Over a hundred Penn community members gathered in front of Van Pelt Dietrich Library for over seven hours on Monday, standing in solidarity with Palestine and criticizing President Liz Magill’s recent statement about the ongoing violence in the region.
Dozens of speakers — including faculty members, students, and Philadelphia residents — delivered speeches, poetry, song, and dance at the walk out event from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Over the course of the day, organizers distributed food and water to attendees, and students told The Daily Pennsylvanian that they valued the sense of community and solidarity on campus.
Throughout the rally, which was organized by Penn Against the Occupation in conjunction with faculty members, attendees marched down Locust Walk multiple times while waving the Palestinian flag and chanting phrases such as “free, free Palestine” and “the occupation has got to go.” The event 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.
The walk out began with Ahmad Almallah, a Palestinian poet and artist in residence in the Creative Writing and English departments, who said that he missed two of his classes to be present at the event. Other students and faculty members echoed similar stories of walking out of class throughout the day.
Almallah shared his account of Palestinian oppression and the history of the conflict at the rally.
“They're asking 1.1 million civilians to move from the north to the south of Gaza in a completely devastated area by airstrikes of the Israeli army of the most horrible regime on Earth right now,” Almallah said.
As of the time of publication, Israel’s siege of Gaza in response to Hamas’ attack remains in effect, blocking access to food, water, and electricity. Over a million people have been ordered to evacuate northern Gaza in anticipation of a ground invasion. Hamas has taken nearly 200 Israelis hostage, and over 1,400 Israelis and 2,700 Palestinians have been killed in ongoing conflict.
During the rally, speakers criticized Magill’s most recent statement for not including any mention of the ongoing violence against Palestinians in the region or the toll of the conflict on Palestinian students on campus.
“[The statement] was a complete shock to me,” professor of Arabic literature Huda Fakhreddine said at the walk out. “I could not fathom that in the midst of actual literal genocide being broadcasted live on the air, [Magill] had time and energy to write that letter without a single mention of Palestine.”
A University spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about the demonstration by publication.
Almallah told the DP that he participated in the action because he wanted to “do something to reaffirm [his] humanity.”
“I feel as though I am a lonely Palestinian, that nobody has reached out from the institution or extended any words of sympathy to me,” Almallah said.
Magill’s recent response coincides with major donors announcing that they will no longer send donations to the University due to administrators’ response to antisemitism on campus, including last month’s Palestine Writes Literature Festival which received pushback from campus and national Jewish groups for featuring speakers who they said had made antisemitic comments in the past. Magill referenced the festival in her letter, expressing regret for a lack of quicker condemnation from the university.
“While we did communicate, we should have moved faster to share our position strongly and more broadly with the Penn community,” Magill wrote in her statement on Sunday.
In response to Magill’s statement, Palestine Writes released a statement on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, saying that Penn’s email was "cowardly, immoral, and dishonest."
At the rally, several faculty members pushed back against the University’s recent statement, saying that the festival has no connection to the current war.
“The letter was also quite accusatory of Palestine Writes, and that has nothing to do with Hamas, at all,” History and Africana Studies professor Eve Troutt Powell, who is also president of the Middle East Studies Association, said.
Powell told the DP that she met with a member of University administration before Magill’s statement was released to offer her input, but she said that the insight she provided was “completely ignored.”
“What I encouraged was that we need to reach out to everybody on campus … everybody is in mourning,” Powell said. “Everybody is upset.”
Students at the rally said that Penn has a responsibility to recognize the challenges faced by Palestinians on campus.
“I’m Jewish, and I have family with various relationships and ties to Israel, and it feels so important to recognize that being Jewish and supporting Palestianians does not mean being against Judaism,” a graduate student, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said.
Representatives from Penn Police, the Philadelphia Police Department, and the Philadelphia Police Civil Affairs Unit were present at the gathering. Open Expression observers were also present throughout the duration of the day.
During the third march down Locust Walk, an individual, who was seen tearing down posters of missing Israeli citizens and pushing a bystander, was taken into custody, according to the Division of Public Safety. DPS confirmed that the individual is not affiliated with the University and is pending charges of disorderly conduct in response to pushing the bystander, adding that there are no reported injuries to the bystander. The individual was charged with Simple Assault and Disorderly Conduct.
“The Division of Public Safety will continue to work with our local, state, and federal partners to share information on protests, rallies, and other gatherings happening in the region. Nothing is more important to us than the safety and wellbeing of all members of our community,” DPS wrote.
One student, who was granted anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said that the individual who was later apprehended by DPS said he was a Jewish Palestinian and said that "Zionism is the most violent form of antisemitism today."
The student said that, separately from those who spoke at the rally, this individual told the counter-demonstrators assembled behind the protest supporting Israel, “You can either leave us in peace or go back to Moscow and Brooklyn."
After interrupting the speakers on several occasions, a line of over a dozen counter-demonstrators holding up Israeli flags and news articles assembled across the walkout. Engineering first year Beni Romm was part of the group.
“After spending about 45 minutes listening to the event, I thought it was worthwhile to start standing with Israeli flags to show solidarity with Israel,” Romm said.
One speaker at the event said that “Zionism is racism,” and “the only solution is a one state solution from the River to the Sea," a phrase that is often chanted at pro-Palestinian rallies.
English Department Chair Margo Natalie Crawford spoke at the event, sharing that 25 faculty members across 12 departments signed a joint letter to Magill on Sunday that condemned the University’s response to the ongoing violence in the region.
“This morning, we received a message from you, the President of the University of Pennsylvania, that refuses to mention, in any manner, the horrific suffering that Palestinians in occupied Gaza are now enduring. This silence, from the upper administration of the University, is unethical and profoundly sad,” the letter stated.
At the rally, speakers said another walk out is scheduled for noon on Wednesday, Oct. 18. PAO is also hosting a teach-in this Friday.
“[The protest] was one of the most empowering actions because I didn't know that many people on Penn's campus could come out and stand with us,” a student involved with PAO, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said.
Editor's Note: After publication, this article was amended to include that the individual who was detained by DPS was charged with Simple Assault and Disorderly Conduct and to add additional details and context about the walk-out and counter-demonstration.