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January 5, 2024

“Not in our name”: Jewish students host Alexander Hall sit-in in solidarity with Muslim Student Association

“We will feel safe when we know that our Judaism is not being used to justify the silencing, surveilling, harassing, and policing of our peers."

Bastion Bard Collins, Undercurrents staff
Photo by Undercurrents staff

On Friday, Dec. 1, around 40 Jewish students hosted a Shabbat sit-in inside the lobby of Pomona administrative building Alexander Hall. Interspersed with an evening of prayers, song and celebration over wine and challah, the sit-in aimed to express solidarity with the 5C Muslim Student Association’s demands for Pomona to recognize the ongoing genocide in Palestine.

While the action was ongoing, Pomona President Gabi Starr sent an email stating that “perpetuating the idea that if a Jewish person supports Israel, they are supporting the killing of infants and children” constitutes hate speech.

Israel has killed at least 9,600 Gazan children since Oct. 7, 2023, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. A major Norwegian newspaper found that, by Nov. 8, 2023, Israeli forces had killed more five-year-olds than Palestinians of any other age.

At the sit-in, participants wore shirts and held signs reading “Not in our name” as they read Starr’s email aloud and pushed back against Starr’s weaponization of anti-semitism to suppress protests against Israeli occupation.

“We denounce equating anti-Semitism, a legitimate threat many of us face, with anti-Zionist ideologies that criticize Israeli political nationalism and occupation,” one member of Nishmat, who did not identify themselves, said at the sit-in. “We will feel safe when we know that our Judaism is not being used to justify the silencing, surveilling, harassing, and policing of our peers.”

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The event was organized by Nishmat, a Jewish student group founded in 2017 for students “who felt unserved by other Jewish spaces” on campus. In contrast to Hillel, an explicitly pro-Israel organization with a chapter on campus, the group has a history of pushing back against “Zionism as a necessary element to one’s Jewish identity.”

“While Zionism, for many, was a legitimate response to widespread anti-Semitism, it has never been and never will be the only response to the ‘otherness’ of Jews,” Nishmat board members wrote in a 2017 TSL op-ed pushing back against the Claremont Progressive Israel Alliance’s condemnation of an SJP action then. “We hope that Jewish students can be reminded of our legacy as an oppressed people, struggling for dignity and empowerment, and to recognize how our liberation is intertwined with the liberation of all peoples.”

On Dec. 29, 2023, South Africa filed a case accusing Israel of genocide at the International Court of Justice, describing the Israeli bombing of Gaza as “genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group.” The Israel siege and bombing of Gaza, which has targeted refugee camps, hospitals and schools, has led to the displacement of 85 percent of Gazans.

Israel has also killed more than 100 Palestinian children this year in the occupied West Bank, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. An IDF veteran told a major Canadian news outlet that it’s “very rare” for IDF forces to consequences for killing Palestinian children.

Photo by Undercurrents staff

Shabbat sit-in attendees referenced Jewish rituals to mourn Palestinians killed in Gaza.

“Can you hear me recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for every soul killed in Gaza? It may take me a moment, I have to say thousands of prayers, and each person has a name,” participants said together during the sit-in. “I will sit shiva for a million lifetimes, and I leave a stone on each martyred grave to root the dead back into the earth, but I can still hear screaming and I’m trying to pray.”

A Nishmat statement about the Shabbat action emphasized that Jewish students are not a monolith, responding to Starr reportedly telling the MSA that she thought meeting their demands would offend Jewish students.

MSA’s demands included calling for Pomona to acknowledge the suffering of Palestinian, Arab, and SWANA students and protect speech criticizing the state of Israel. The MSA statement also challenged Starr’s assertion of “political neutrality,” noting her statements on Oct. 11 and Nov. 8 in which she condemned Hamas “terrorist attacks” while omitting any mention of Israeli violence in Gaza.

Organizers such as Sophie PO ‘26, who asked to be identified only by first name out of safety concerns, see the assertion of their Jewish identity – in a non-Zionist manner – as both pertinent and necessary to the movement for Palestine. 

“We are uniquely privileged in this position as members of the Jewish diaspora [to say] that no one’s suffering is more important or valuable than anyone else’s,” Sophie said. “We needed to demonstrate the amount of Jews on this campus who are able to critique Israel, who are able to oppose the genocide, call for a ceasefire, recognize and name ongoing genocide and apartheid in Israel, and not be reprimanded for sharing those views.”

According to Zoe PO ‘26, an organizer for the sit-in who also asked to be identified only by first name for safety concerns, Nishmat aimed to create a peaceful demonstration while adding to the diversity of recent student actions in support of Palestinian freedom. 

“We feel that it’s necessary…to demonstrate that there are multiple ways of showing our support for our Palestinian and Muslim students and peers singing songs and prayers that preach values of justice and peace and mutual living and coexistence.” Zoe said. “Those are all values that Nishmat really seeks to uplift and uphold in this space.” 

After attending Jewish summer programs growing up, the Shabbat sit-in organizers decided to adopt variations of their Hebrew songs to match an outlook of radical peace and reconciliation. The organizers adopted a variation of the song “Lo Yisa Goy,” changing the original phrasing of walking “in the path of Hashem,” to walking “in peace again.” 

Hashem, which is a word to indirectly refer to God in a non-prayer context, was substituted with the reference to peace to focus the group’s attention on the importance of community. The song translates as follows: “Nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. Don’t walk in front of me I may not follow; don’t walk behind me I may not lead; just walk beside me and be my friend; and together we will walk in peace again.” 

The sit-in joined a rich history of anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals, public figures and activists, said Ezra Levinson PZ ’27, an organizer with Claremont Jewish Voice for Peace who attended the sit-in, and has also contributed reporting to Undercurrents.

“Since the onset of Zionism, there have been Jewish voices opposing it in a principled way on the basis of solidarity with the Palestinian people,” Levinson said, “Legacy Jewish organizations have tried to suppress that and make it unacceptable in the Jewish community to speak out against the actions of Israel, against the Israeli occupation.”

Another Undercurrents reporter contributed to this article but asked not to be named out of personal safety concerns.

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Thanks for reading Undercurrents

Undercurrents reports on labor, Palestine liberation, prison abolition and other community organizing at and around the Claremont Colleges.

Issue 1 / Spring 2023

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