Students reflect on Israel-Palestine conflict

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Photo Courtesy of @muhlenbergcollege

In the early hours of the morning on Oct. 7, militants affiliated with Hamas launched an incursion into Israeli territory under heavy rocket fire and occupied several small towns. Israel has retaliated by prohibiting the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza and launching thousands of airstrikes. Here at Muhlenberg, emotions have been running high ever since. Thousands of Israelis, Palestinians and foreign nationals have lost their lives and livelihoods since that day with no end in sight. It’s impossible to detail the full impact of this war in just one article. Many students at Muhlenberg have direct connections to the conflict, and many have been struggling to process their thoughts amid clashing narratives.

Muhlenberg is known for its large Jewish population, and many students have friends and family in Israel including Or-El Ankori ‘25. She recounted how she was celebrating the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah on Oct. 7, with her extended family, all of whom are Israeli. With a population of just over nine million people, most Israelis know at least one person who had been affected by the incursions. Ankori mentioned that in addition to having family in Sderot, one of the hardest hit communities just north of the Gaza strip, she has a direct connection with someone serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

Wren Daburah ‘25, a Palestinian-American student, noted how taxing the outbreak of this war has been on her mental health. “I almost feel guilty going to class and being a student working towards my future right now while those in the thick of it don’t even know if they will live to take their next steps.” As images of destruction flood international news and social media, students have had to grapple with the privileges of living in the West while family, friends and loved ones take shelter from munitions in Israel and Gaza. 

Despite the shocked reaction from within Israel and throughout international media, some students perceived the attacks by Hamas to be expected. “October 7 was no surprise to me. Palestinians have been degraded over these past 75 years and it’s no surprise that people are fighting back Israel’s oppressive apartheid,” said Shajnin Howlader ‘27. “It’s hard to continue on with my day without this pain I have been carrying for a long time, more intensified these past few days.”

Muhlenberg students hold vastly different positions on the reaction of the wider student community in response to the war in Gaza. Daburah mentioned that as a Palestinian, it has been difficult for her to find a safe space to reflect. “I admire how much the Jewish student body has come together to reflect and support one another in a safe space but right now I feel like the oddball in this community because I have yet to find that support group setting for my people on this campus because we are so few. There is always this underlying fear for me voicing my identity because of the false association that the flag of my people represents Hamas, though that is a false generalization of a population just because of an extremist group.” Furthermore, an anonymous Jewish student who identifies as “not pro-Israel,” stated that “it is a horrible time to be a Muhlenberg student right now… If I express my anger about Israel’s actions I am seen as an antisemite and will be socially ostracized.” 

Similarly, Howlader criticized the lack of resources available to Palestinian students. “Students had to advocate for the bare minimum and it was until just recently that resources like listening circles have been offered, but even then it is not as publicized. It is clear from the resources that have been publicized like the recent vigil and spaces to speak in that feel unwelcoming for all students to attend…  that the school has a bias that they are trying to enforce on students.” 

Giovanni Merrifield ‘24 further lamented the campus climate, noting that “it feels very tense, like people are walking on eggshells. I definitely do not feel supported in my views, but I do have a small group of people that share similar sentiments, which has been nice.” This view was shared by Daburah, who noted her hesitancy to voice her opinions and identity unapologetically. “I have felt conflicted about voicing my opinions and my identity online and in various contexts as a Palestinian.” 

Many students have been vocal critics of Israel and Israeli policy despite the potential for pushback. Milo Obrzut ’25 expressed his unique position as a Jewish student on campus. “I love Judaism, and I love Muhlenberg’s Jewish community, and I see and feel that both are in a state of mourning right now. However, I do not believe that any aspect of my Jewish values would ever encourage me to seek vengeance, especially not against innocents who did not perpetrate any harm against me… Everytime a person or institution in a position of power and prominence takes the time to condemn Hamas but not the IDF, I worry that this warmongering streak will claim even more lives.”

