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Penn community members hosted a "Freedom School for Palestine" on the ground floor of Houston Hall on Nov. 14.

Credit: Ethan Young

Dozens of Penn community members occupied the ground floor of Houston Hall for over 12 hours starting Tuesday, beginning a multi-day teach-in to protest the University's response to the Israel-Hamas war — alleging a lack of support for pro-Palestinian students and faculty.

Freedom School for Palestine  — a self-identified collection of Penn students, faculty, staff, and alumni — organized the demonstration. At 1 p.m., the group gathered in the Class of 1968 Reading Room next to the Houston Hall lobby and began to hold programming highlighting Palestinian voices. Throughout the day, the number of participants ranged from around 40 to 60 people.

In a press advisory, the group wrote that Penn neglected to support Pro-Palestinian voices amid the Israel-Hamas war, and promised to hold multiple days of programming in response to the University's “failure.”

Five Penn community members associated with the Freedom School for Palestine remained in Houston Hall as of 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday after refusing to leave the building following the day-long teach-in.

Freedom School for Palestine said in an Instagram post that it would lead multi-day educational programming regarding its three demands: a ceasefire in Gaza, the protection of freedom of speech at Penn, and the institution of "freedom of thought on Palestine." Many individuals present at the teach-in wore shirts that had these three demands printed. 

A University spokesperson declined to comment on the teach-in but referred The Daily Pennsylvanian to two previous statements from Penn President Liz Magill, where she said the University supported the “free exchange of ideas” and announced a commission to address “the interconnectedness of antisemitism and other forms of hate, including Islamophobia.”

The 11-hour teach-in included speeches, songs, poetry, vigils, a film screening, and art workshops. 

A Penn sophomore present at the teach-in, who requested anonymity for fear of their personal safety, said that for them, the teach-in allowed for the creation of an educational space that “Penn doesn’t want.”

Houston Hall was picked due to its status as the first student union in the United States, according to another undergraduate student present at the teach-in — who also requested anonymity due to safety concerns. The student added that the demonstration was modeled after the Freedom School Movement of the 1960s.

“We hope the sit-in will be a space where students can safely engage with Palestinian voices or marginalized voices, and gives them the safety and the opportunity to do so in a way that is safe, respectful and informative,” the student added.

Hilah Kohen, a Ph.D. student in the Comparative Literature and Literary Theory program, said at the start of the demonstration that the group was intended to establish "the type of educational and cultural space" regarding the conflict in Gaza that the University had allegedly "abdicated" from establishing.

"We are here to be in touch with reality," Kohen said.

The speakers also led an interfaith prayer at the start of the event. Members of Penn Police gathered in the room at the start of the protest, prompting one speaker to ask for them to leave. Penn’s Division of Public Safety did not offer a comment on the teach-in.

One speaker who did not identify himself said that he has no intention of stopping his activism, even as pro-Palestinian activists face threats and doxxing. He said that being doxxed on a website has only mobilized him further.

“Part of me speaking up here is to add more fuel to that fire,” the speaker said.  

Miranda Sklaroff, a Ph.D. candidate in the Political Science department, told the DP she came to the teach-in to support the call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Sklaroff said that the ongoing dialogue between the administration, donors, and University Board of Trustees has made it difficult to have open discussions about Gaza. 

“A place like the Freedom School allows us to have freer conversations about what's going on and to recognize the loss of life and the desire for peace,” Sklaroff said. 

On Nov. 2, the School of Arts and Sciences launched a dialogue series meant to show commitment to open expression and engage the campus community in respectful conversation amid campus tensions over the ongoing war.

Sklaroff said it would be “very hard” for her to attend one of these spaces.

“I have lost some trust in the administration and the school to actually even partake in that [dialogue],” she said. 

Kohen also condemned Penn’s attempt to “artificially divide” the University through religion, pointing to the multicultural nature of the teach-in’s programming — a reading of Palestinian names, an interfaith prayer service, Yiddish and South African song workshops — as evidence that the University’s attempts “are not working.”  

The sit-in at Houston Hall comes over a month after the conflict in Israel and Gaza began. Since then, pro-Palestinian community members have gathered numerous times on Penn's campus for rallies and protests. Most recently, around 200 community members gathered at the LOVE Statue for a vigil Monday evening to mourn the loss of Palestinian lives in Gaza, and rally-goers on Thursday called for a ceasefire in the region. 

On Wednesday evening, messages critical of the University, many of which were pro-Palestinian, were projected onto campus buildings, including Huntsman Hall, Irvine Auditorium, and Penn Commons. Penn President Liz Magill called the displays antisemitic and “vile" in a statement to the DP.

Magill also committed to “vigorously pursue” any violations of the law or University policy while condemning recent acts of hate in an email to the Penn community Friday.

Pro-Palestinian faculty and students received violent threats after participating in demonstrations on campus in October. These faculty members told the DP that they had not received messages from higher-level administrators after reporting the threats to the University. 

The demonstration in Houston Hall comes less than a week after students at Brown University demanding a ceasefire in Gaza were arrested after occupying the school's University Hall, according to The Brown Daily Herald.

To regain trust, Kohen also believes the University needs to utilize the “broad base of expertise” within the University itself, instead of consulting outside forces that “falsely turn the Jewish community into a monolith.”

“The administration is exercising an anti-democratic power over the University community, and the Freedom School is an example of that community actively rejecting their power,” they said.

Staff reporters Max Annunziata, Ryan Wolff, and Diamy Wang, and general assignments reporter Ethan Young contributed reporting.