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Fall break caps week of prayer and mourning for Israel and Palestine

A display board outside of Frist Campus Center is pictured. On the bottom half of the board are two rows of handwritten "Princeton for Palestine" signs. The top right has printed signs for Israelis taken hostage by Hamas.
Posters outside Frist Campus Center.
Zehao Wu / The Daily Princetonian

Reactions on college campuses to the recent terrorist attack and ensuing conflict in Israel and Palestine have garnered significant national attention. As controversy over responses has roiled universities across the country, the conversation on Princeton’s campus has centered around vigils and grief thus far.

In the week preceding fall break on campus, students mourned the dead and displaced at a major event held by the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) and Princeton Chabad, and smaller events by Princeton Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Alliance for Jewish Progressives (AJP), in a marked contrast to controversy among donors, contentious rallies, and even violence at other institutions.

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With students returning, rallies and a walk-out are planned for the coming week.

National spotlight on college campuses

At Columbia, administrators closed campus to the public for competing pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrations on Oct. 12. Meanwhile, after an open letter that held Israel “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” was issued by a set of student groups, Harvard has faced significant national criticism and disassociation from alumni and scholars. Signatories have seen personal information shared, as well as job offers withdrawn after Bill Ackman, the billionaire hedge fund manager, called on the names of students who joined the statement blaming Israel to be released.

At Stanford, about 1,000 people gathered on campus on Oct. 20 to call on the university to acknowledge war crimes committed by Israel. Also on the 20th, a rally at University of Pennsylvania in support of Israel attracted more than 400. At a protest at Cornell, a professor said he was “exhilarated” by Hamas’ attack on Israel, although he later apologized for the comment.

Response from Princeton alumni has been comparatively muted. At the University of Pennsylvania, a number of major donors have resolved to stop giving to the university following its response to the war, as well as previous controversy surrounding a “Palestinian Writes Literature Festival,” which had received pushback from students and national Jewish groups.

CJL and Chabad host “Princeton stands with Israel” vigil

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Before fall break, a vigil in support of Israel organized by Chabad and the CJL attracted over four hundred students, professors, and community members to the south lawn of Frist Campus Center.

Mourners gathered in front of photos of those killed or kidnapped by Hamas following the first attacks on Oct. 7. Students and professors also lit candles for the victims, hostages, families, and soldiers in the war.

In an email statement to The Daily Princetonian, Rabbi Eitan Webb, a co-director of Chabad, called the vigil “a tremendous display of unity in the face of a horrible event.” Webb, along with co-director Gitti Webb and CJL Executive Director Rabbi Gil Steinlauf ’91, was one of the speakers at the event.

For many on campus, the war hits close to home.

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“Almost all, if not all, of the Jewish students here are one connection away to people who are currently in Israel,” said one student at the vigil, who asked that their name not be used.

“In addition to all of the family and friends that I have in Israel, I knew that dozens of students at Princeton would be affected,” Webb wrote, describing his reaction to hearing the first news of attacks on Israel.

“It’s one thing to read the news and watch the news and listen to the news, but to come together to feel things as human beings is really important,” said Dean of the College Jill Dolan, who attended the vigil, in an interview with the ‘Prince.’

Following the official end of the event, many students lingered to listen to and sing songs. Nearly an hour later, a small group remained on the lawn.

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Steinlauf emphasized solidarity among the University’s Jewish community.

“It’s a time of unity to stand with all the Jewish people living in Israel under the threat of war.  And it is also a time of unity with all innocent human beings — Jewish and non-Jewish — in all the land, in all areas of this conflict, who are in harm’s way,” he wrote. “The inhuman and terrorist ways of Hamas victimize everyone in the region — Jewish and Palestinian.”

Jewish progressives hold additional vigil

The Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP) held its own vigil the following morning in Firestone Plaza. Alongside prayers and singing, attendees read excerpts from the Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad. Like the previous day’s vigil, a small circle of people remained after the end of the event for songs.

“We continue to mourn the loss of all life — those in Israel, Gaza, Palestine, here in the US, and beyond,” AJP wrote in a statement to the ‘Prince.’

“We join progressive Jews around the world, declaring that the horrific violence directed toward the Palestinian people and the ongoing attacks on Gaza are not in our name. We refuse to let our grief at the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks be weaponized to justify further violence,” they continued.

The vigil was supervised by two free speech coordinators, staff members who attend events where “where University policy on freedom of expression may be challenged.”

“We reaffirm the need for our campus to model thoughtful, sensitive, and equitable engagement with the crisis in Israel and Palestine,” wrote the AJP in their statement.

Students mourn Palestinian deaths in Gaza

Also that Friday, around a hundred students, faculty, and community members gathered at a vigil planned by Princeton SJP, formerly known as Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP), in honor of the then 1,800 Palestinian lives lost since the conflict began just six days prior.

A range of speakers delivered prayers, speeches, and testimonies from various demographics and faiths, including members of SJP, an anti-war union/working class activist, Muslim students, a U.S. military veteran, an Arab student, and a Christian student.

