By Gabriel Donahue, Editor-in-Chief
As the sun set Wednesday evening, dozens of Jewish and non-Jewish Towson University students and community members gathered in Freedom Square in solidarity with Israel following Saturday’s surprise attacks on the country by the Palestinian militant group Hamas after it broke through the Gaza-Israel border blockade.
The crowd gathered around a cluster of battery-operated candles set up as a Star of David to pray and sing in Hebrew and English.
“We must fight for those who have been kidnapped, raped and tortured in these barbaric acts,” sophomore Artie Mackey, the Israel connection intern for Towson University Hillel, told the group. “The Jewish people have endured so much in our almost 4,000-year history … Each time we have come back stronger than before. We will do so once more.”
Hillel, which is a national Jewish campus organization, co-hosted the event with the Towson chapters of Alpha Epsilon Pi and Zeta Beta Tau, and the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center of Towson and Goucher.
“We’ve gathered in a lot of different ways in the past four days,” Rabbi Alex Salzberg, executive director of Hillel, said. “This is our way to publicly gather to say together that we are one people and that we are unafraid.”
Shana Gittleson and Macy Sover, both of whom are Jewish, said in separate interviews that they felt comforted and empowered by the support shown at the vigil.
Hillel President Makayla Bernstein said there has been an influx of Jewish students coming to the Hillel lounge, located above Newell Dining Hall, in the past few days for support.
The initial attacks on Israel began Saturday, when Hamas gunmen infiltrated Israeli towns, killing civilians and Israeli soldiers, according to the Associated Press.
On Monday, Israel declared war against Hamas, the AP reported. Israel had “hit more than 800 targets in Gaza” by Sunday.
Two million Palestinians live in the 139-square-mile Gaza Strip, which Israel has blockaded since Hamas came to power in 2007, CBS News reported. Hamas does not believe in a two-state solution.
That ongoing blockade and the illegal establishment of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian-populated West Bank pushed Hamas to attack, the AP reported.
Over 1,100 Palestinians living in the West Bank were displaced between 2022 and August 2023 due to increasing Israeli settler violence, according to a recent UN report.
Bernstein said someone had written “mass genocide” across a drawing of the Israeli flag on a Freedom Square chalkboard, which she erased before the vigil began. Additionally, Hillel’s director of Israel engagement, McKenna Bates, redirected someone away from the group, as she said they seemed interested in disrupting the gathering.
“We still hope and pray that peace can happen,” Salzberg said. “We still hope and pray that everyone is able to exist safely in their land and in their homes.”
The university sent a campus-wide email Tuesday offering support to students affected by the events in the Middle East. It linked to resources including the Counseling Center and invited “peaceful gatherings and discussions.”
Interim President Melanie Perreault, Vice President of Student Affairs Vernon Hurte and Vice President of the Office of Inclusion and Institutional Equity Patricia Bradley, who all signed off on that email, were in attendance.
“Supporting the students — that’s what it’s about,” Bradley said. “Supporting our students of all identities, all faiths, all belief systems, and as advocates of peace.”
After the event ended and the crowd cleared, some students wrote “Free Palestine!! Khalas [Enough]” on the chalkboard.
It is unclear if the chalkboard message was intended as a response to the vigil.
Note: This story has been updated to include additional information about the conflict. Additionally, the term “Gaza-Israel border” has been updated to “Gaza-Israel border blockade” for accuracy.