“So, what do you do on campus?” That question should be easy to answer, but for students involved in politically controversial groups, it’s not so simple. Members of J–Street UPenn, Penn for Palestine and the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee have to consider who they’re engaging with and whether or not they want to instigate a debate just by mentioning an extracurricular. These groups’ missions all relate to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, an often sensitive, inflammatory and personal issue. The following clubs and individuals involved have countless stories to tell, from how they navigate friendships at Penn in relation to their activism to how they see it affecting their futures.
The following profiles feature students' personal takes on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Last semester, Clarissa O’Conor almost unwittingly became the face of the pro–Palestine movement at Penn. While studying abroad in the West Bank, she wrote a DP column, “From Palestine to Penn” about her experiences there. It generated a lot of debate, which Clarissa, a former president of Penn for Palestine (PFP) and modern middle east studies/gender studies double major, expected.
She says she didn’t read any of the comments and received mostly supportive emails rather than negative responses. “I think people usually don’t want to put their name and email address to something terrible to say. I think not being on campus, too, I was sort of removed from it.”
Now, back on campus and an organizer at PFP, Clarissa continues to advocate for Palestinian rights. “Living there, experiencing what it looks like on a daily basis, that really strengthened my understanding of how the whole system works,” she says. And her activism comes as no surprise to those who know her. In high school she campaigned against her school’s Native American mascot, and in addition to her work at Penn, she is an abortion hand–holder at Planned Parenthood in Center City.
Clarissa reflects, “I always kind of did controversial stuff.” But in regards to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, “Where I’m from it’s not something that people really talk about.”
Before coming to Penn, she didn’t know too much about the issue and got involved her freshman year after seeing the PFP table at the activities fair. She says she had always wanted to learn more about.
Now an active member, Clarissa enjoys PFP’s work with other student groups such as Penn for Immigrant Rights and Liberty in North Korea but says, “We don’t really collaborate too much with the pro–Israel groups. We’re not necessarily trying to portray what’s happening as a two–sided thing.”
When asked if she has had issues with friends over her strong beliefs, she says, “I think a lot of it’s like self–selection. I’m going to surround myself with people who are down with this kind of stuff, and if not, I’m just not going to bring it up.”
Clarissa says she and PFP try to focus on mobilizing people who agree with their opinions rather than changing people’s minds. “Our mission is not to serve as an education means for people who don’t really want to hear what we want to say or are against what we’ve been told.”
And she genuinely seems not to worry about people who do not agree with her—she feels comfortable putting PFP on her resume and is not anxious about her columns being online and accessible in the future. “I feel like a lot of people don't even have the luxury of being concerned about that, in terms of other aspects of their identity that they might not be able to change,” Clarissa says. “So it’s not something I really thought about too much. It’s never been a huge consideration in what I’m doing.”
After school, Clarissa wants to go into healthcare rather than political activism. However, she notes, “I don’t necessarily consider my work with Penn for Palestine to be extracurricular…It’s not just something like, oh, one night a week we’ll get together and talk about planning this event. It’s just a part of the way I view the world.”
Mereb Russom draws her passion for PFP from her family’s history. Her parents came to the US as Eritrean refugees due to conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. When Mereb, an urban studies major, came to Penn, she didn’t know anything about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict until a friend brought her to a PFP meeting. Mereb then talked to her mom about the issue, who said that even though leaving Eritrea was not by choice, it was okay “because she knew that she could go back, and she said that that’s not something Palestinians can do.” Mereb’s mom told her that she knew whole Palestinian families who had been expelled and were unable to return.
“It really resonated with me and just made me really upset to think about. [I] always remember my mom saying that Palestinians were like us—they’re like Eritrean people—and I think what she meant by that was that the oppression Eritreans felt from Ethiopia is similar to the oppression Palestinians face from Israelis,” Mereb says. “From that, I feel a moral obligation to help Palestinians and be involved because I saw so many connections between their struggle and the struggle of my people.”
