November 8, 2023

As War in Gaza Enters Second Month, Princetonians Reflect, Mourn, Speak Out

By Donald Gilpin

As the fighting in Gaza continues into its second month, with the death toll mounting and no sign of a resolution in sight, groups and individuals at Princeton University and in the larger community, coming from a wide range of political and personal positions and perspectives, continue to respond, expressing their anger, grief, and hopes in many different ways.

Approximately 1,400 were killed in the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, and about 240 more are being held as hostages. Gaza’s Health Ministry says that the death toll since the Israeli bombing there now exceeds 10,000.

As the New York Times reported on November 7, “Many in Israel, a country of some nine million people, know someone who was directly affected by the attacks. Many have been directly affected themselves.” And surely the same is true for residents in Gaza.

Last Sunday, November 5, about 70 people gathered at 4 p.m. at Hinds Plaza to urge that the hostages be released. It was far from the largest of the demonstrations and other events — pro-Israel, pro-Palestinians, or neutral — that have taken place in town and on the Princeton University campus during the last month, and it lasted less than half an hour. But it did reflect many of the feelings and thoughts that have been experienced on all sides of the issue over the past weeks.

Organized by Yael Niv, a Princeton University professor of psychology and neuroscience since 2008, and her WhatsApp group of Israelis in Princeton, the event was described as a community gathering to call for the immediate release of the hostages. The organizers promise to return to demonstrate every Sunday at the same time until the hostages are all home.

The demonstrators gathered around posters bearing photos of the hostages with their names, ages, nationalities and brief biographies. Several in attendance had placards saying, “Bring them home alive,” “Release the hostages now. Leave civilians out of wars,” and “All children are innocent. We are heartbroken.”

“In Israel every day there are gatherings like these in many places in the country,” said Niv, who is a leader of the North American chapter of Mothers Against Violence, Israel.  “One thing we can do is to take time out of our week every week to come here for half an hour and say we still remember. We’re counting the days and we’re still praying for their return, every single day. We’re hoping they are alive, and we’re hoping they will come back safely.”

Niv pointed out that in the Jewish tradition grief is done in community, and she emphasized the value of community in processing the traumas of the ongoing conflict. “It’s very important to find community and not go through this alone,” she said, “and to remember that grief is a process. It is a good time to process and not to act on the anger and the grief and the sorrow in ways that hurt other people.”

She went on to point out the increasing antisemitism and Islamophobia arising from grief around the world. “It is understandable that grieving people have less compassion for other people, so it is a time to work together in community, to process rather than to lash out.”

Niv, who grew up in Israel and still has family and friends there, continued, “We must de-escalate, reduce violence, and remember that after the war, the day after the war, we will be neighbors — Israelis and Palestinians. We will still be neighbors, and I keep that in mind all the time.”

Niv regularly talks with people who have been directly affected by the war — a friend from high school whose son was murdered, her sister-in-law’s brother, who lives in one of the kibbutzes that was attacked.  “In the same way it’s close to Palestinians as well,” she said, noting that the great uncle of one of her undergraduate students was murdered by settlers in the West Bank as he was tending his olive grove. “I see both sides of this,” she said. “No deaths of innocent people are acceptable.”

The University has done a good job, according to Niv, in dealing with this potentially volatile situation. “I think the thing to do is to make space for people to grieve together and process together, and I think they’re doing a pretty good job of that,” she said. “Other universities have failed miserably, and I think Princeton is doing well.”

Rabbi Gil Steinhauf, executive director of the University’s Center for Jewish Life (CJL) agreed, citing in an email, “a better situation at Princeton compared to other campuses.” He pointed out a range of campus responses to the crisis, including demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, efforts to address antisemitism, and positive engagement by Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber.

There have been numerous campus events and programs on the issue, both in person and virtual.  CJL continues to support students and “will continue to play a role in providing high-level discourse and information regarding the conflict going forward,” Steinlauf wrote.

Graduate student Aditi Rao, who was one of the organizers of an October 25 walkout and demonstration that included hundreds of students who rallied in support of Palestine, first outside the Frist Campus Center then moving to Nassau Hall, was more critical of the University’s response.

Rao noted that the University was praised for recognizing both Israeli and Palestinian victims, but she claimed, “there was great discrepancy in their handling of the situation” and “a perceived lack of care for Palestinian students.”

She described “a tremendous amount of grief, anxiety, and agitation among students,” and stated, “If you, like many, believe the we are witnessing a genocide, there is no way that you can act ‘normally.’”  She went on to cite the need for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and “a much more concerted effort [on the Princeton University campus] to take direct action in support of the people of Palestine.” 

Rao noted that there is another walkout at the University planned for Thursday, November 9, in line with a national call for a general strike. “Doing a combination of events, from vigils to teach-ins, to walkouts, is the best way to ensure we keep our campus community energized, informed, and engaged,” she wrote in an email. “The crisis in Gaza, the West Bank, and all over Palestine remains grave, and until there is a ceasefire, we will continue to organize around this issue.”

In the meantime, Princeton University continues to support engagement with the issues in the form of webinars, forums, debates, and the airing of a variety of different voices and perspectives.  Princeton School of Public and International Affairs Dean Amaney Jamal, a Palestinian American who spent some of her teenage years in the West Bank, struck a positive note as co-author of an October 30 guest essay in the New York Times titled “The Discourse is Toxic. Universities Can Help.”

“Universities should not retreat into their ivory towers because the discourse has gotten toxic; on the contrary, the discourse will get more toxic if universities pull back,” she wrote.

The essay noted “an intellectual vacuum filled by hate speech, antisemitism, Islamophobia” on campuses along with “a polarized media establishment, political landscape, and social media.” It continued, “We remain hopeful, however. Over the past few weeks, we’ve also witnessed a vibrant student body eager for more information around these issues.  Universities play a vital role in shaping the conversation.”

Note: The opinions expressed within this story do not reflect the opinions or views of the writer or Town Topics.