The student newspaper of Clark University

The Scarlet

The student newspaper of Clark University

The Scarlet

The student newspaper of Clark University

The Scarlet

Student, Community Leaders Offer Perspectives on Activism in Worcester

Leo Kerz
Clark University’s red square, Worcester, MA.

As the Israel-Hamas war continues, local leaders on campus and in Worcester have found points of tension and opportunities for solidarity as they conduct activist work. 

The ongoing conflict was sparked by an Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants. The subsequent war has, as of November 24, killed around 1200 Israelis (revised from the original 1400 estimate on November 10) and at least 14,800 Palestinians according to numbers from the Israeli military and the government media office in Gaza, respectively. Hamas, the political group that has held power in Gaza since 2005, originally took around 240 Israeli hostages. This hostage number is expected to be reduced to 190 as Israel exchanges 150 Palestinian women and children prisoners for 50 Israeli hostages being held by Hamas. This exchange will take place over the ceasefire, which originally extended from November 24th to the 28th, but has been extended to the 30th.

Activity among Clark’s on-campus student clubs has been non-stop, as many continue the work of raising awareness and hosting vigils and fundraisers for victims of the war. JStreet, one of these student organizations, is connected to a national nonprofit that advocates for “a future of peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians.” 

“This is a really challenging time and many students are feeling grief, anger, confusion, and helplessness,” a representative of JStreet said in an email to The Scarlet. “We stand by and appreciate the work of student leaders and activists to support each other and advocate for peace and human rights for all. In line with that, we look to offer space for students of all backgrounds and identities to grapple with these feelings and learn more.”

Hillel is another group for Jewish affinity on campus, itself a branch of Hillel International. The group describes itself as one that “celebrates Jewish culture, identity, pluralism, and community.” A spokesperson for Clark’s Hillel told The Scarlet that the group does not “claim any strong monolithic opinions,” given their composition of “many students with diverse political views.” They did say, however, that “we stand with all human beings affected by the war in Israel and Palestine, as well as those affected abroad.” 

“ClarkU Hillel supports honest and productive dialogue around the subject and will continue to support the academic and personal well-being of all students,” said the spokesperson. “We also work hard to ensure a safe community for all students, and there have been many instances of antisemitism on campus which we are working to combat.”

A third Jewish affinity group at Clark – JGAF, or Jews Givin’ a Fuck – told The Scarlet that they “support a Free Palestine, and an immediate cease-fire as a first, bare minimum step.” 

Clark’s Middle Eastern and North African Student Association (MENASA) as well as Clark’s Muslim Students’ Association did not respond to our requests for comment. Both groups, however, use their Instagram accounts to spread awareness and information about the conditions Palestinians face, both now and before the war began.

Administrators highlight tensions in campus climate, community reacts

Public-facing, organized activism at Clark began with an Oct. 25 walk-out in front of Jonas Clark Hall, as reported in our previous edition. Since that time, several vigils and other community events have taken place. 

More than two weeks after the walk-out, on Nov. 11, the Clark community received a letter signed by the President, Provost, Chief Officer of Diversity and Inclusion and Dean of Students denouncing antisemitism and Islamophobia. 

It is unclear if any one specific event precipitated the email. If anything, it appears to be a response to a combination of behaviors affecting Clarkies. “Some members of our community are afraid for their safety and are feeling unwelcome,” the administrators acknowledged, because of “behavior on our campus that is unacceptable.”

The message refers to three types of behavior: spoken phrases, written phrases or graffiti, and violent actions. Administrators say that all three were observed on both social media and physically, on-campus. 

The email singles out common phrases in Palestinian liberation protests like “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” as contrary to Clark’s “values and principles” because they “instill fear among those of the Jewish faith.” Administrators also referred more generally to harmful claims such as that all Muslims are terrorists as unacceptable.

“Antisemitic slogans scrawled on a wall in Goddard Library, rhetoric amongst community members on social media demonizing our Muslim and Jewish students, and the removal from around our grounds yesterday of posters of captured Israelis held hostages,” were also listed as evidence of specifically unacceptable actions. 

