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Temple President Addresses Attack at Student Government Meeting

August 25, 2014 By:
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Temple president Neil Theobald addresses students about the incident last week in which a Jewish student was allegedly struck by a pro-Palestine supporter, at a student government meeting. Photo by Amishai Gottlieb.

The Temple University president addressed the Aug. 20 attack of a Jewish student on campus — saying the investigation is ongoing — but to the disappointment of some, he did not answer a number of other questions at a student government general assembly meeting Monday afternoon.

Neil Theobald said he expects the police to complete its last interview in the next few days and then the district attorney will determine whether or not charges will be filed. The university will also determine what actions it could take against the student, he said.

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's main campus in Philadelphia. Since then, students as well as leaders of national Jewish organziations have criticized Temple over its handling of the incident, asking why police did not arrest the alleged assailant, who was standing at a booth of Students for Justice in Palestine and allegedly hit and yelled anti-Semitic slurs at Vessal.

The police, who arrived at the scene after the incident, did not make any arrests because they had not witnessed the alleged attack and the alleged attacker was not a suspected felon and had not been previously cited in a warrant, Theobald said.

The Temple Hillel had a contingent of more than 20 students and staff at the meeting, which took place under what several people said seemed like more security than normal at the Howard Gittis Student Center. The meeting had been scheduled before last week's incident.

Theobald said that while he encouraged heated debate, "there is no place on a university campus for violence." Theobald took questions that were delivered by the student body president and were said to have been submitted by  students in writing before the start of the meeting. But he only addressed one question about safety on campus before moving to softer questions about why he loved Philadelphia and his favorite food truck on campus.

Hillel president Tara Levine, a senior at Temple, said she had wanted to ask about safety in the context of last week's incident, but her submitted question was not asked. The question asked was just about safety generally, and Theobald did not mention the incident in answering, instead talking about the size of the campus police force and which parts of campus were under patrol.

She and other students had brainstormed questions to ask Theobald before the meeting and expected more of an "open Q&A," Levine said.

"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," she said.

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 moving forward to facilitate a dialogue between pro-Israel groups and the SJP. After the meeting, she said she wasn’t satisfied with his 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.

Hillel director Phil Nordlinger said that with the investigation apparently near its completion, "I trust that the university will take the right action." 

A member of SJP, which had condemned the alleged attack, said she heard what she expected from the president. They were "at this point the most he could really say, that the investigation is ongoing, and he did condemn the violence,” said Molly, a junior studying political science at Temple, who asked that her last name not be used. “We just really hope that the investigation remains fair and unbiased as we continue forward, and we’re going to cooperate.”

She added that at the beginning of every SJP meeting, the group does a circle activity practicing how to engage with people who disagree with them, specifically learning to avoid using words and phrases that might cause emotional responses.

“We take a lot of care that we’re not offensive to people because anti-Semitism is against what we stand for. We’re against Zionism and against Israeli occupation of Palestine; we’re not against the Jewish public,” she said.

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