More than 200 University of Maryland community members gathered on McKeldin Mall Thursday to honor hundreds of hostages being held by the Hamas militant group.
The event, organized by this university’s Terps for Israel student organization, remembered about 240 people who have been taken hostage by Hamas since Oct. 7.
Framed against a backdrop of 241 chairs with red balloons, several speakers gave remarks at Thursday’s gathering. A piece of paper inscribed with the name and picture of a hostage held captive by Hamas was attached to each chair.
“Each one is not a chair, it’s a person,” one speaker said. “We ask God to help us restore, return [them] in a healthy, safe way.”
After the keynote speeches, attendees, some with Israeli flags draped over their shoulders, participated in a 241-second moment of silence to honor each hostage.
Adam Bershad, Maryland Hillel’s engagement and Israel experiences director, said Jewish community members have felt an “immense amount of anger [and] sadness” across the last month. He wanted the event to support students in a challenging time, he said.
“I think it’s important for these students to have time to process. Sometimes you feel alone in class,” Bershad said. “Having time to be with others who feel your pain, who understand you, who you can go through this with, I think it’s important.”
The community members’ reflections come after a surge of violence in Israel and Palestine across the last month.
More than 11,000 people in Palestine and 1,200 people in Israel have been killed since Oct. 7, the Associated Press reported Friday.
On Oct. 7, Hamas militants launched an attack on southern Israel from the blockaded Gaza Strip that killed hundreds, the Associated Press reported. Israel declared war on Hamas the next day and has since launched thousands of airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, the Associated Press reported.
Hamas took about 240 hostages during the Oct. 7 attack and has since released five, the Associated Press reported Thursday. President Joe Biden has asked Israel for a “multi-day stoppage in the fighting” to allow hostage negotiations to take place, the Associated Press reported Thursday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a ceasefire would only be possible if all hostages held by Hamas were released, the Associated Press reported Saturday.
Junior kinesiology major Eytan Pomper said his cousin was kidnapped at the Tribe of Nova music festival in southern Israel near the Gaza Strip last month. Hamas militants killed at least 260 Israelis in the Oct. 7 music festival attack, the Associated Press reported on Oct. 9.
During the attack, Hamas militants “blew off one of his [cousin’s] arms,” Pomper added.
Pomper said Thursday’s event was “really well done” and helped raise awareness of the hostage situation among the university community.
Seeing a photo of his cousin on one of the chairs gave Pomper a sense of comfort that he had support from others at this university, he said. The event brought community members together, Pomper added.
“No matter what their affiliation is with Judaism and Israel and no matter how religious you are, everyone’s united for one cause and under one idea,” Pomper said. “I think it’s important for people to come together during these situations.”
Sophomore computer science major Zach Meyers attended Thursday’s event to be part of his community during a hard time, he said.
Meyers said recent events in Israel hold personal significance because of his connections to the region. His sister is in Israel, and he has heard “bomb sirens” when speaking with her on the phone.
The past few weeks have been “a really, really tough period,” for Meyers and other community members, he said. Meyers has missed classes because he was worried about his sister and his friends in Israel, he added.
“For a lot of Jewish students, it’s been hard for us to focus in our classes. It’s hard for us to feel like we’re able to get through our daily lives,” Meyers said.
Thursday’s event took place on the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht — the “Night of Broken Glass” in German. On Nov. 9, 1938, Nazi soldiers killed at least 91 people, vandalized at least 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, arrested at least 30,000 Jewish men and burned more than 1,400 synagogues in Germany and Austria, according to the Associated Press. The event marked a turning point in the escalating persecution against Jewish people in Europe before the Holocaust, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Senior economics major Ayelet Fried said the event taking place on the anniversary of Kristallnacht played a role in the emotions she felt on Thursday.
Fried said her grandfather was a Holocaust survivor and emphasized how past trauma has affected her responses to recent violence.
“That’s always been something I grew up around,” Fried said. “As somebody who comes from that trauma, it’s scary to think about the potential of that happening again.”
The University of Maryland Police Department launched an investigation into “hateful, antisemitic sentiments” expressed at a Thursday demonstration held by this university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, according to a statement from this university to The Diamondback.
“The offensive actions of a few should not reflect on the vast majority of protesters who were there to peacefully express their views, but there is no place for any antisemitic message, behavior or action at the University of Maryland,” the statement read.
The investigation stemmed partly from a chalk message at the Students for Justice in Palestine demonstration that read “Holocaust 2.0,” according to a member of the organization who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
The anonymous member referred to the chalk message as a “faulty parallel” in “calling the genocide in Gaza right now Holocaust 2.0.” Several members of Students for Justice in Palestine crossed out the message after it was written, the member said.
Some community members who attended Thursday’s Terps for Israel event addressed antisemitism on campus.
“While there are detractors on our campus who defame the Holocaust and defame what it means, for us, it’s not simply one point in time, but it’s ongoing,” one speaker at the Terps for Israel event said.
Aviva Levi, who previously attended this university and is now a nursing student at the Universities at Shady Grove, said the comparison in the chalk message was “not the way to achieve peace.”
Levi attended Thursday’s event to mourn the hostages. She added that many members of her family, including her sister, also live in Israel.
Levi said she knows many Jewish community members who are “at least one degree away from someone who is dead or is being held hostage.”
“Everyone who’s Jewish is my family, so it just feels like a part of me is like being torn apart,” Levi said. “To see someone in your family go through so much distress is heartbreaking.”