By Shifra Dayak, Marijke Friedman and Akshaj Gaur
Multiple University of Maryland student groups and faculty members recently authored letters as community members cope with the recent surge of violence in Israel and Palestine.
The letters came as Jewish student groups and the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at the university hosted separate vigils mourning lives lost in Israel and Palestine.
Jewish student groups hosted a vigil on Oct. 9 after militant group Hamas’ attack from the blockaded Gaza Strip Oct. 7, which killed hundreds, the Associated Press reported. Israel declared war on Hamas the next day and has since launched thousands of airstrikes, the Associated Press reported.
As of Nov. 2, 9,195 people in Palestine and 1,400 people in Israel have been killed, according to the Associated Press.
Israel intensified bombardment of the Gaza Strip on Friday and said it was “expanding” ground operations, the Associated Press reported. The territory has also suffered multiple near-total communications blackouts since Friday, the Associated Press reported.
This university’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter organized a vigil and teach-in on Oct. 12 to mourn those killed in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and educate community members on the ongoing violence.
After the group announced the event on Instagram, some university faculty members wrote and signed a letter condemning the chapter’s association with the national Students for Justice in Palestine.
Faculty members said they were concerned about rhetoric that the national Students for Justice in Palestine used after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. After the attack, the national organization called on campus chapters to hold demonstrations during a “national day of resistance” on Oct. 12.
As part of its online toolkit, national Students for Justice in Palestine said Hamas’ attack was “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance” — a phrase faculty highlighted in their letter.
“It was very alarming to us that the UMD organization would organize an event on campus in association with this national organization,” said Gilad Chen, the associate dean for research at this university’s business school.
The faculty letter had 107 signatures as of Nov. 2. More than 40 faculty members who signed the letter are from this university’s business school, where Chen said the letter originated.
Chen, an Israeli dual citizen, said he felt Students for Justice in Palestine’s vigil and teach-in created an “unsafe environment for the large Jewish and Israeli community on campus.”
For Rellie Derfler-Rozin, an associate professor at this university’s business school, signing the faculty letter was especially compelling because of her personal connections to the Oct. 7 attack. Derfler-Rozin’s sadness over the Israeli lives lost motivated her to sign the letter, she said.
“Good friends of mine are from this area in Israel,” Derfler-Rozin said. “We have lost so many friends.”
Chen and Derfler-Rozin said they did not attend the Students for Justice in Palestine event that they expressed concerns about in their letter. Chen said he heard the event was peaceful but did not agree with some sentiments attendees shared.
Some faculty who signed the letter condemning Students for Justice in Palestine’s event met with university administration. The group met with senior vice president and provost Jennifer King Rice and student affairs vice president Patty Perillo to share their concerns, according to Derfler-Rozin.
Rice and Perillo told faculty that Students for Justice in Palestine’s event was allowed under free speech guidelines. In a message to faculty who signed the letter, the pair thanked them for their “thoughtful, respectful and honest perspectives.” The message also emphasized a commitment to campus safety and promoting civil discourse.
David Kirsch, an associate professor in the university’s business school who signed the letter, said the meeting was a “productive conversation.”
“The administration is trying to keep the students safe, physically safe, and trying to allow everybody to express their views without causing psychological harm,” Kirsch said.
After the faculty members released their letter, a coalition of student groups published a separate letter on Instagram that denounced administrators’ response to the increase in violence.
Fourteen student organizations at this university signed the letter, including Students for Justice in Palestine, the Organization of Arab Students, United Students Against Sweatshops and Political Latinx United for Movement and Action in Society.
The letter criticized “campus administration’s silence at the ongoing ethnic cleansing and genocide of Palestinians” and said university president Darryll Pines’ first two campuswide emails ignored historical context.
“We ask our campus administration to recognize our call, as students at this university, to end the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians in Gaza,” the student groups’ letter said. “By remaining silent, our campus administration stands in complicity with the oppressors in this situation.”
In a statement to The Diamondback, this university said it has “connected” several times with representatives from the Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine “to discuss their concerns, provide counsel and offer ongoing support during these challenging times.”
Pines called for university community members to support each other in his first campuswide email on Oct. 9. He said the initial attack was “terrifying” and led to a war that is “ravaging communities.” Pines’ second campuswide email, sent on Oct. 13, said the university condemns Hamas’ attack.
The anonymous member of Students for Justice in Palestine said there has been a “radio silence” in this university administration’s response to the violence in Gaza.
“The university could take a more balanced approach to it, especially in their messaging by at least highlighting what is going on right now in Gaza — the literal genocide and bombing of hospitals and residential areas,” the anonymous member said.
The student groups’ letter also emphasized that community members “merely gathered to organize a vigil and honor their dead” at the vigil and teach-in, despite faculty members’ assertions that they were “glorifying the loss of lives and families.”
Grace Orellana, the president of this university’s USAS chapter, said it was “disheartening and disappointing” to see more than 100 faculty members at this university sign a letter condemning the teach-in and vigil.
The senior immersive media design major said the letter contained falsehoods about Students for Justice in Palestine’s Oct. 12 event, including a claim that the vigil was a “celebration” of violence in Israel.
“The administration of the university needs to hold those people accountable,” Orellana said.
Junior history major and PLUMAS historian Tamara Zuniga said the group signed Students for Justice in Palestine’s letter to stand with Palestinians.
Zuniga said she was upset after Pines’ first email offered support to Palestinians after listing “Israeli, Jewish, Muslim [and] Christian” community members. This university needs to reassure Palestinian community members that they are not an afterthought, Zuniga said.
Noor Tofailli, a public policy graduate student and the graduate representative in this university’s Organization of Arab Students, said her organization signed Students for Justice in Palestine’s letter to call for this university to recognize Palestinian students.
“We feel like we are unseen,” said Tofailli, whose mother is from Palestine. “We wrote this letter trying to beg the university to see that we deserve equal treatment.”
Tofaill said the pushback from some faculty against Students for Justice in Palestine has been upsetting and has made her and other Palestinian students feel unsafe.
But the same pushback has also encouraged her to continue advocating for Palestine, Tofailli said.
“I am willing to speak about Palestine until my very last breath,” Tofailli said. “That’s how I know I am on the right side of history.”
Professors who signed the initial faculty letter also have mixed feelings on the response from this university’s administration, including Pines’ emails.
Chen said he felt Pines’ first email was “too weak.” The second email was better, Chen said, but was not as strong as those of other universities.
After the initial faculty letter, a group of university staff and graduate students authored another letter on Oct. 21 supporting Palestinian community members’ right to advocate without fear of backlash. It also denounced the other faculty letter’s assertions about Students for Justice in Palestine.
“These concerns over a peaceful event, where Palestinians and their allies were mourning their dead, not only dehumanize Palestinian grief, but also deny the respect that is owed to the innocent Palestinians who have been killed in Gaza,” the letter read.
As of Nov. 1, the letter had 28 signatures from mostly graduate or doctoral students.
This university’s women’s, gender and sexuality studies department also released a statement in support of Palestinian students on Thursday, which condemned the fact that “speech supporting Palestine is currently being targeted and suppressed.”
Two signees on the staff and graduate student letter supporting Students for Justice in Palestine declined to comment and two others did not respond to a request for comment.