5C students mourn, express fear over violence in Gaza and Israel

A drawing of three small candles burning against a dark background.
(Sasha Matthews • The Student Life)

As violence in Gaza and Israel continues, Palestinian and Jewish students grieve losses and call for increased institutional support.

In the latest escalation following decades of violence in Israel and Gaza, Palestinian militant group Hamas launched an attack on Israel on Oct. 7, after which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a wartime cabinet Wednesday, while the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have ordered the evacuation of over a million Palestinians from northern Gaza. Over 1,300 people were killed by Hamas’s attack and over 1,500 were killed by Israel’s retaliations, as of Oct. 13.

In Claremont, Jewish students and organizations centered around Judaism on campus, as well as Palestinian students and groups supporting the Free Palestine movement, have expressed pain as they mourn those who have been killed by Hamas and the IDF. These groups have organized teach-ins, marches and vigils throughout the past week to express solidarity in painful times, even as tensions grow.

Liz Korbatov PZ ’24, president of Claremont Chabad, a 5C Jewish community for students of all backgrounds and affiliations, described her devastation, fear and sense of helplessness.

“Like many people, I have loved ones and family and friends in the affected region and we lay awake at night fearing for their safety,” Korbatov said. “Lives are truly impacted. Nobody can sleep. We’re all uneasy. We’re all scared. There isn’t a moment that goes by where our minds are not elsewhere.”

Another 5C student, who requested anonymity due to safety concerns, expressed similar feelings, adding that they are frustrated by the way some students, administrators and the mainstream media have framed the situation.

“I’m feeling a lot of sadness and grief, not only with the situation but how everyone has handled it and how everyone has painted this picture and how it’s been talked about in the media,” the student said. “And how it’s been talked about by our head of schools and our leaders and our communities, perpetuating this cycle of violence and hate towards Palestinians.”

Some students in the Claremont chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national organization working toward “Palestinian freedom and Judaism beyond Zionism,” feel alienated from members in their own community.

“Pain is coming from a lot of places in this moment. It’s painful to fear for the safety of our relatives and friends who are on the land,” JVP member Ezra Levinson PZ ’27 said. “It’s painful to feel unwelcome or unsafe in a lot of mainstream Jewish spaces that aren’t making room for empathy or care that goes beyond Israel’s borders … It’s painful to know that decades of violence against the Palestinian people, committed in our name as Jews, has created the conditions that led to the current violence.”

The colleges have attempted to support students throughout the week with Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services (MCAPS) providing in-person and Zoom support sessions; additionally, the campus Chaplains emphasized their availability by appointment and by drop-in.

Claremont McKenna College (CMC) Dean of Students Diana Graves and Pitzer College President Strom Thacker sent messages to their respective schools advocating for collective community support and directing students to resources.

Pomona College President Gabrielle Starr also issued a community statement in response to the attacks. She called on the Pomona community to give comfort to all in need.

“The horrific reports that are flooding the news of the terrorist attacks in Israel become more wrenching with each day; these events have opened wounds that will not heal for decades and the violence is ongoing,” Starr wrote. “As we go about our days, I ask that you walk gently with each other and that as a Pomona community we show our care and compassion.”

Starr’s wording in her email, however, frustrated some 5C students, who said that the use of the word “terrorist” and the lack of direct acknowledgment of Palestine in the statement would bring harm to the college’s Arab and Palestinian communities, given the context of the rhetoric utilized during the War on Terror.

“It was disappointing to see things and call it a conflict but not an occupation. I was talking to my Muslim friends and especially more visibly Muslims, hijabi students, and they were talking about how they felt [this language] was bringing us back to 9/11 because that intentional word choice of using terrorist is really antagonizing,” said a second anonymous student, who also requested anonymity due to safety concerns. “I’m not understanding why a president of a college would do that because it does incite anti-Arab hate and anti-Palestinian violence on this campus.”

A third interviewee, who also requested anonymity due to the same concerns, called for recognition of all lives lost and in danger.

“Of course [Pomona] should acknowledge the Israeli lives lost, but at the same time, you can’t just gloss over what’s happening in Gaza — how 2.2 million people are trapped inside there and they’re being bombed,” the student said. “They’re being bombed to death in the dark, no food, no water. That also needs to be acknowledged.”

Korbatov, meanwhile, was critical of Graves and Thacker’s neutrality.

“It certainly isn’t enough,” Korbatov said. “I know that the issues of Israel and Palestine bring up deep seated feelings about belonging, identity, religion — they’re really really complex. But I do think that sometimes there’s a right and a wrong, and the murdering of innocents is unequivocally something that universities should condemn. I think in cases like that when an institution is silent, it concedes to really terrifying rhetoric that justifies the murder of civilians or doesn’t address it at all. And I don’t think that’s acceptable or sufficient.”

