A vigil for lives lost to the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas was canceled after pushback from students about the event’s stated ban on anti-Zionist speech and concerns from organizers about the effectiveness of the event.
Several Jewish students organized the “Vigil for Lives Lost to Israel-Palestine Violence” in light of escalating conflict between Israel and Palestine in late May, but the organizers elected to cancel the gathering — originally planned for Tuesday, May 18 at 8:30 p.m. — amid rising tensions on campus about the conflict and nature of the planned event.
Max Shulman-Litwin ’22, one of the primary organizers of the event, said the vigil was canceled because of concerns about the climate on campus. Shulman-Litwin also said that some of the posters advertising the vigil were vandalized.
“We decided that the environment was becoming hostile, and it was necessary to take steps to make sure it wouldn’t just be a screaming match. We were hearing that a night march might not actually get the point across,” Shulman-Litwin said.
Other organizers declined to comment because, according to Shulman-Litwin, they wished to remain anonymous after students responded negatively to the planned vigil.
Throughout the last weeks of the spring semester, campus sidewalks were chalked with statements referencing the conflict. Around the same time, many students took to social media to post about the conflict, the campus environment or the then-upcoming vigil.
The Israel-Palestine conflict was at the forefront of campus discourse in March when the Middlebury chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) created a website about the conflict at the go-link go/apartheid. Another student responded with the go-links go/palestine, go/palestinian and go/sjp, linking to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Palestinian terror and incitement” page. In an all-school email on April 17, the Community Bias Response Team (CBRT) said that Public Safety was investigating multiple indirect threats made toward a student associated with SJP.
On May 5, Palestine Legal — an organization dedicated to providing legal advice and other support to activists who advocate for justice for Palestine — sent an 18-page letter to the Middlebury administration detailing incidents of anti-Palestinian harrassment at the college and asking administrators to condemn such harrassment. A post by Palestine Legal about the letter was widely shared on social media.
Prior to making the decision to cancel the vigil, Shulman-Litwin and other organizers met with Dean of Students Derek Doucet and Religious and Spiritual Life staff to discuss the benefits and risks of moving forward with the event.
“The decision wasn’t an administrative one, but rather one they as the prospective organizers made. I always try to make myself available to students interested in planning political or demonstration events. Free expression is an essential part of our community,” Doucet said in an email to The Campus.
A number of students on social media questioned the vigil’s advertised prohibition on anti-Zionist speech. Posters for the event read, “Antisemitism, Anti-Zionism, Islamophobia, and Anti-Palestinian Hate will not be tolerated.”
Matt Martignoni ’21.5, a leader of Students for Justice in Palestine, criticized the planned vigil and the rhetoric on the posters.
“The event’s prohibition on anti-Zionism and anti-Palestinian hate is an oxymoron. Zionism, no matter how one feels about it, is predicated upon the erasure of Palestine. Enough said,” Martignoni wrote in an Instagram story.
“I refuse to accept an ‘All Lives Matter’ (white supremacist) narrative,” Martignoni wrote in the same story. “It makes utterly false equivalencies between the intensifying ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and resistance to colonization. I in no way say that to condone the death of Israelis, but rather what I take issue with is the rhetoric of this vigil.”
Shulman-Litwin explained the choice to bar anti-Zionism.
“I and a few other Jewish students hoped to organize this vigil to help everyone understand that it was necessary to mourn all lives lost and not just the lives of some,” Shulman-Litwin said. He explained that he and the organizers knew that they must “put something to tell Jews it is a safe space for them,” and to prevent the vigil from becoming dominated by a “free Palestine rhetoric.”
“What I want to emphasize is striving for Israeli and Jewish and Palestinian activism. It is not mutually exclusive,” he said. “As long as we acknowledge that, anyone who says Israel should be eradicated is wrong.”
On May 19, one day after the originally planned date for the vigil, Chief Diversity Officer Miguel Fernández authored an email to all students, faculty and staff with Doucet and Provost Jeff Cason to address the tensions on campus and violence abroad. The email, titled “Reactions to Recent Events in Middle East,” called the violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “agonizing to witness” and said that the situation had “caused tensions on our campus and beyond, opened long-festering wounds and painful memories, and prompted incendiary remarks.”
“Our campus commitment to open expression is intended to create space for us to talk about what is going on in the world, what's at stake for the communities involved, who is being harmed, and how we understand and view these events,” the email read. “Being able to have these political conversations and to talk about the implications for people's lives and safety is essential within a community that aspires to understand and advocate for justice.”
Doucet told The Campus that the school will attempt to mitigate possible future conflicts by “continuing to offer support to students and responding to any reports of bias of all kinds, including antisemitic, anti-Islamic or anti-Palestinian bias.”
Maggie Reynolds '24 is the Senior Local Editor.
She previously served as Local Editor and Staff Writer. Maggie spent this past summer in Vermont, covering arts & culture for Seven Days VT. She also interned as a news reporter with the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, NY during summer 2021.
Maggie is studying History with minors in Spanish and Political Science. She is also a member of the Women's Swimming & Diving team.