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Serving the GW Community since 1904

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Diversity, equity official to leave GW in July
By Jenna Lee, Assistant News Editor • June 8, 2024

Jewish students blend activism, religion during pro-Palestinian encampment

Kaiden J. Yu | Assistant Photo Editor
A protester wearing a kippah looks toward a Palestinian flag at a rally in November.

Some Jewish students said they reckoned with their religious identity during the nearly two-week pro-Palestinian encampment on GW’s campus that police cleared earlier this month, reporting solidarity with the demonstration and a feeling of exclusion because of statements at the protest.

A collective of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters across the D.C. region created a tent encampment in University Yard and H Street late in late April to protest against Israel’s military assault in Gaza, demanding their local universities divest from companies from Israel and protect pro-Palestinian speech. The protest garnered support from members of the Jewish community, who joined rallies, as others held simultaneous demonstrations against antisemitism and acts of counterprotest.

Some Jewish student leaders said they were uncomfortable with signs at the protest that said “Students will leave when Israelis leave” and protest chants calling for an Intifada, which they said had antisemitic sentiments. Others said the encampment welcomed Jewish voices advocating for Palestinian liberation and created a peaceful, multicultural community through Shabbat, Orthodox Christian and Muslim prayer services during the demonstration. Many Jewish student leaders said the use of police force that ended the encampment created an unsafe environment for students involved.

Reese Tolchin, the incoming president of GW J Street U — a student organization promoting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — said she wanted to join the protests because she believes in the “movement” but that the encampment was not an “inclusive” space for Jewish students because of calls for an Intifada, which she said has historical connotations with violence against the Jewish people. There are many interpretations for the word — which, in Arabic, means “shaking off” — but it historically refers to two Palestinian civil uprisings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to fight against Israel’s occupation of the territories, which led to the deaths of more than 5,000 Palestinians and about 1,400 Israelis.

“If they were just chanting for a ceasefire, just for an end to occupation, for BDS, an end to violence, I would be there, but because these slogans are so complicated and can mean violence depending on the interpretation, I feel mixed feelings about showing up there,” Tolchin said.

Tolchin said the University should have negotiated with students before sweeping the encampment because the clearing of the encampment was “hostile” and will create more tension on campus. Officials met with members of the Student Coalition for Palestine at GWU last week and said the University is not considering changing its investment strategies, which protesters demanded to cut ties to Israel.

“Just because the encampment was cleared, doesn’t mean that energy and like the anger against the University is gonna go away,” Tolchin said. “I think it’ll only be heightened so I don’t think it’s accomplishing any goal of making people feel safe on campus.”

A representative from Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that advocates to end Israeli occupation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, said the protest included many Jewish students and focused on “collective humanity,” demonstrating Jewish values through standing against Israel’s war on Gaza and calling for Palestinian liberation. The JVP said the presence of Jewish demonstrators at the encampment shows the need for a “Judaism beyond Zionism” to help advocate for Palestinians.

The JVP representative said campus discussions about the safety of Jewish students do not reflect the entire Jewish community. The representative said the MPD’s use of force and pepper spray during officers’ clearing created an “unsafe” environment at the encampment.

“As Jewish human beings, who were taught that they should not stand idly by their neighbor’s blood and that if a single life is ended, it is akin to ending a whole world, we participate in and are welcomed into this solidarity movement,” the representative said in an email.

A first-year Jewish student and a member of Chabad GW and GW Hillel, who requested anonymity due to safety concerns, said they were “relieved” that police cleared the encampment because they felt unsafe on campus when visiting the encampment and felt targeted for wearing Jewish symbols like a Star of David on their backpack. The student said Jewish students on campus are facing “repercussions” for the actions of the Israeli government.

“I don’t represent Benjamin Netanyahu, I don’t represent the IDF,” the student said. “Why should I feel unsafe on my own campus because of the actions of a military on the other side of the planet?”

The student added that they wished local police handled the situation with less force.

“It could have been gone about in a much more peaceful, civil way,” the student said. “Instead of storming this encampment at 3:30 in the morning and pepper spraying people.”

A sophomore and a Jewish member of GW J Street U, who requested to remain anonymous due to fear of doxxing and retaliation, said they slept in the encampment for more than a week and were there when the Metropolitan Police Department cleared the encampment on May 8.

“Luckily no physical harm came to me but it was definitely a very, very scary experience,” the student said. “Images of that I have not been able to get out of my mind.”

The J Street U member said although certain chants and signs within the encampment made them feel uncomfortable, they joined the protests because they felt their discomfort was incomparable to Palestinian suffering in Gaza from famine, displacement and injury. The student declined to provide specifics of the chants and signs they were referring to because the examples present an “unproductive” way to capture pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

The J Street U member said organizers at the encampment worked to make the space inclusive for Jewish students and removed a sign that called for Jewish people to return to Poland outside the encampment. The student said the encampment was a “beautiful” display of multiculturalism and holding Shabbat services was a moving experience because it wove together Jewish cultural practices with calls for Palestinian liberation.

“It was just so powerful and so validating to know that members of my own community were standing with me and standing with Palestinian people and standing with those who care about Palestinian liberation, and showing that we can hold all of these beliefs and all of our experiences at once,” the J Street U member said.

Sophomore Aidan Cullers, the incoming president for the GW Jewish Student Association, said police sweeping the encampment “had to be done” because the demonstration disrupted campus operations and blocked access to U-Yard. Cullers said he felt safe on campus during the demonstrations and visited the encampment to stand with his friends, one of whom had an Israeli flag, to show his support for Israel on the first day of the protest but didn’t interact with others when he was there.

“I’m all for anyone’s right to protest and everyone’s right to free speech, but I think what you just really wound up seeing is a number of University policies had been violated,” Cullers said.

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