Jewish community leaders, campus professionals and students wrestle with how best to respond in the wake of an assault on a Jewish Temple student by a pro-Palestinian activist.
About 20 Temple University Hillel students gathered at their student center on Monday evening after brainstorming a list of questions to ask the school’s president about an incident last week in which a pro-Palestinian student allegedly struck a pro-Israel Jewish student. Among them were:
Does the school consider the attack a hate crime?
How will Temple ensure that such assaults don’t happen again?
As they stepped off the elevator for the student government general assembly, security officers checked their IDs — several students said there was more security than usual at such meetings — and a greeter told them to write down their questions.
About 30 minutes later, they left the room, many of them complaining that Temple president Neil Theobald had ignored their questions about how the school would respond to the incident, instead answering softer questions about why he loves Philadelphia and his favorite food truck on campus.
“I don’t think any of the questions that were written about the incident were brought as questions for him, which was not the impression we had coming into the meeting,” said senior Tara Levine, the Hillel president.
At the time of the meeting, five days had passed since Daniel Vessal, an upperclassman in Alpha Epsilon Pi, a primarily Jewish fraternity, and a fellow with the pro-Israel Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, allegedly was assaulted by someone near a Students for Justice in Palestine booth during move-in day at Temple’s main campus in Philadelphia. Vessal later sought treatment at a local hospital.
The alleged assailant was not arrested but the school conducted an internal investigation, which it completed Wednesday and will give those findings to the Philadelphia district attorney, who will determine whether charges will be filed, according to the school. The university, which has not released the name of the assailant, citing privacy concerns, or the findings of the investigation, will also refer the case to an internal committee to decide what, if any, disciplinary actions it will take.
The incident has captured significant national attention largely because of the context: a pro-Palestinian student attacking a pro-Israel Jewish student amid a heated war with Hamas, demonstrations and violence against Jews in Europe and the murder of an Orthodox rabbi in Miami. And last year, an adjunct professor at Temple, who is no longer employed by the school, made statements in an online forum about Jewish influence in academia and questioned the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Against this backdrop, Jewish community leaders, campus professionals and students are wrestling with how best to respond to the situation. Should they push the panic button and call for large-scale action against the school? Or should they let students and organizations like Hillel take the lead in pushing the school to hold Students for Justice in Palestine accountable and engaging other students in informal discussions?
National groups are already chiming in with their opinions. On Aug. 22, two days after the incident, 13 organizations, led by StandWithUs, and including the Zionist Organization of America, issued a joint statement condemning Students for Justice in Palestine, saying the organization “has a proven track record of intimidation, harassment and incitement merging into anti-Semitism against Israel and its supporters on campus.”
The pro-Palestinian group had already distanced itself from the alleged assailant, saying he was not a member of the group.
“In all the years that SJP has existed at Temple, arguments have never escalated to physical confrontation,” the group said in a statement. “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.”
SJP also asserted that Vessal called its members “terrorists" and "Hamas.”
Vessal has not responded to interview requests, but his attorney, Michael Wildes, a former federal prosecutor in New York, said Vessal had approached the SJP table and “engaged in a dialogue, nothing heated whatsoever, and was then struck when he turned away from the table, unprovoked” and yelled at with anti-Semitic slurs.
The pro-Palestinian organization denied that its members used any such 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.
While the pro-Israel organizations’ statement urged Temple to “publicly condemn” the assault as well as “intimidation of any individual or group based on their identities or viewpoints,” there have also been calls for patience from Jewish community leaders.
A rally to “Demand Justice and Equality for Jewish/Israel Students at Temple University” had been scheduled for Monday, and more than 100 people had RSVP’d on Facebook.
However, Jewish organizations urged the rally organizers, including parents of some students, to postpone the event until the school had completed its investigation.
“Now that the investigation is concluded and is moving on to the next phases, we certainly hope that" the district attorney and the school “will take this very seriously, and we look forward to seeing the results,” said Temple’s Hillel director, Phil Nordlinger.
The rally organizers complied and have since postponed it again until Sept. 4, according to the Facebook page.
Rabbi Howard Alpert, director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, has called for similar restraint from national Jewish organizations wanting to get involved.
“It’s understandable that individuals and organizations that are concerned with speaking truth against the lies of Hamas and are concerned for the safety of students on campus want universities to act responsibly against those who attempt to intimidate Jewish students,” said Alpert. “Frankly, I think it would be more helpful if students were allowed to provide leadership in this area and to allow those of us who are trained to work with students to do that.”
At the meeting Monday, Theobald began by saying that he encouraged heated debate but “there is no place on a university campus for violence.” He then only addressed one general question about safety on campus asked by the student body president, who acted as a moderator. Theobald did not mention the incident, instead talking about the size of the campus police force and which parts of campus were under patrol.
Levine, the Hillel president, said she had submitted six questions related to last week’s incident, among others from Hillel students, but none were asked.
“I’m just upset because I feel like we’re not really getting answers.”
As Theobald appeared to be wrapping up, a couple of students raised their hands. Shira Math, a senior from Cherry Hill, N.J., asked what would be done to facilitate dialogue between pro-Israel groups and the SJP. After the meeting, she said she wasn’t satisfied with Theobald’s response that the university would wait to learn more from the results of the police investigation before handling the issue internally.
“We all know that there’s a process to go through but I need to be told, ‘This is what’s going to be communicated to the group,’ I need to know” that members of SJP “are going to be warned on a public level,” said Math.
The dean of students and the vice president of academic affairs will also meet with Nordlinger and Hillel's student leaders on Tuesday to hear their concerns and talk about how they can ensure a safe environment on campus. In the meantime, Hillel staff is organizing panel discussions and working with students on tactics to handle “differences with people on campus and not allowing it to escalate into something that is unfortunate and potentially violent,” Nordlinger said.
The local office of the Anti-Defamation League has also had lengthy conversations with Temple officials, offering guidance on how to deal with such incidents and encouraging Theobald to unequivocally condemn such acts, according to Nancy Baron-Baer, the group’s interim regional director.
She said she had also reminded school officials about ADL’s handbook, “Responding to Bigotry and Intergroup Strife on Campus,” and offered to come to campus with a new program designed to help address and avert such situations.
StandWithUs is also sponsoring an event with Hillel on Sept. 8 featuring Kasim Hafeez, a British Muslim of Pakistani origin who had promoted jihad and seen Israel as evil but now considers himself a Zionist.
In the aftermath of the Temple incident, StandWithUs is not aiming to “dip into every move the students make,” said Ferne Hassan, associate director of the organization’s Philadelphia office.
But “the academic institutions, the president, the board, they have to understand that there is a national organization who has a watchful eye,” Hassan continued. “While we want the students to do their work, we want the schools to understand that if there is a problem, we will step in.”