Justice in Palestine, began with supporters displaying news headlines and images from Gaza violence and then featured a series of speakers. Supporters held signs showing messages such as “Anti-Zionism is not Anti-Semitic,” “Jews for a Free Palestine,” and “Penn Support Your Palestinian Students.”
“We are here to mourn the victims of the monstrous Israeli attack on Gaza,” professor of Arabic literatureHuda Fakhreddinesaid at the event. “This is a vigil. Be mindful of your surroundings,” adding that attendees should avoid acknowledging counter-demonstrators or sharing their identities with people they do not know.
Ahmad Almallah, a Palestinian poet and artist in residence in the Creative Writing and English departments, was clear that Wednesday’s demonstration — the second in three days — was part of a larger wave of activism as the conflict continues.
“We are here to mourn, but we are here also to vow that we will take action, that we will hit the streets, that we will continue to protest,” Almallah said. “We, the organizers of these gatherings, have been getting threats, death threats. Students have had the audacity to tell us as faculty, ‘watch your word.’”
Various speakers emphasized the conditions that Palestinian people were currently living in, including limited food and water supply.
“We are all human beings and must do whatever we can to stop the carnage and work towards peace,” one speaker said.
Raz Segal, director of the master's degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton University, spoke about President Biden’s trip to Israel, calling it “support for Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza.”
“I want to stress today we are seeing a deeply dehumanizing discourse, a deeply demonizing discourse, and there is nothing that personally hurts me more,” Segal said.
When directed, attendees collectively shouted pro-Palestinian chants, including “Gaza, Gaza, don’t you cry, we will never let you die,” “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and “When people are occupied, resistance is justified.” Multiple speakers also shared poetry and music throughout the vigil.
Some critics argue that “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” insinuates a desire to eliminate Israel and its people, while proponents say that the line asserts the boundaries for the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Facing the Palestinian vigil, a group of students, staff, and Philadelphia residents supporting Israel stood quietly on College Green, holding Israeli flags and signs with headlines supporting an end to the Hamas violence.
College junior Kevin Bina, who was part of the Israel demonstration group, said that he had no issues with the fact that the pro-Palestinian rally was happening, but he said that some of the statements and chants by Monday’s rally goers did not sit well with some Jewish students.
“We absolutely support the right [of the pro-Palestinian movement] to exercise their First Amendment [rights], and their right to protest,” he said.
Bina said that the Israel demonstration was not to “heckle” the Palestinian gathering but rather to offer support to Jewish students who may feel ostracized by the situation.
Bina, an organizer for the March for Israel, previously scheduled to take place on Wednesday before being rescheduled to Friday, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that Penn’s Division of Public Safety had asked him to move the march. Bina said that administrators told him they thought it would be in the best interest and safety of everyone to reschedule to later this week.
DPS clarified that "on Monday night, one of our officers received a notification from the group of their intent to march. Administrators followed up with the planner on Tuesday to help support planning of the event. These discussions led to the decision that to best support the march and ensure safety, it should be held on a different day."
DPS added that "Public Safety takes every step possible to ensure the safe expression of all groups’ First Amendment rights," and that students should reach out to DPS when planning gatherings to help ensure safety.
Shortly after 1 p.m., as the Palestinian vigil and rally began to conclude, a second group of pro-Israel demonstrators holding a banner that read “Kidnapped, Bring Them Home” marched towards the initial group of Israel demonstrators. Several group members had fake blood on their clothes and were wearing handcuffs.
While the new group of Israel supporters initially remained quiet as they settled behind the other pro-Israel demonstrators, one demonstrator repeatedly shouted, “Hamas is ISIS” over a megaphone after Palestine supporters chanted, “There is only one solution, intifada, revolution.”
Tali Reiner Brodetzki, an assistant professor at La Salle University, formerly a postdoctoral student at Penn, was part of the second round of pro-Israel counter-demonstrators.
“I’m here because students on this campus don’t feel safe to walk around,” Reiner said, adding that “the fact that the University is allowing these calls for terror here on campus is unthinkable” — specifically referring to the Palestine demonstrators’ call for intifada.
Intifada refers to historic rebellions in Israeli-Palestinian history. To many Palestinians, the Intifada represents a fight for liberation, while to many Israelis, it represents a threat of terrorism.
College senior Ariella Linhart, who was part of the initial group of Israel demonstrators, said that the second group of pro-Israel demonstrators was “separate” from the first.
“The goal of [the initial group] coming here today was to silently stand here, be dignified, and be respectful,” Linhart said.
College first Ben Small, who was also part of the initial group of counter-demonstrators, agreed with Linhart.
“It’s unfortunate that there was a simultaneous protest that came behind us and was using [megaphones], which was completely not our goal,” Small said, adding that in situations like this, “whoever is loudest” is often the people whose messages are taken as “what the whole group means.”
A College sophomore who requested anonymity for fear of their personal safety wrote to the DP that they respect the pro-Israel demonstrators' right to gather on College Green and have opinions about the pro-Palestinian event, but the student added that they are also entitled to "criticize aspects of their demonstration."
“It is the obligation of Americans like us Penn students, at an institution that supports Israel, to express our outrage and disgust at the lack of consideration for the humanity of the victims of genocide and colonization — the Palestinian people trapped in Gaza,” the student wrote.
At approximately 1:30 p.m., the pro-Palestine demonstration marched towards Drexel’s campus. Prior to leaving, Almallah invited the pro-Israel counter-demonstrators to “join [them] in mourning.”
After the majority of the pro-Palestine demonstration left, around 30 pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrators engaged in a conversation. Open Expression observers and members of Penn Police were present to monitor the conversation.
Earlier this week Penn community members gathered in front of Van Pelt Library for over seven hours, standing in solidarity with Palestine and criticizing President Liz Magill’s recent statement about the ongoing violence in the region. The event on Monday was met with a counter-demonstration of students and community members holding Israeli flags and news articles about the conflict, including the hostages held by Hamas.
After Wednesday's demonstrations, Magill addressed the Penn community in a third statement since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, warning that hate speech and violence are not tolerated.
“Hateful speech has no place at Penn. No place. I categorically condemn hateful speech that denigrates others as contrary to our values,” Magill wrote.
Staff Writer Makenzie Kerneckel contributed reporting.