Zoe Bernstein ’24 has a friend who is currently a prisoner of war being held in the Gaza Strip. Her Israeli cousin, who is a paratrooper for the Israel Defense Forces, is physically well, but 20 of his friends have been taken hostage or slain.
“Every single person I know in Israel has a friend or relative who was killed in the past four days,” said Bernstein, who is the president of Cornellians for Israel.
Bernstein is not the only Cornellian who has been personally affected by Hamas’s attacks on Saturday, Oct. 7 and the ensuing conflict in Israel and Gaza — which has claimed more than 1,200 Israeli and 1,500 Palestinian lives in the last week — with many other students reporting loved ones in danger in Israel.
In an act of solidarity and mutual support, Cornellians for Israel and Cornell Hillel hosted a candlelit vigil on Ho Plaza on Wednesday, Oct. 11 to honor the Israeli lives lost and those currently wounded or kidnapped in the conflict.
Approximately 750 Cornell students, faculty and staff attended the vigil to listen to stories of students with personal connections to Israel who have been affected by this conflict. Hundreds of members of the Cornell community stood together holding candles in front of the Cornell Store, waving Israeli flags and singing “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.
Simone Shteingart ’24, vice president of Cornell Hillel, expressed the importance of Israel to her and her family as a spiritual home and safe space for Jewish people.
“My dad and his entire family fled to Israel to escape the horrible religious persecution in the USSR,” wrote Shteingart in a statement to The Sun. “Israel is the only place where Jewish people could/should feel safe and the only country that has taken in Jewish refugees, persecuted by antisemitism from all over the world.”
Molly Goldstein ’25, co-president of the Cornell Center for Jewish Living, also discussed what Israel means both to her personally and the Jewish community.
“The nation of Israel, almost everybody I know has been there. It means a return to our homeland and a place for Jews […] to be safe,” Goldstein said in a statement to The Sun. “And it means that we don’t have to be afraid anymore of persecution. We know that there’s a place for us to go to, there’s a home for us.”
Goldstein expressed her hope that the vigil would inspire the Cornell community to condemn violence and join together during a period of immense suffering.
“What I hope to see most is that people condemn violence. There are civilians on both sides who are living in the worst nightmare they could have possibly imagined,” Goldstein said. “And I’d hope that the Cornell community wants peace, and wants harmony, and hopes that the violence and the terrorism will end.”
Martha Pollack, Cornell’s president, released two statements about the conflict to the Cornell community on Tuesday, Oct. 10. The first expressed her “horror, sadness and concern” at the developing situation and asked Cornellians to support one another amid the ongoing conflict.
“In stressful moments like this, we need to embrace our shared humanity and be supportive of one another. As a community of scholars, we can also learn about the history and politics of the Middle East,” Pollack wrote in the statement. “Perhaps some of our current students will ultimately have the wisdom that has so eluded world leaders, and find a way to permanent peace, not just in the Middle East but around the world.”
Pollack sent a follow up email slightly over six hours later that condemned Hamas’ actions as terrorism in response to outcry from some Cornellians.
“In the hours since [her first statement], I have heard from a number of you who expressed dismay that I failed to say that the atrocities committed by Hamas this past weekend were acts of terrorism, which I condemn in the strongest possible terms,” Pollack said in the follow-up statement.
However, many students believed neither of her statements fully condemned Hamas’s actions against Israel. Natalia Hakimi ’26 expressed her dissatisfaction with Pollack’s comparisons between the ongoing conflict and a recent earthquake in Afghanistan.
“Pollack’s comparison between the war in Israel and natural disasters is completely inappropriate,” Hakimi said in an interview with The Sun. “This comparison fails to acknowledge the human evil that is behind this war and is completely ignorant.”
Hakimi said she has family and friends in Israel who are currently spending most of their time in bomb shelters or in hiding.
“I have a lot of family and friends in Rishon LeTsiyon as well as in the army. Physically, they are okay, but that does not mean they’re okay [mentally],” Hakimi said. “They have witnessed the most disturbing and inhumane acts that will change them forever.”
Bernstein emphasized the importance of strength in numbers in difficult times, particularly given Hamas’s call for worldwide protests against Israel.
“Many members of the community feel as though they are living a real-life nightmare. They are seeing their friends and family being terrorized and are hearing Hamas leaders call for a jihad against Jews all over the world,” Bernstein wrote to The Sun. “It is unfathomable. It is petrifying.”
Jeremy Zarge ’24, another co-president of CCJL, shared some ways that Cornell students could help the people of Israel through this conflict.
“We want people to reach out to their congressman to know how much this means to us and Israel,” Zarge said. “Students can also support financially through donations.”
Many students expressed hope that the Cornell community makes a concerted effort to support students affected by what has been happening.
“There are and will continue to be students mourning relatives and friends and being mindful of this reality is essential for helping them to process, cope and move forward,” Bernstein said. “I hope that Cornellians will make a concerted effort to take it upon themselves to get educated, to learn the facts, rather than simply repeating what they hear their friends and families say, what they see on social media, and what they believe they should be saying.”
Anthony Nagle ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].