Over 200 students and community members gathered on the STEPS lawn Thursday, Nov. 9, to show their solidarity for Palestine as the Israel-Hamas conflict continues. The Student Political Action Committee and Lehigh4Palestine organized the demonstration.
The demonstration started at 1 p.m. and encouraged students to walk out of their classes.
At around 2:30 p.m., the group marched and chanted from the STEPS lawn to the flagpole in front of the University Center. Guest speaker and Palestinian-born writer Raya Abdelaal and others then led another round of chants. The students then returned to the STEPS lawn and dispersed just after 3 p.m.
The demonstration drew mixed reactions due to some statements and signage presented by some demonstrators.
Jennah Abdelaziz, ‘24, spoke at the demonstration and said condemning a political movement and a governmental body should not be equated to condemning a religious group.
“We have many Jewish allies among us today and across the globe who do not identify with the state of Israel and Zionism, who are fighting for Palestinian life and liberation alongside us,” Abdelaziz said.
Ciaran Buitrago, an organizer of the demonstration and a director for the Student Political Action Coalition, wrote in an email to The Brown and White that the demonstration included three Jewish speakers and many Jewish attendees. He also wrote that the group condemned antisemitism and violence from both Hamas and the Israeli military.
“We took every precaution to ensure the demonstration was peaceful, welcoming, and diverse,” Buitrago wrote.
Allison Mickel, the chair of the global studies department and an anthropology professor, said when Lehigh students see harm, violence and genocide in the world, they show up.
She said she is an archaeologist and understands how her field has been used to erase Palestinian presence on the land for hundreds of years.
“That is what is happening now. That is what has been happening. That is oppression. That is everyday violence in between the bombs,” Mickel said. “I am here as a scholar who studies oppression, and I know it when I see it, and Palestine is suffering.”
Mickel said she has been waking up to bloody photos of her friends and colleague’s family members for weeks, and as a Jewish person she was raised to believe in the value of Tikkun olam, the idea of healing the world.
Rawan Katz, a Bethlehem resident, recently protested for Palestine in New York City and Washington D.C. She grew up in Jordan and moved to the United States when she was 15 years old. She was born and raised Muslim and now has a Jewish husband and said they practice both faiths.
“Just be human and love other humans,” Katz said. “If you speak human and love other humans, nobody is better than anybody.”
A.B., ‘26, said the group at the gathering has been in attendance at other social movements, and she believes being pro-Palestinian and pro-peace intertwine.
“You cannot continue bombing people and continuing occupation under a violent regime and say that’s peace because it’s not,” A.B. said. “I think people need to recognize that this isn’t a religious issue.”
Layan Suleiman, ‘25, said students can take action by calling their representatives.
She asked Lehigh to divest its relations with Israel and make their voices heard by posting and sharing, and tagging Lehigh and local representatives to put pressure on them.
Signs reading “Zionism is murder” and a chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” were present at the event and led to mixed reactions over the intentions and potential repercussions of the messages.
In advance of the demonstration, the director of Jewish Student Life and Rabbi Steve Nathan reiterated in an email to the campus community that Lehigh is safe for Jewish students and mentioned students are entitled to their First Amendment rights to hold the demonstration.
Nathan wrote in an email following the demonstration on Friday that Lehigh “feels just a little less safe and a little less welcoming than it did just a little over a day ago.” He wrote that he thought the rally contained antisemitic statements and made some Jewish students uncomfortable.
He wrote that the message on the signs — “Zionism is murder” — applies to all Zionists, in his opinion, even those who wish for an independent Palestinian state, such as himself and many Jewish students on campus.
Buitrago wrote that the anti-Zionist sentiments are not antisemitic, and he believes asserting such reduces Jewish identity and is an “attack on freedom of speech.”
“The idea that a state that elevates Judaism over other groups is necessary for the protection and self-determination of Jews is offensive to our Jewish organizers and many Jews globally,” Buitrago wrote.
Nathan also wrote that the sentiment of the chant — “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — can only become true if Israel no longer exists.
“To state that Jews cannot live as free people in their ancestral homeland is de facto an anti-Semitic statement,” Nathan wrote.
A group of leaders from Chabad at Lehigh wrote an email to University President Joseph Helble, ‘82, on Nov. 10 in response to rising antisemitism on Lehigh’s campus, and they specifically referred to the chant.
The Chabad leaders wrote that they think this is a rallying cry for terrorist groups and their sympathizers, but they wrote it is also often used by pro-Palestinian activists as a call to arms. They wrote that it calls for the erasure of the Israeli state and its people.
“Since the founding of Chabad at Lehigh, Dit (Greenberg) and I have never witnessed organized, proud displays of blatant antisemitism on campus,” the email reads. “This by far is the greatest public display of antisemitism and Anti-Israel sentiment that Lehigh has seen in decades.”
Buitrago wrote that this chant is used at pro-Palestine protests globally and believes it’s not a call for the destruction of Israel or Jewish people, but rather a wish for an end to the inhumane practices and apartheid system imposed by the Israeli government on the Palestinian people.
Though the statements may not have been intended to be antisemitic, Nathan wrote that he is “unsure” if it is and called on the university to condemn antisemitism on campus, just as it would condemn bias or prejudice expressed toward other groups.
The email from Chabad included claims that the chant violates the university’s Policy on Harassment and Non-Discrimination and the Student Code of Conduct.
In an email to the campus community sent Sunday, Nov. 12, Helble wrote that though the demonstration was peaceful, some behaviors and signage at the demonstration contained antisemitic statements and language and violated Lehigh’s Principles of Our Equitable Community.
“For these conversations to be effective, we must consider how words, slogans, chants and actions will be understood by others whose views or whose histories differ from ours,” Helble wrote.
Buitrago wrote that he questions why the university does not outwardly condemn the Israeli military in addition to Hamas and is worried the purpose of the demonstration is being misconstrued.
“We are concerned that our beautiful demonstration for peace…is being labeled by some as a hateful demonstration due to the misinterpretation of a single chant,” Buitrago wrote.
Abdelaal said she hoped Lehigh students in attendance would question what they see on their social media feeds and evaluate if the information they see is true or not.
She said there is lots of propaganda circulating about this conflict in Israel and Gaza.
“You’re going to hear a lot of lies,” Abdelaal said. “Fact check what you are hearing and make sure the sources that you’re getting it from are factual.”