Many Jewish students said they were afraid to voice their beliefs and display their faith in public for fear of backlash. Korbatov explained that she feels she has also not received adequate support from her fellow students at Pitzer, calling some of their responses “downright cruel and even terrifying.”

“I know that Israeli and Palestinian students alike, and Jewish students and Palestinian students alike, have family members who are suffering — we’re losing our friends, we’re losing our loved ones,” she said. “And that’s not something that should be part of a wider political discussion; that requires nothing but humanity and compassion.”

Bethany Slater, executive director of Claremont Hillel, the pluralistic 7C Jewish organization, echoed these sentiments, calling students to empathetic action.

“This moment demands that we all lean into our humanity,” Slater told TSL via email. “Justifying these murderous acts compounds our shock and misery. If you do not agree with the justification of atrocities, please speak out.”

On Oct. 9 Hillel, in collaboration with Haverim, an organization which works to bring awareness to and fight antisemitism in the Claremont Colleges community, hosted a vigil to support students in their mourning. Slater highlighted the importance of unity in grief.

“Jewish students at the 5Cs are showing unprecedented unity right now, supporting one another through this moment,” Slater said. “I have been so impressed by the ways in which they have acted through their grief to look out for one another. I have been able to offer presence, comfort, a Jewish home where they feel safe to be themselves. I will continue to make gathering and educational opportunities available and journey with students through this time so they do not walk alone.”

Haverim held support groups, which are safe spaces for students to chat, mourn and aid one another. Haverim leaders did not respond to TSL’s questions at the time of publication.

The vigil was also organized with the help of Chaplain Danny Lutz, CMC professor Gary Gilbert, and Rabbi Yossi Matusof and Rebbetzin Rochel Matusof of Claremont Chabad, a 5C Jewish community for students of all backgrounds and affiliations.

Rabbi Yossi extended support to Jewish students.

“Some suggestions of ways to bring extra light during this painful time,” Rabbi Yossi said. “Three practical suggestions come to mind. One, show some kindness and love to someone you passionately disagree with. Number two, this Friday bring extra light into this world with a light of Shabbat candles. And option three, display some Jewish pride by getting a mezuzah to hang proudly outside your dorm room.”

Starr, Thacker, CMC Acting President Sharon Basso and a representative from Scripps College attended the vigil, which was also promoted in Thacker’s email alongside the statement made by the chaplains.

The first anonymous interviewee pointed out that while events in support of Jewish students have been promoted by the Pomona dean of students, events for Arab, Palestinian or Muslim students have been driven solely by campus organizations.

“I think Palestinian students and Arab students and Muslim students feel marginalized … that is nothing that any student within any of the 5 or 7Cs should ever feel,” the student said. “There should be a place where self expression and freedom of speech is accepted and encouraged and everyone should be given the same resources for support.”

Without institutional promotion, support events for the pro-Palestine community were primarily run and operated by student organizations.

On Oct. 12, SJP and JVP held a joint vigil in collaboration with the Muslim Student Association (MSA) for Palestinian and Israeli lives lost, a Gaza teach-in at the Motley and a march for Palestine. Approximately 50 students marched across the 5Cs and chanted for Palestinian liberation.

“I think that a lot of those organizations like that attract people who are not directly correlated to the cause,” the first interviewee said. “And I think that, that is amazing and that’s where things happen, and that’s what needs to be done more.”

Still, some students who attended the march said they feel unsupported by school leadership. SJP member Loy Prussack SC ’24, who helped lead the night’s events, noted the absence of prominent administrative members who attended the Jewish support vigil.

“We are saddened to see the lack of such compassion from our administration and are disappointed in their lack of overall response,” Prussack said. “SJP reached out to all of the 5C presidents to extend an invitation to tonight’s vigil and none attended.”

SJP also hosted a healing circle on Oct. 10, centering Palestinian perspectives. Hillel held a processing shira circle on Oct. 9, led by the Ruakh and Ritual team. JVP also held a processing space for students to express their unfiltered feelings and collectively grieve for lives lost. Both Hillel and JVP processing events were grounded in Jewish mourning traditions.

Levinson spoke on how the JVP event helped Jewish students find community support.

“Many [attendees] shared that they’d had hard conversations with close family members and friends who saw their empathy for Palestinians as a betrayal,” Levinson said. “There’s such a strong Jewish tradition of coming together and supporting each other in times of grief and struggle and I think we tapped into that.”

As the violence continues to escalate, the 5C community continues to mourn. In a time of great strife, Levinson put forward a message of empathy.

“Multiple things have to be true at the same time. That’s what the processing space was really about,” Levinson said. “We came together to insist on broad empathy and on feeling our emotions and refusing to weaponize them. Having a safe community space to do that was really powerful and really helpful.”

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