“I went to the Israeli vigil yesterday to pay homage to the Israeli citizens that were killed in what I believe to be a brutal terrorist attack,” said Jim Wells ’26, the veteran who spoke at the SJP vigil. “By the same token, there are innocent Palestinian civilians who are unfortunately being subjected to the same type of violence through indiscriminate drone strikes in Gaza.”

Wesley Tenney-Free, a fourth-year master’s student at Princeton’s Theological Seminary studying religious education, previously studied in Jerusalem and taught in the city of Beit Jalla in the West Bank. At the vigil, he told the ‘Prince’ he was inspired to attend this event because he believes it expresses solidarity with Palestinian students who have faced “discrimination” and have had to deal with having “school closed because there’s war outside.”

Tenney-Free expressed that it was difficult “to be far away from my students.”

At the event, many of the speakers shared prayers and hopes for Gazans. 

In his speech, Wells said, “Today, I do not stand before you as a student, as a veteran, or as an American. I stand before you simply as a human being. The events of this past week have left all of us in a state of shock and despair that is absolutely unfathomable.”

One student who shared a Muslim prayer in honor of all the dead. Others spoke in greater detail about the present reality in Gaza. 

One student speaker, at the end of her speech, asked the crowd to join her in an often controversial chant: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The majority of the crowd joined her in the chant.

Alexandra Orbuch ’25, who told the ‘Prince’ that she is “the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors,” shared her reaction in an interview after attending the vigil. “To look behind me and see fellow classmates nod, clap and yell ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ where essentially, the implication of that is the destruction of the Jewish State of Israel, was probably one of the most horrifying moments of my life.”

Orbuch is the Editor-in-Chief of The Princeton Tory.

The SJP also held a teach-in on Oct. 12, for, according to a promotional Instagram post, “learning, reckoning, and action-building in solidarity with Palestine.” The teach-in was held concurrently with the vigil held by the CJL.

Statements circulate online

When asked to comment on the event, SJP referred the ‘Prince’ to their statement made on Oct. 14.

“We, the Princeton Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), hold the Israeli apartheid state ultimately responsible for the tremendous loss of life in Occupied Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank,” the statement read. “We hold the Jewish and Palestinian communities in our hearts, including many of our own family and friends, who are living through this trauma.”

Princeton SJP’s statement comes after intense backlash on Harvard’s campus for student groups who signed a similar statement seven days prior holding Israel “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” 

Additional student groups and activists at Princeton have released statements on the conflict as well. 

On Oct. 11, Windsor Nguyễn ’25 sent an email to the student body containing a petition written by “a group of concerned students and faculty” denouncing the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7. The petition has now been signed by 250 students and faculty members. 

In the email, Nguyễn clarified that he is neither Jewish or Israeli and admits that prior to Oct. 7, he “did not participate in Israeli-Palestinian discourse” but now feels a “strong moral obligation against the senseless murders of innocents.”  

The petition details many aspects of the attacks by Hamas. “Each loss of innocent life on both sides is heart-wrenching. However, we should not blur the lines between the instigators and the defenders in this tragedy,” the statement said. 

The petition vows “to take individual and collective action in denouncing the recent Hamas terrorist attacks” and invites all signees to “lend your voice to the call for peace and your support for the end of this senseless terrorism imposed upon innocent civilians.”

Some campus institutions have debated how to respond.

On Oct. 11, the party chair of Whig, Samuel Kligman ’26, and the party chair of Clio, Justin Murdock ’26, sent a joint statement to Whig-Clio members. The two represent the left-wing and right-wing groups of Whig-Clio, the University's center of political debate.

The email condemned the attacks by Hamas, saying the organization is “driven by an [antisemitic] agenda, and these attacks are designed to realize that agenda.” The two chairs, in their email, prayed for the “vanquishment of Hamas” and “fervently condemn[ed] expressions of support for Hamas on this campus,” labeling these acts antisemitic.

“This war is not about liberation; it is about inflicting terror upon the world’s only Jewish state,” they declared. 

Won-Jae Chang ’24, the president of Whig-Clio, responded to this email with another email sent to members clarifying that the message did not represent the “entire Governing Council’s nor the Society’s viewpoints,” but rather the beliefs of the two chairs. 

The email reaffirmed the society’s encouragement of free speech, diversity of thought, and support for members. 

“We recognize that this is an incredibly difficult time for all those affected by the situation, and hope for the safety and security of your loved ones,” the email concluded. 

Protest expected to ramp up

Unlike many other peer institutions, the response on Princeton’s campus has so far not included rallies or protests, although that is likely to change. Few students were on campus during the week of Oct. 15 due to fall break. 

This upcoming week, a rally organized by professors who wrote a letter “in solidarity with Gaza” and circulated among student groups is set for Tuesday, Oct. 24. A class walkout organized by SJP will take place on Oct. 25.

Miriam Waldvogel is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’

Haley Champion is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’

Julian Hartman-Sigall is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’

Bridget O'Neill is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’

Please send corrections to corrections@princeton.edu.

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