Several students have applauded the reaction of the student community at Muhlenberg. “The vigil was the first time I was given a platform to grieve, it was really emotional and supportive,” noted Dan Harel ‘26, an Israeli student. The memorial service organized by Jewish students on campus drew a crowd of over 200 students, faculty and community members to honor those who had been lost since Oct. 7, to pray for the safe return of the hostages and to lament the perpetuation of the conflict at large. Given the tensions simmering across the globe and the images of passionate, sometimes rage-filled protests in major cities, anxiety levels were running high for Jewish students in the hours preceding the service last Thursday evening. “I know that we were very afraid of a protest during the vigil, which did not occur. I appreciate the Muhlenberg community for letting us grieve in peace and with respect,” noted Ankori.

Some students took issue with the fact that the student-organized vigil was publicly acknowledged by the Muhlenberg Instagram account. The vigil was not, however, coordinated with the College. Rather, it was put together by a grassroots conglomerate of Jewish students with no organizational or institutional oversight.

Allentown pro-Palestine protest. Photo credit to Jay Bradley and lehighvalleynews.com

In addition to fears of counter-protests, Jewish, Muslim and Arab students on campus have had to deal with increasing anxiety surrounding the national perception and reaction to the war. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a statement soon after news broke of the Hamas attack warning of increasing threats to those associated with the Jewish and Muslim faiths motivated, “at least in part, by the conflict between Israel and Hamas.”

Professor Brian Mello, Ph.D, chair of the political science department, offered his take on the context for this most recent round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza strip since winning the last round of Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political ideology with roots in early 20th century Egypt. “Hamas emerged in the 1970s, as activists established charities, schools, and medical centers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” said Associate Anthropology Professor Maura Finkelstein, Ph.D., “It was officially established as a liberation group in 1987, alongside the First Intifada (the uprising).” Despite the Muslim Brotherhood largely abandoning violence as an official tactic, Hamas, which was founded in 1987, has consistently utilized violent tactics to achieve political gains since the collapse of the Oslo Accords in the late 1990s. 

While their official charter calls for the ultimate destruction of the State of Israel and the expulsion of Jews from the Levant, professor Mello emphasizes the complexities within Palestinian domestic politics that complicate these ultimate goals: “Are they fully committed to preventing Israel from existing, as founding documents read? Or is this posturing as the organization faces challenges among other Islamist and militant groups within domestic Palestinian politics? Does the 2017 statement indicating a potential willingness to enter into a long-term ceasefire signal an underlying pragmatism that might discount fears that the group is hellbent on destroying Israel? Or, given that Hamas’s leadership sits both within Palestine and outside of it, and given that it plays both a political and a militant role, it could just be that all of these are true—that there is no clear way of defining what Hamas’s true goals vis-a-vis Israel.”

Since 2007, Israel and Hamas have fought each other several times. The current round of fighting is different from past rounds, however. “The scale and success of Hamas’ attack last week are unprecedented. They reflect both large-scale successful planning by Hamas and also a complete failure by the Israeli intelligence services and government to either be aware of the planned attacks or to move quickly to counter them,” reflected Professor of History Mark Stein, Ph.D. “The coming Israeli invasion of Gaza is going to produce horrific numbers of civilian deaths.”

The media has played a large role in shaping both the perceptions of and reactions to the current war in Gaza. Daburah shared, “There is so much bias it is unbelievable.” Social media has had the most direct and detrimental impact on the students at Muhlenberg. Merrifield was not the only student to mention Yik Yak when asked about the position of the media in this conflict. “Yik Yak has shown some real colors in people here on this campus. I fear that one day those offensive words (on both ends) will decide that it is acceptable to say them without anonymity and spread hate and chaos across campus,” said Merrifield. Criticism of Yik Yak posts was echoed by Obrzut, who made a specific reference to a post from Oct. 7 which contained a gruesome and inaccurate generalization. He commented, “This is unequivocally hate speech. People have the right to say what they want, but this was unacceptable.” 

Yoav Susskind ‘25 commented on the unique position of Instagram in relation to the conflict. “Social media allows us to see the most extreme positions, and everything is without context. On Instagram, it seems like everything is terrible, but when I turn to the Muhlenberg community, I see that there is good and kindness in the sea of hatred.” 

Additional Reporting by Kabir Burman ‘27.

1 COMMENT

  1. Quick question: concerning the incursion by these militants associated with Hamas, and the occupation of several towns- were any Israeli civilians injured? There is no mention of that. I’m assuming all precautions were taken to avoid civilian casualties- especially women and children. Can you please reply?

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