Mereb continued to learn more about the issue and is now the co–president of PFP, along with junior Lauren Ballester, although they prefer the term “organizers.” Mereb’s favorite PFP event was their wall demonstration because they collaborated with other campus groups for it. One of those groups was Penn for Immigrant Rights, where Mereb is also a board member. Lauren agrees about the importance of connecting with people in other groups and “having one–on–one conversations about how we can work together.”
When asked about their relationship with pro–Israel groups, Lauren admits that they’ve had small arguments at activity fairs that were uncomfortable. Still, both organizers emphasize their alliances with other groups that advocate for marginalized peoples rather than being in opposition to J–Street or PIPAC, and they know when to approach the topic carefully.
“I understand that there are people on this campus who come from very different backgrounds and experiences and may not see Penn for Palestine the same way we see it,” Mereb says. “So yeah, I do find myself whispering ‘I’m in Penn for Palestine,’ which is really frustrating that in the 21st century being in a group that supports human rights of a people is something that you have to whisper.”
Lauren agrees and says that people can be hostile and offended by her membership in PFP. She recounts angry reactions to her having a PFP sticker on her laptop and people who will come to their events and yell and scream, but says “the general population is usually not like that.”
Fellow PFP organizer and sophomore Nick DeFina explains their approach to handling conversations about the sensitive topic. He says it's a personal issue, with emotion tangled up in politics.
“That makes it really difficult sometimes, when you’re having a conversation, to actively think ‘Okay, I’m going to change this person’s opinion,’” Nick says. “In a lot of ways, our group is fairly confrontational inherently, because we’re putting into question all of these principles that a lot people have held to be true for so long.”
After Penn, Mereb wants to attend law school and continue her activism by using law to help marginalized communities. She says her family advises her not to put PFP on a resume when applying for internships or scholarships, but she plans to include it when applying to law school. For now, though, Mereb knows when and when not to invite friends to PFP events.
“I won’t invite certain people that I feel like are clearly against what we’re doing, just have no interest in it or have very different politics and views,” Mereb says. “Not because I don’t want them to come, but because they might feel like I’m doing that purposely to take a jab at them…I don’t want to come off as being rude. I just try to be considerate.”
Jacob Ruden may have centrist political views regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, but he still encounters plenty of debate. He’s the co–chair of J Street UPenn along with senior Ryan Daniels. Jacob is also a BBB major, the co–chair of Penn’s Reform Jewish Community (RJC) and former co–president of the defunct Penn Friends for Israel, now Israel @ Penn, an education group that discusses Israeli political issues. As a member of J Street, he deals with criticisms from both the left and the right.
“The perception, I think, from people in the non–Jewish community and traditional pro–Palestinian community, is lumping us together with other pro–Israel groups and defining Zionism in a way that’s anti–Palestinian, when J Street UPenn and J Street as a whole is proud to be pro–Israel, pro–Peace, pro–Palestinian,” he says. “To me, liberal Zionism is very alive and what J Street embodies.”
Skepticism surrounds J Street within the Jewish community. Jacob says that “the perception of traditional pro–Israel activists is that J Street is an organization on the left” and that they are “seen by most of the Jewish community as under the pro–Israel tent, but on the very edge of that tent.” He notes that J Street is sometimes mistakenly affiliated with the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, but J Street opposes it in all forms.
Jacob became involved with J Street the February of his freshman year after attending an “Israel Across Penn” Hillel Shabbat dinner, led by two members of J Street. “When I came to Penn, I knew I wanted to be involved in Israel advocacy in some way.” He adds, “The reason I came to J Street is my end goal is for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state, and for me a two–state solution is the only way for Israel to remain that.”
Although Jacob didn’t grow up talking a lot about Israel at home, he admits that his parents are more conservative than he and not avid J Street supporters. He says that most issues he’s had over his activism have been with extended family members or people outside of Penn.
Here, he is very open about the fact that he’s in J Street, publicizing events on Facebook and to his friends, and says it has inspired a lot of meaningful conversations. He does mention one awkward interaction with a freshman hallmate who did not share his views, so he tried to avoid touching on Israel in their conversations.
