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Jewish Student Assaulted at Temple University

August 21, 2014 By:
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Hillel, the campus student group, is expressing “outrage” over an attack on a Jewish student at Temple University on Wednesday and is calling on the university to ensure the safety of its Jewish students.

At the same time, the school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine is condemning the attack and is claiming the alleged assailant was not a member of its organization. 

Daniel Vessal, an upperclassman member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity and a fellow with the pro-Israel organization, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, allegedly was assaulted during move-in day at Temple University’s main campus in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

Vessal had approached a table manned by members of Students for Justice in Palestine, known as SJP, during Templefest, where students gather information about campus activities and started talking with them, according to reports that were confirmed by Temple’s Hillel director, Phil Nordlinger. 

One of the pro-Palestinian students then allegedly punched Vessal, and he and others with the group allegedly started yelling anti-Semitic slurs at Vessal. 

Vessal, who went to seek medical treatment at Temple University Hospital and was later released, could not be reached for comment. Vessal had just started his fellowship with CAMERA and completed the organization's annual three-day student leadership conference Tuesday in Boston, according to Aviva Slomich, CAMERA's campus director. Attendees receive advice on topics such as correcting perceived media bias and how to combat the boycott, divestments and sanctions campaign against Israel. She said Vessal seems "like a nice, rational student."

Nordlinger said that when he spoke with police, they told him that they were still investigating and did not say whether they planned to arrest the alleged assailant. 

In its statement issued Thursday, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and Hillel at Temple University, called on Temple University “to take action against Students for Justice In Palestine with the clear message that all students may express themselves in peaceful and non-violent ways without fear of physical assault and that expressions of ethnic hatred will not be tolerated on Temple’s campus.

“Hillel is concerned for the safety of Temple’s Jewish and pro-Israel students,” the statement continued, “for their ability to openly display symbols of Jewish identity and affiliation on campus, and for their right to express their support for Israel without intimidation." The group said it was working with Temple administrators and police to “assure the safety of Temple’s Jewish students.”

The incident comes amid widespread concern that campuses across the country will see increased anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hostilities in the wake of the Israel-Gaza war this summer.

It also came just a few days after Temple Hillel held its annual orientation for new students, Freshfest, educating students and their families about Jewish life on campus. The group answered questions about topics such as safety, scheduling conflicts over the High Holidays and Shabbat programming. 

At the time, Israel-related issues were not expressed as a major concern by either the students or their parents. Students and staff talked about how the campus has not had as much conflict among students over Israel as other schools in recent years and that the pro-Palestinian groups did not have a strong presence last year. 

The school did, however, receive significant negative attention in June after an adjunct professor made inflammatory statements in an online forum about the Holocaust and Jewish influence in academia. 

A Temple University spokesman initially told a Washington, D.C., media outlet that the school “promotes open discussion and expression among its diverse community of scholars. The exercise of academic freedom necessarily results in a vigorous exchange of ideas.” Temple later released a statement distancing itself from the professor, Alessio Lerro: “These statements have incited strong reaction, and rightly so. The university, predictably but nonetheless inappropriately, has been painted with those statements, which were those of the speaker and not Temple.”

Meanwhile, SJP distanced itself from Wednesday’s incident and asserted that Vessal had “harassed” its members. In a statement released over Twitter on Thursday, the group said: "A student, who is not a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, slapped a former student who was repeatedly harassing the SJP table."

"In all the years that SJP has existed at Temple, arguments have never escalated to physical confrontation. Temple SJP condemns this act of physical violence, just as we condemn the violence that is committed against Palestinians by the state of Israel on a daily basis."

In the statement, SJP asserted that Vessal called its members "terrorists" and "Hamas." The organization denied that its members used any anti-Semitic slurs. "SJP condemns and opposes anti-Semitism in all of its insidious forms, particularly when it is thinly veiled as 'activism' and exploits the Palestinian cause to justify its bigotry," the statement read.

Rabbi Howard Alpert, director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said the SJP assertion that the alleged assailant was not a member of the group is "not relevant." The organization "needs to be held responsible for the actions of their guests and individuals at their table, whether or not they are students."

For its part, Temple University released a statement Thursday morning, saying it was investigating the incident, which "is alleged to have included physical violence and anti-Semitic statements and religious slurs." The statement said the school  would “not tolerate violence of any kind directed against members of the Temple community.” Temple officials declined to release the name of the alleged assailant, citing privacy concerns.

Hillel Hoffmann, assistant director of university communications at Temple, told the Exponent that the university "is strongly committed to creating a safe climate for all students and this university had has a long tradition of having a vibrant Jewish community, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure Jewish students — and frankly all students — feel safe on campus."

"We're committed to that vibrant Jewish community." he added.

Asked about this week's incident and the statements made by the adjunct professor over the summer, Alpert said, "Temple university needs to take strong action to avoid that pattern of behavior becoming the reality at" the school.

Alpert said he spoke with the dean of students, who told him that the police “were taking the matter seriously and still investigating.” He said, “We should withhold judgment” about why the assailant has not been arrested until the investigation is completed.

He added: "I think Temple University needs to consider taking a strong stance against the tendency of anti-Israelis to slide into anti-Semitism and to recognize that anti-Israelism attracts individuals who are motivated by hatred of Jews."

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