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Penn Jewish community leaders respond to encampment and campus protests

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The Daily Pennsylvanian asked members of Penn’s Jewish community for their reactions to the ongoing protests. Credit: Derek Wong

Members of Penn’s Jewish community have expressed differing opinions about the university’s response to recent protests and ongoing activism on campus.

The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with several Jewish students and faculty, including Penn Hillel leaders, about their reactions to the Gaza Solidarity Encampment and subsequent protests on campus. Some students expressed concerns for their safety, while others emphasized the need for dialogue.

Wharton and Engineering junior and former co-chair of the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee (PIPAC), Noah Rubin, expressed disappointment in the university’s response to the attempted occupation of Fisher-Bennett Hall on May 17.

“It’s incredibly disappointing that Penn has encouraged people to think they can actually take over a building in the name of killing Jews,” Rubin told the DP.

Pro-Palestinian activists attempted to occupy Fisher-Bennett at 34th and Walnut streets and were immediately responded by Penn and Philadelphia police officers, who arrested nineteen individuals – seven of whom are Penn students.

Rubin also emphasized the threat he feels from the protesters’ actions and rhetoric, adding that he believes the encampment is “a very serious threat to the campus community.”

“These people have been praising Hamas for six months now,” he said. “And so it’s clear that they have been violent in the past.”

In February, Rubin testified at a meeting titled “Roundtable with Jewish Students Affected by Anti-Semitism,” organized by the United States House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Sophomore Jake Zubkoff, a member of the Penn Hillel Board of Directors, emphasized the need for empathy and understanding. He acknowledged the pain felt by both Palestinian and Jewish students, and emphasized the importance of building relationships between different communities.

“Our campus is experiencing a crisis of empathy,” Zubkoff told the DP. “It is not difficult to see the pain and anger that Palestinian friends have felt at seeing the enormous devastation caused by Israel’s war in Gaza and … the unwillingness of the university administration to acknowledge or acknowledge the continued marginalization on campus to take action.”

He added that the Jewish community’s ongoing distress following the Oct. 7, 2023, attack on Israel has increased as “credible examples of anti-Semitism are no longer listened to and empathy is lost among our colleagues.”

Zubkoff “feels strongly” that the relationships he has built and deepened with Arab and Muslim friends in recent months have allowed him to further recognize the importance of supportive gestures.

He added that he has “started to look beyond some of the views, slogans and Instagram stories that (he) has found… harmful… to build relationships with people who are similarly pained and angry, albeit at an other way. who also want their communities to be better supported.”

College junior Maya Harpaz, the new co-president of Penn Hillel and an undergraduate representative of the University Task Force on Antisemitism, also emphasized the importance of dialogue.

Harpaz told the DP that she recently attended the White House celebration for Jewish American Heritage Month, where President Biden and other administration officials emphasized their commitment to “the security (of) the Jewish people (and) the security of Israel .”

Harpaz expressed sadness that continued security concerns overshadowed celebratory events — such as the White House celebration — and urged continued support for Jewish voices on campus.

While she added that she appreciates the government’s recognition of “the concerns of Jewish students,” she said these concerns have reached a point where they overshadow the celebratory intent of such events.

Professor Benjamin Abella of the Perelman School of Medicine reflected on current circumstances in the context of the larger university community.

“We are a community,” he said. “We are a university. We have different opinions, we have different backgrounds and we have different contexts. I think we still have a lot of work to do.”

Abella added that this “is still a time of great fear for Jewish teachers and students.”

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