Editor’s note: This article was last updated on Oct. 18.
In the week since Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel, the Princeton University community has responded with vigils, fundraisers, rallies, listening circles, and academic presentations, and by writing letters, including one by President Christopher Eisgruber ’83.
More than 400 people attended a Tigers for Israel vigil on the Frist South Lawn Oct. 12, with support from the Center for Jewish Life (CJL), the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, Public Safety, Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS), Chabad of Princeton, and other departments.
Two students sang a song in Hebrew as mourners gathered — several wearing or holding Israeli flags — in front of an array of photos of those who have been murdered, kidnapped, or are missing after the attack by Hamas, a political and militant organization that governs the Gaza Strip, on Israel on Oct. 7. Israeli officials report more than 1,300 people were killed in the assault. Israel has since declared war on Hamas, killing more than 1,500 people in Gaza as of Oct. 13, according to authorities on both sides.
More songs, prayers, candle lighting, and remarks followed from speakers including Rabbi Eitan Webb and Gitty Webb, co-directors of the Scharf Family Chabad House, and Rabbi Gil Steinlauf ’91, director of the CJL at Princeton.
“A barbaric attack on innocent civilians shakes us to our core, but at that core, we are filled with purpose. We stand up for what is right. We condemn unspeakable cruelty, and we comfort those around us. We repair brokenness through deeds of goodness and kindness,” Eitan Webb said.
Leona Teten ’27, a Jewish Israeli citizen, attended the vigil because “I have family in Israel, and in my high school I was very involved with Israeli activism … . So, I wanted to come out and show support for my community.”
Aiden Sandler ’27 said he was there because “seeing it on the news, it really hit me hard, and I want to show my support for Israel and kind of stand up against all the atrocities going on there.”
On Oct. 13, a vigil organized by Princeton Students for Justice in Palestine drew a crowd of around 300 people to the front lawn of Nassau Hall. The vigil, open to the public, brought together people from the campus community and the neighboring areas. Faculty members, alumni, students from other colleges, and families with young children came together to mourn and grieve.
Nine people lined up near the Nassau Hall steps and alternated between holding signs and going up to speak.
The speakers led a repeat-after-me, chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” They highlighted human rights abuses that are occurring in the area and the feelings of despair and hopelessness that many were experiencing. They encouraged the attendees to keep the sufferings of the Palestinian people in mind.
One student, Jim Wells ’26, spoke about attending the Oct. 12 vigil hosted by Tigers for Israel, where the audience was asked to pray for all innocent lives lost. He then turned to his audience and echoed the same message: “I ask everyone to keep in mind and pray for all innocent people in the region, both Palestinian and non-Palestinian.”
Organizers encouraged the participants to focus on humanity and create a space to express grief and build hope. After the speakers concluded, most of the attendees stayed, embracing friends and taking time to check in with one another.
Princeton Students for Justice in Palestine released a lengthy statement reacting to the unrest in Israel and Gaza.
“We, the Princeton Students for Justice in Palestine, hold the Israeli apartheid state ultimately responsible for the tremendous loss of life in occupied Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank,” the statement reads. “Coming from a wide range of faith backgrounds, ethnicities, and origins, we are in mourning. We hold the Jewish and Palestinian communities in our hearts, including many of our own family and friends, who are living through this trauma. We pray for those who are grieving their dead or searching for loved ones.”
The group also outlined next steps it would like to see in the Middle East and at Princeton, saying, “We call on the Princeton community to support its Palestinian members unequivocally, as we have unequivocally with Israeli students, and demand free speech protections for all who publicly support the Palestinian cause. We once again send our deepest condolences to the Palestinian and Jewish communities. We hope for peace; peace is only possible if the occupation ends. Peace is a free Palestine.”
In an Oct. 10 open letter, Eisgruber acknowledged the hurt and grief felt around the world, including at Princeton, after Hamas’ “cruel and inhumane attack.”
“The nightmare underway in Israel and in the Palestinian territories is being deeply felt on this campus. That pain will inevitably continue in the months ahead. My heart goes out to everyone personally affected,” Eisgruber wrote.
According to Steinlauf, additional security has been implemented at the CJL. The center said that Princeton students have been raising funds to support those who were impacted, hanging posters of missing Israelis on campus, and making and selling bracelets with the names of missing Israelis.
Steinlauf also spoke before an Oct. 9 lecture by Daniel Kurtzer, formerly the U.S. ambassador to Israel and currently a professor of Middle East policy studies at the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA).
Kurtzer started by reminding the audience this was “not just an academic discussion. This is personal. There are people in this room whose families, families, have been attacked and terrorized, raped and kidnapped, and some brutally murdered.”
Calling this attack “probably the worst event in the history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Kurtzer said victory for Israel will be complicated by the fact that Hamas is a movement, not just an organization, but he also doesn’t see Israel pursuing “a diplomatic alternative” to a ground invasion.
“Anybody in this room who has relatives or friends in Israel, if you’ve called them, everybody knows somebody who has either been killed, wounded, mobilized, or worse, taken hostage in Gaza. Everybody.”
On Oct. 12, Kurtzer was back at the podium, this time as part of a SPIA panel discussion that also included Salam Fayyad, a visiting senior scholar and former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority; Mona Yacoubian, vice president of the Middle East and North Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace; and Razia Iqbal, also a visiting scholar.
SPIA Dean Amaney Jamal, who was born in the United States but spent some of her teenage years in the West Bank, introduced the event. “I recognize and acknowledge the deep pain and suffering of Israelis today. And it is my sincere hope that my empathy and care for Israeli civilians should not be misperceived as negating my simultaneous empathy and care for the Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the West Bank. Equally true, nor should my concern and care for Palestinian civilians negate my simultaneous empathy and care for Israeli civilians. Empathy and care are not zero sum.”
Several students and student groups have written open letters to the community addressing the war. An open letter by Windsor Nguyen ’25, which had nearly 150 Princetonian signatures as of Oct. 13, condemned Hamas’ attack and called on academic institutions to provide “a balanced condemnation of violence, devoid of moral relativism.”
In an Oct. 10 email, Tigers for Israel wrote in part that “On campus, all Israeli students/faculty and the majority of Jewish community members are facing the reality that our family and friends have been murdered, kidnapped, or are still unaccounted for.”
The email continued: “To say the majority of Jews at Princeton, along with all Israelis, are facing the reality we described is an understatement. Please check in with your friends.”
Yavneh of Princeton, an Orthodox Jewish student group, told PAW via email that “Yavneh of Princeton is devastated by Hamas’ barbaric attacks on innocent Israeli civilians. We have taken steps to help our community respond to the massacres and to support the State of Israel as it responds to these horrific events.”
The Alliance of Jewish Progressives wrote in an email to PAW that “We condemn this horrific violence, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to a more just reality, which necessitates ending the occupation and lifting the siege on Gaza.”
The campus community has also responded with small group gatherings and listening circles, including one hosted by CPS on Oct. 10. That same day, the CJL provided transportation from campus to a rally in support of Israel at the United Nations’ New York City headquarters.