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Jewish student leaders express array of reactions to Israel-Hamas war, polarized community responses

Members of Jewish student organizations said it’s difficult to process the emotional impact of the war’s outbreak as members of divided communities.
Kaiden Yu | Photographer
Students light candles in remembrance of the Israeli lives lost to the Israel-Hamas war during a GW for Israel vigil in Kogan Plaza earlier this month.

Jewish student leaders are struggling to grapple with the range of opinions and feelings shared within their communities and on campus sparked by the war between Israel and Hamas as they mourn those killed in the conflict.

Leaders of Jewish student groups at GW expressed feelings of fear, frustration and grief after witnessing polarized community reactions to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas among the GW community during rallies, vigils, conversations and gatherings across campus and D.C. in the weeks following its outbreak. Jewish students voiced a range of views regarding Hamas’ attacks and the Israeli military’s subsequent response, the government’s control over the region that includes Israel, the occupied West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, and expressed sorrow for the loss of innocent lives throughout the area.

On Oct. 8, Israel’s government declared war on Hamas — the Palestinian militant group that rules over Gaza, which the United States and European Union consider a terrorist organization — after the group carried out a surprise attack on Israel the day prior. Hamas’ invasion included rockets, mass kidnappings and the killing of at least 1,400 Israelis, and occurred the day after the close of Sukkot, a weeklong Jewish holiday that celebrates the fall harvest.

The next day, Israel’s government responded with airstrikes and a “complete siege” of Gaza, cutting off water, fuel and electricity to the region. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed by ongoing Israeli airstrikes, including some in the process of evacuating Gaza City after being warned of incoming bombings by the Israeli military. Israeli forces are also actively preparing for a ground invasion of Gaza.

Twenty trucks carrying food, medical supplies and medicine entered Gaza on Saturday through the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Axios reported that Israel has resumed water service to southern Gaza last Sunday after pressure from the White House.

In the days following Hamas’ attacks and Israel’s declaration of war, Jewish students have participated in off-campus and on-campus demonstrations, vigils and gatherings, including two rallies Oct. 8 in downtown D.C. Jewish student organizations at GW also hosted conversations and provided spaces for Jewish students to unpack their reactions to the conflict.

Senior Dina Grossman, the president of Kehila GW — a student organization for LGBTQ+ Jewish students — said she’s found it difficult to be exposed to varying opinions within the Jewish community surrounding the ongoing war and to find a community of people she agrees with. She said she is frustrated because people haven’t had the chance to grieve and instead feel they have to jump to explain, defend and attack different views following Hamas’ attack.

“There is so much infighting and so many people on all the sides you could possibly think, within my own Jewish community, within the Jewish community at large,” Grossman said. “That’s really, really hard because you don’t know where to find the community of people who you trust and who you agree with and who you know you can share in that grief without having to get all up in arms about it. And I feel at a loss.”

She said she feels pulled in several directions because different communities, like her synagogue at home and circles at GW, have contrasting views on the conflict.

“It’s hard also to reconcile the grief of individuals,” Grossman said. “And like the Jews that have been taken hostage and murdered and assaulted and the grief of all of the Palestinians who are being bombed beyond belief and who are really vulnerable.”

Ari Patinkin, a junior and the president of Chabad GW — a network of Jewish student organizations that provide social and religious programming — said he couldn’t focus on studying and classes during his midterms after the war’s outbreak. He said he instead had to figure out how to support Jewish students and provide them with the spaces they needed as a community like having an Israeli embassy official come to campus to speak to community members.

Patinkin said it was hard to put his phone away after the beginning of the war because he was keeping in touch with family and people he knows in Israel.

“That’s all my mom was talking about, that’s all I was talking about and that’s all we could think about and it happened during midterms,” Patinkin said. “And it really hurt me personally, academically because that’s all we could focus on. That’s all I could focus on.”

Patinkin said the Jewish community as a whole and as individuals will stay strong in the face of hostility and antisemitism.

Patinkin added that seeing violence and death in livestreams of the war on social media has affected him because of how personal the issue is to him.

“It’s like you’re trying to unravel such a situation and it’s just terrible on all sides, and just the fact that it was livestreamed too is pretty insane,” he said.

Sophomore Celia Little — the president of J Street U at GW, a chapter of a national Jewish organization that promotes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — said the polarization among communities on campus about the conflict has become more apparent since the war’s outbreak, with vigils and gatherings to support both Israeli and Palestinian people and a slew of social media posts shared by students advocating for different sides.

She said she feels a need to create a space where students can acknowledge two truths in the wake of Hamas’ initial attack — that there are many Jewish students who want to mourn their Israeli family members and that there is context that should be acknowledged, including the lived experiences of Palestinians in Gaza. J Street held a gathering Oct. 10 in Anniversary Park on F Street for students to connect and stand in solidarity with other Jewish students and to process, grieve, question and learn following the war’s outbreak.

“It felt really important to hold that space for people because it’s hard to see so much discourse online and not really understand how you feel about it, or not see how you’re feeling being reflected online by your peers,” Little said. “It felt like a lot of people who came to our meeting felt really relieved to talk about how they’re feeling and hear that other people actually agree with them.”

Aidan Cullers, a sophomore and the president of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, said he felt fear after learning that his friends in Israel, who he met while working at a Jewish summer camp, were called up to serve in the Israeli military following Hamas’ attack. Cullers said he is disturbed to see reactions and responses to Hamas’ attack that express that the violence was justified.

Cullers added that AEPi has been tabling and fundraising all week to raise money for American Friends of Magen David Adom, Israel’s Red Cross organization, by selling Hamsa bracelets, bracelets with a hand charm that symbolizes protection, and doughnuts and raffling off items like AirPods and gift cards.

“Two of our brothers approached me and they said, ‘We need to do more,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I agree,’ and we got to work over fall break,” Cullers said, referencing the weekend after the war’s onset. “We were kind of just thinking of like, ‘What could we do to help?’”

Sean Shekhman, a sophomore and the co-political chair of GW for Israel, a pro-Israel student organization, said he does not feel welcome as a Jewish student on campus when he sees other students justifying the attacks and the targeting of civilians. Shekhman said the diversity of thoughts and opinions within the community about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been difficult to witness while processing his own emotional response to the war.

Shekhman — who has family in Israel including aunts, uncles and cousins — said he will never forget the past two weeks, which he called emotionally traumatic.

“I don’t know what’s happening to my family,” Shekhman said. “I can send them a message on WhatsApp, but for all I know, their building’s been hit by a rocket.”

GW for Israel has also organized an ongoing fundraiser for Friends of Magen David Adom.

Jewish Voice for Peace at GWU — a Jewish student organization that opposes Israel’s control over Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza — posted a statement to their Instagram Oct. 11 expressing solidarity with Palestinians and said they are working to create a space for anti-Zionist Jewish students and GW community members as well as those who wish to “unlearn” Zionism.

“We have been taught that Israel is our homeland and we would not be safe without its existence. But our safety cannot be predicated on denying millions their freedom, equality, and humanity,” the statement reads.

JVP hosted a conversation in the University Student Center for students Wednesday to unpack complicated feelings about the Israel-Hamas war and to deepen students’ understanding of Jewish solidarity with Palestine. JVP did not respond to requests for comment.

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About the Contributor
Rory Quealy, Assistant News Editor
Rory Quealy is a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communications from La Grange, Illinois. She is the 2023-2024 assistant news editor for the Health and Research beat.
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