“There’s some times when you don’t want it to define who you are,” he explains.
When it comes to pro–Palestine groups, Jacob says J Street reached out to PFP about co–sponsoring an event, but they declined. He also disagrees with some of their tactics. “To me, putting up a wall to symbolize the security barrier/security fence/what some people in Penn for Palestine would refer to as an ‘apartheid wall,’ or putting up flags for the number of Israeli dead or Palestinian dead and other things which I would view as inflammatory only embolden extremists and push us away from ending the conflict and ending the occupation.”
Jacob is not afraid to talk politics in detail, but he stresses that it’s an issue to which everyone can connect on a personal level. “Even though the reason that really drives me to do this type of work on campus through J Street is my deep connection to Israel through my Judaism, that’s not the only reason. I also believe, as J Street believes, that a two–state solution would be beneficial for Americans, for Israelis and for Palestinians.”
Unlike other politically–minded students, Jacob isn’t planning to make a career out of his advocacy, but it will always be a passion. He plans to get involved with local J Street chapters as an adult.
Jacob affirms, “Until two states for two peoples is recognized and I can guarantee my children or grandchildren will be able to visit a Jewish and democratic Israel, I won’t be forgetting about this anytime soon.”
Ben Gitles is running on fumes. Despite coming to his interview after an all–nighter for the NEC, the Hillel Israel Sector chair is all energy and excited to talk about how his views on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict have evolved during his time at Penn.
Ben, a networked and social systems engineer, is a former PIPAC campus relations coordinator, and as the current Israel Sector chair, he works with leaders of each of its six constituent groups, allocating the Israel Sector’s budget amonst them.
He was first exposed to Israel advocacy in high school when he attended an AIPAC conference his senior year. The summer before coming to Penn, Ben visited Israel with BBYO, a national Jewish youth group, for three weeks, which also influenced his views. “I came to Penn super gung–ho, very Pro–Israel, tried to join every group I could.”
His freshman year he joined PIPAC and was on the board of the former Penn Friends of Israel. Then, this past summer, he participated in the Birthright Excel 10–week internship program in Israel, during which his views shifted from more conservative to liberal. Now, of the two major political organizations under the Israel Sector umbrella, his views align more with J Street’s than PIPAC’s.
“After having been in Israel, I’m much more of an advocate for a two–state solution. I have much greater respect for the Palestinian narrative in conjunction with the Zionist narrative,” Ben says. “At the same time I think PIPAC is a great organization, they’re doing great work and I’m really happy with the time I’ve spent on it.”
Although his family has never been political, Ben notes that his mom was unfamiliar with J Street when he brought it up. “I was telling my mom about J–Street and she didn’t even know what that was. She grew up in a world where AIPAC was the one big Israel group, that’s really all she knew.”
He knows there are students here who do not share his pro–Israel stance. Ben describes a meeting he had last year with Clarissa, when his views were more conservative, and says that it did not go well when the subject of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict came up. “She said things like ‘ethnic cleansing’—very inflammatory terms—and I just shut down. I just refused to talk about it.”
However, this January, after returning from a semester abroad in Zurich and starting his term as Israel Sector chair, Ben reached out to the Penn for Palestine leaders to talk again.
“We had a constructive conversation. We agreed on a lot of things, we disagreed on a lot of things. Now I say hi to them in passing, rather than having an antagonistic relationship,” he says. “It’s much better for me as the leader of the Israel Sector to have that relationship with Penn for Palestine.”
Although Ben has smoothed over that relationship, he still disagrees often with his girlfriend, Abby Frank, over the issue. Abby, a junior bioengineer from Washington, DC who is PIPAC’s campus relations coordinator, met Ben at the Office of Student Affairs Leadership Retreat and he then encouraged her to join PIPAC.*
“Even within the pro–Israel community, there’s also a lot of tension…the two of us have arguments all the time over it, but they’re productive—less arguments and more like intellectual disagreements,” Abby says.
