Students protest Israel Independence Day event

The group gathered outside of the Leffell Center.

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Photo by Ayden Levine '23

Through the cold, light yet persistent rain on the night of Saturday, May 4, a group of students gathered at the end of Leh St. adjacent to the Leffell Center for Jewish Student Life. There were about 15 students huddled together, some holding umbrellas as they protested the closed event going on inside, as well as the ongoing violence occurring in Gaza.

The cohort of students belonged to the newly formed group on campus, Jewish Voice for Palestinian Liberation (JVPL). According to their Instagram, their mission is “to provide an internationally Jewish, anti-Zionist space on campus for folks to build community and advocate for Palestinian liberation. We reject the false equation of anti-Zionism and anti-semitism, and we believe in a Judaism beyond Zionism.” More can be found about the group on their social media. 

The group’s mission this evening was in large part to protest the Hillel-sponsored celebration occurring within the Leffell Center for the 76th anniversary of Israel’s independence. According to that invitation, the celebration was a closed event for the Muhlenberg community that required a ‘Berg ID for entry. The group of JVPL students claimed the party was a celebration of ethnic cleansing, using the Nakba in 1948 as a guide to their speeches and chants. The group of JVPL members did not only protest, but also performed the Havdalah service, marking the end of the Shabbat and the beginning of the new week, and sang a few songs.

This protest came after a previous demonstration held on May 2 in Parents Plaza. The protestors advocated for the College to disclose their investment portfolio as well as divest from groups and organizations with connections to Israel. These protestors were met with a counter-protest in support of Israel. 

This event sparked outrage in the Muhlenberg Parents Facebook group, prompting a statement from Dean of Students Allison Williams in advance of the demonstration at the Leffell Center. “The planned demonstration is not against Hillel at all and the group has been clear about this. The demonstration is to express their dissent with an Israeli Independence Day event being held at the Leffell Center,” said Williams.

The group was fully formed on May 4 around 8:45 p.m., and began by reading their demands for the College and their group values. They then sang a song together with lyrics including sentiment around ending the violence toward Palestinians in Gaza. The group of protesters then began to chant in the direction of incoming party-goers.

Some chants included “You go party inside, while Israel commits genocide,” “Up up with liberation, down down with occupation” and “Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has got to go.” These were just a few chants the group utilized, gaining volume as people would venture up the walkway before being let into the ongoing celebration inside.

Throughout the evening, the group would splice songs, speeches or religious ceremonies between chants. As more and more people entered the building, the pattern remained the same with little reaction from any onlookers, except for one or two people filming the protesters. 

The only passive conflict came around 9:40 p.m., as two students with Israel flags draped around their backs walked past the protesters with a large speaker playing music, in what seemed in direct response to the protesters chanting and singing. Those two students briefly entered the building before coming back outside with a few more students and planting the speaker outside as music continued to play.

Williams proceeded to speak to the students that had emerged from the party. The dean was one of the three staff members present throughout the evening, alongside Chaplain Rev. Janelle Neubauer and Director of Student Transitions and Family Programs Tim Black, keeping tabs on student conduct and safety. Other than those incidents, there were no interactions between the two groups of students beyond one of the protesters addressing the students near the speaker in one of her speeches, but that proved futile and everything routinely continued as it had been for the majority of the evening. 

As the night drew on, the protesters continued their speeches, singing and chanting as their numbers dwindled to about half their starting size. As more and more people left the party, the protesters continued to chant their messages about Palestinian liberation and their disagreement with what the event inside stood for.

Evan is a media and communication major minoring in creative writing and journalism with a passion for sports writing as well as soccer, being outdoors and spending time with close friends and family. He is eager to continue learning about and tinkering with writing while learning from the talented Weekly staff.

1 COMMENT

  1. As an alumnus, I applaud these students’ courage to be a voice for peace and justice, against genocide. The lack of transparency in the business and investment of the endowment of the college has been a concern of mine since I was a student.

    The student government, in 2009, voted unanimously to support a socially responsible investment committee. A review of the investments wouldn’t necessarily need to play out in public if students, faculty, and staff empowered to review the ethics of the college’s business practices signed NDAs and did a broad report on categories, not specific investments: defense contractors/weapons manufacturers, oil/gas companies contributing to climate change, companies involved in abusive labor practices.

    A review could be LVAIC-wide, as the other Lehigh Valley colleges and universities who comingle their endowments would need to consent to the review and should really participate.

    The college similarly reviewed its finances’ role in unethical practices in the 90s when they signed onto the Workers Rights Consortium to leverage a portion of college-branded apparel sales as part of the United Students Against Sweatshops campaign to pressure clothing manufacturers to respect their workers. It still exists today.

    Responding to student/faculty pressure, the college divested from a list of corporations doing business supporting the genocide in Darfur by Sudan in 2006-7 or about that time.

    Similar pressure, nationally and internationally, also pressured Sodexo to divest its holdings in private prisons where abuses were recorded. I was a part of that advocacy at Muhlenberg.

    Israel’s push into Rafah in a ground invasion could unfold to be one of the worst Western-backed atrocities in our lifetime. It is at times like these that students’ voices are most needed, as they are the next generation of leaders in this country.

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