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More than 1,000 people gathered by the steps of Widener Library Sunday evening for a vigil to stand in solidarity with Israel and mourn the civilian deaths of the Oct. 7 invasion by Islamist militant group Hamas.
Jointly organized by Harvard Hillel and Harvard Chabad, the vigil included speeches, songs, and chants. On the steps, candles spelled out חי, the Hebrew word for life. Attendees wrapped Israeli flags around themselves, shielded their own candles from the wind, held pictures of missing family members, and wept as they embraced one another.
Vigil organizers aimed for 1,300 attendees to match the number of known Israeli victims of the attacks as of Sunday morning, though this number has since risen to 1,400, according to Israeli authorities. According to the Gazan Health Ministry, 2,670 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Gaza.
Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana, Associate Dean of Students Lauren E. Brandt ’01, and Harvard professors Jason Furman ’92 and Steven Pinker attended the event.
“These are the hardest days in the history of the Jewish people,” said vigil organizer Maya Shiloni ’26, who said antisemitism is rising on college campuses.
“The connection of Jewish people with the land of Israel is thousands of years old,” she said. “We have lived in exile for too long. We will not be exiled again.”
Several speakers shared anecdotes of family members and friends affected or killed during the invasion in Israel.
“My family’s next door neighbors — a nine-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl — hid in a closet. They hid for 14 hours. No mother, no father, no breathing. They hid. After they saw their mother dead on the ground, their father shot and missing, Abigail, their three-year-old sister, ran to the streets, and now she’s held hostage,” Shai-Li Ron ’24 said. “This is just one story of many.”
“We are calling on Hamas to bring back our children,” Ron added, prompting a wave of applause.
Ron also took aim at a rally by the Palestine Solidarity Committee the day prior at the steps of Widener Library, where speakers led chants of “Free Palestine” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
“I ask, ‘What are they calling for?’” she told attendees. “Are they calling for the eradication of the State of Israel? Are they calling for the slaughter of the nine million Jews, Muslims, Christians, Bedouins, and Druze living in Israel? Are they calling for the killing of my family?”
The PSC has also faced national backlash for a statement released last week that called Israel “entirely responsible” for the ongoing violence. At least 10 groups have since retracted their support for the statement.
“Harvard, don’t take part in antisemitic initiative — calling to fully blame Israel for the situation,” Harvard Kennedy School student Polina Kempinsky said, referring to the PSC’s statement.
A PSC spokesperson said the organization’s “steadfast opposition to violence against civilians remains unchanged.”
“Amidst concerns for the ongoing genocide in Gaza, we unequivocally call for a stop to all violence against civilians, and encourage other actors to do the same,” the spokesperson said.
In video remarks Thursday evening, Harvard President Claudine Gay forcefully condemned Hamas and denounced hate of all kinds, calling on students to “be a force for something different and better.”
Multiple speakers condemned doxxing attacks against students who were in groups that had signed the PSC statement, which included a truck displaying students’ faces and at least four sites listing their personal information.
At the end of the event, Ph.D. student Ari D. Ne’eman urged graduate students to attend the Harvard Graduate Student Union’s membership meeting on Monday, where he said the union will likely approve resolutions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he said were “of deep concern.”
The proposed resolution calls on Harvard to divest from companies that are “involved in the illegal Israeli settlement” and accuses Israel of genocide and “apartheid policies.” It does not explicitly condemn Hamas, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization.
In an interview following the vigil, Ne’eman said he will push for the resolution to be referred for membership comment and review. If it passes, any decision on the resolution will be delayed by two weeks.
In an interview with The Crimson, HGSU-UAW Trustee Max G. Ehrenfreund said the union will welcome all members at tomorrow’s meeting and “hopes to hear the full range of opinions expressed.”
Kempinsky, the HKS student, said in a speech that many students have “lost the sense of security” they previously felt on campus.
“From accusations of our own involvement in our own tragedy to the University’s slow response, campus discourse, rising antisemitism, and external parties meddling in our own affairs, it has been difficult for many of us to feel safe on campus,” she said.
Massachusetts resident Ben Levy, whose parents are Israeli, drove 40 minutes from Sharon to attend the vigil. Levy said that when he learned about the news of Hamas’ attack during his job at Target, he was shocked.
“I was in Israel in 2014. I remember hiding in the shelter every time the sirens went off, and I guess that memory just kind of reignited, and I just kind of froze in the middle of my shift,” Levy said. “I do feel very scared.”
Attendee Gillian H. Selig ’25 said in an interview following the vigil that the conflict in Israel is “more than just numbers.”
“It is my friends and my family and faces that I know. People that I know. Friends of friends that I know who are kidnapped, dead, all of the above, and it’s horrific,” she said.
“I’m Jewish. This is important to me,” Selig added. “I wanted to come out and show my support and show that I stand with Israel. I stand with my people.”
Correction: October 16, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly said Harvard Hillel was the sole organizer of the vigil. In fact, the vigil was jointly organized by Hillel and Harvard Chabad.
Editor’s Note: Readers should note that pre-moderation has been turned on for online commenting on this article out of concerns for student safety.
—Cara J. Chang, President
—Brandon L. Kingdollar, Managing Editor
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