She talks about how her views stem from her family: her grandparents are Holocaust survivors who moved to Israel after World War II, so her dad is Israeli. Security in Israel is a key issue for Abby and why she is more conservative. Plus, she struggled with hostile anti–Israel peers in high school, and because of that experience she says, “I know when and when not to bring up the conversation.”
But she knows that she can talk about it with Ben. “We’re dating, and he’s my best friend, so I’m going to say what I want to say,” Abby says, and he agrees.
“We have really interesting conversations, and I think it’s made our relationship even better. We both want what’s best for Israel. And we still have a great relationship. We’ve had some of the most heated conversations, but she’s my best friend.”
It’s rare to find second semester seniors still actively involved at Penn, but Josh Adler is one of the few. After graduation, the PIPAC campus coordinator and American History major will be doing Teach for America and is open to the possibility of a political career in the future, but it is not one of his immediate career goals.
Josh got involved with PIPAC his sophomore year, when it was founded by a friend on his freshman hall. The organization grew out of the former Penn Israel Coalition and, although the group is independent of AIPAC, it operates with the same strategy; Josh acts as the student group’s liaison to the national organization. The summer after his freshman year, Josh went on Penn Hillel’s birthright trip to Israel and he says, “I came back knowing I wanted to do more.”
Growing up, Josh went to a Jewish elementary school, and his family has always been Israel supporters. “I grew up with an affinity for Israel, but not an in–depth understanding of why...beyond being in the Jewish homeland.
When I came to Penn, I was more politically sentient. I developed more of my activism,” Josh says.
He said that people at Penn are largely receptive to his involvement in PIPAC. “I don't think it turns heads. People aren't surprised by it. A lot of times saying that I'm involved in PIPAC is a starting point for a conversation.”
As a member of PIPAC, Josh has learned how to approach the Israeli–Palestinian conflict conversation with fellow students and he says that he rarely hesitates to bring up his involvement.
“I challenge ideas and not people,” he says. “But if you had talked to me sophomore year, I wasn’t as good as separating the ideas from the people.”
Josh shares how he once clashed with a good friend at Penn over differing views on Israel. “I was very passionate about it, and I was very upset that such a close friend was so opposed to something I cared about. We kind of put it behind us and we just don't talk about it to this day.”
Josh emphasizes one–on–one conversations rather than debates as a means to forge relationships with peers, specifically members of the UA, Penn Dems and College Republicans. It’s an interesting approach: he explains that PIPAC tries to influence student leaders today in the hopes that they go on to be pro–Israel national leaders in the future.
As far as relationships with other groups whose campaigns involve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Josh claims, “There’s no active animosity between pro–Israel and pro–Palestine groups on campus.” He mentions that he often sits with Mereb at Penn Political Coalition meetings despite their differing views on the issue. Josh believes that “at Penn there is some [anti–Israel sentiment], but not to the extent of other campuses.”
Even within PIPAC, views differ, and there have been PIPAC members who were also members of J Street UPenn. Josh acknowledges that being part of Hillel can affect perceptions of PIPAC. “We are intentional in branding ourselves as a political group rather than a Jewish group. I think it’s important for people to realize that support of Israel isn't just a Jewish issue,” Josh says. “It's an American issue. It doesn't matter what religion you are.”
Being pro–Israel is a lifelong campaign for Josh, whether or not he makes a career out of it after Penn. He says, “I like to think about PIPAC not just as an organization but as a movement, as being part of the pro–Israel movement, and supporting the US–Israel relationship is certainly something I envision doing the rest of my life.”
Emma Soren is a sophomore in the College majoring in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. She is the Lowbrow editor of 34th Street.
*This was corrected from the print version, which stated that the two met through PIPAC.
Corrections: An earlier version of this article had Clarisa O'Conor's name misspelled as Clarisa O'Connor. It has been updated to reflect the correct spelling. It has also been corrected that Mereb Russom is from Springfield, VA and not Springfield, MA.