The University did not name any perpetrators, but encouraged all to do their “own work to understand the devastating impact of words.” The email notes that the graffiti has been removed, and that the University investigates “every incident,” and will “take necessary action.” The message does not mention support available for victims of doxxing, but does encourage readers to make use of Clark’s Bias Incident Reporting System. 

JGAF reacted directly to the University’s message in their statement to The Scarlet. “The recent letter released by the Clark administration does not speak for all Jewish Clark students,” the group said. “’From the river to the sea’ is not an antisemitic slogan, and should be understood correctly in its full historical context as a call for freedom,” they said. 

“It is dangerous to join the current suppression of student activism,” JGAF said, “under the guise of Jewish safety. “We care deeply about the safety of Jewish students,” they continued, “and antisemitism is a real, dangerous, and urgent threat. We know that the only way to combat antisemitism is through solidarity. Palestinian and Jewish liberation are inextricably linked, anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, and we understand this movement as a call for justice worldwide that we are proud to be a part of.”

A group of Clark alumni penned a letter in support of Palestinian liberation, offering a similar rebuttal to the University’s Nov. 11 email. In reference to the “from the river to the sea” phrase, the alumni wrote: “the assumption that this phrase is inherently genocidal falsely conflates liberation with the annihilation of each citizen of [Israel] and ignores its liberatory intent.” The letter goes on to suggest that revolutionary change is necessary – “not an eradication of Jews from the land, but a total dismantlement of the apartheid regime occupying it.”  

The alumni letter also provides a list of demands, including that Clark support its students in their activism and protect their right to free speech.

Local leaders in Worcester like Steven Schimmel, Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts*, have watched demonstrations around the city closely. Schimmel, who has been featured in reporting by the Telegram & Gazette and Channel 7 News, weighed in on student activism in an interview with The Scarlet. 

In his appearances in other media, Schimmel has frequently described demonstrators as “aggressive” at pro-Palestinian liberation protests. When asked to elaborate on his characterization of protesters, Schimmel said, “I would say that everything from the messaging of the signs being held, what is specifically written on the signs, what is specifically said and the tone in which it is said – I’d classify as aggressive.”

He said as much of protesters during the Oct. 26 walk-out on Clark’s campus, as reported in our previous edition.

Schimmel said he attends Palestine liberation demonstrations to be an independent observer. “I want to see with my own eyes without the lens of media or other attendees who may have their own agenda when reporting on these things,” he said. “To be an eyewitness is different than to hear something secondhand,” said Schimmel. “You never know in this day and age. You don’t know who’s attending the protests, you don’t know who has their face covered, or who has ulterior motives about why they’re there or what they plan to do.”

Schimmel also mentioned that his purpose at the protest was to support other pro-Israel community members that may attend. “Some of the protests that have taken place around the country and around the world in which there is a pro-Israel side and an anti-Israel side, there may be moments when someone is placed in physical harm,” he said.

The throughline through the Clark community and beyond is that the Israel-Hamas war matters to people. As things continue to progress overseas, it is clear that it is ever-present in the minds of Worcester citizens and will continue to be a topic of discussion and demonstration in the weeks to come, whether it be in Worcester or another place around the globe.

*Schimmel’s opinions as stated here do not represent the opinions of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts.

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  • Grade F ~ Dec 2, 2023 at 6:35 pm

    Awful reporting. Grade “F”.

    Author did not research groups who commented for article. Author would have found that most are anti Zionist.

    Why not quote a Clark student who wrote that she feels threatened? Google can be handy.

    “River to sea” is clearly antisemitic. What do those who chant at Clark say what they think that it means?

    Author could have reached out to other groups who have a different perspective.

    Scarlet should stop promoting an agenda of hate.

    • Learn to read ~ Dec 3, 2023 at 2:41 pm

      Grade for discussion comment: F for little to no reading comprehension shown.
      You’re so right! Google can be handy. Try again.