U of I students host walking protest, stop at Jewish cultural center

URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — Two groups at the University of Illinois are speaking out after Palestinians and Israeli police clashed over the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem over the weekend.

The mosque has long been an epicenter of violence as Jews and Muslims both consider it the holiest and third-holiest site in their respective religions.

In response to the violence, Students for Justice in Palestine at U of I hosted a walking protest on Monday. They wanted to spread their message that Palestinians should be free.

“For us, the least we can do is be out here and show support and solidarity,” said one protester. “I’ve never been to Palestine. I will never know what it’s like to live under military occupation and blockade.”

But tensions are rising between SJP and the Illini Hillel at Cohen Center for Jewish Life, a gathering place for Jewish students on campus. SJP made a stop at the Hillel during their protest.

“When you come to places like these, you’re becoming complacent in it,” the protester said. “They obviously have a very direct connection to Israel and that’s why we’re targeting that area in specific.”

But one student at the Hillel said she doesn’t endorse what is going on overseas.

“Hillel does not exist to support Israel. Hillel exists to support Jewish students,” she said. “We come here not to oppress Palestinians, but to spend time with our community and to engage in religious observance.”

“It’s ridiculous,” she said regarding SJP protesting outside the Hillel. “There is no reason to come here and make us feel unsafe and unwelcome on campus.

Hillel Executive Director Erez Cohen also took issue with SJP’s protest stopping at the Hillel, especially during Passover.

“Our students come here specifically to gather kosher for Passover meals,” Cohen said. “They don’t really have anywhere else to go on campus, and to be cornered in a way they need to pass through a crowd of shouting people to receive their religious needs is pretty awkward and unnecessary.”

Students with SJP said they want the university and campus to hear their message while students with the Hillel just want a safe space to practice their religious beliefs.