(JTA) — A person whom police said had been “experiencing a crisis” entered and vandalized the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania early Thursday.
The incident ignited fears on a campus where some Jews were already on high alert because of an upcoming Palestinian literature festival featuring speakers who have been accused of antisemitism.
The vandalism occurred as the building was being opened for the day just before 7 a.m., when Orthodox Jewish students meet for morning services. The alleged intruder slipped into the building behind a member of the Hillel community; smashed a table and podium; flipped over a table and trash can in the lobby; scattered papers; and yelled profanities, according to a report in The Daily Pennsylvanian. Images of an overturned table circulated widely on social media.
Multiple students told the newspaper that they heard from witnesses that the intruder had made antisemitic comments, including, “F—k the Jews” and “They killed JC,” a reference to the accusation that Jews killed Jesus. The person also yelled, “Jesus is king,” according to the student accounts.
The intruder was in the building for about a minute before building staff chased him out and services went on as planned, according to a statement from Penn Hillel. No students witnessed the incident itself, the statement said.
Students said they were unnerved by what happened, the evidence of which was still visible later in the morning.
“When I heard, my stomach just immediately dropped,” Maya Harpaz, a junior and executive board member of Hillel, told the Daily Pennsylvanian. “It’s definitely a scary feeling that this could happen to somewhere that you consider very safe on campus.”
In an early comment, a representative from Hillel tied the incident to both the Jewish calendar and the Palestine Writes festival, which is set to begin Friday and run until Sunday afternoon. Pro-Israel groups from across the country have condemned the festival, and some have called on Penn to cancel it.
“This person did not accidentally choose to enter our building. He did not accidentally choose to shout antisemitic slogans. He chose our building,” the Hillel representative wrote to the Daily Pennsylvanian. “He chose to do so just three days before Yom Kippur. He chose to do so one day before a number of speakers are coming to campus who have histories of making antisemitic and hate-filled statements against Jews. This was not a coincidence.”
Multiple pro-Israel activists also connected the incident of vandalism to the festival in posts on social media. The festival, meanwhile, condemned the incident in a statement and rejected any connection.
“The attack on the Hillel center is a cowardly and heinous act,” the statement from Palestine Writes said. “We condemn it and request a thorough investigation.”
The exact details of the incident are still being determined. At first, a statement from Hillel indicated that the alleged intruder was a student. But in a later statement posted on the Hillel’s Instagram account, that description was reworded to “an unknown member of the campus community.”
The person in question had been behaving erratically before entering the building and was subsequently transported for “further evaluation,” Penn’s Division of Public Safety wrote in a statement to campus police, the university newspaper reported.
The Hillel building already has security in place during the hours that it is open. Hillel has asked the university to immediately begin providing full-time security in front of the building.
Starting on Friday, the Hillel is organizing a “Shabbat Together” demonstration “celebrating Jewish pride, unity and togetherness” in response to the Palestinian festival.
University president Elizabeth Magill wrote in a letter to Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, on Wednesday that she would not intervene in the conference, citing the university’s “commitment to open expression and academic freedom,” which she wrote “are central to our educational mission.” But she wrote that the university was working with the Hillel to “provide support” ahead of the literature festival and had increased security for on-campus Jewish groups during the High Holidays, which began on Sept. 15 and conclude at the end of Yom Kippur on Monday night.
“Especially at this moment where we are all witnessing a dramatic rise in antisemitic incidents, including on college campuses, I am personally committed more than ever to addressing antisemitism in all forms,” she wrote.
Sydney Freedman, a senior and an active member of the Orthodox community, found the lobby in a chaotic state when she arrived late to services, she told the student newspaper.
“This morning when I went to pray with my community like I do every day, I found that the building was vandalized, and someone had come in and started yelling really violent and aggressive statements against my people,” Freedman told the Daily Pennsylvanian. “I felt so guilty about feeling scared and then something like this happens and it’s just really telling.”