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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Middlebury community responds to Israel-Palestine conflict with vigil, education efforts

150 students, faculty and community members gathered in solidarity to
mourn the lives lost on Oct. 7 in Israel.
150 students, faculty and community members gathered in solidarity to mourn the lives lost on Oct. 7 in Israel.

The Middlebury community has reacted through both spiritual and educational efforts to ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza. 

A vigil organized by Middlebury Chabad and Jewish students at the college was attended by around 150 people on Wednesday, Oct. 11, who gathered on McCullough lawn to remember and grieve the 1,400 Israelis killed by Hamas on Oct. 7.

Israel Institute Teaching Fellow Adi Livny, who teaches a course in the Hebrew Department titled “Israel-Palestine Conflict,” spoke with The Campus to provide context on the escalating violence.

In 2006, after the years-long Israeli rule in Gaza ended in 2005, Hamas was elected by a majority of the Palestinian parliament, and has ruled the Gaza Strip since then via military blockade, according to Livny. Israel still controls the borders and supervises everything that comes in and out of Gaza, she said. 

“From the Palestinian perspective, Gaza is considered the largest prison in the world, because it has a population of 2 million people who are very limited in their ability to leave Gaza or make a living because of the Israeli limitations,” Livny said. 

Livny and Associate Professor of Political Science Sebnem Gumuscu are having open office hours for any student who wants to discuss the issue, according to Mark Orten, dean of spiritual and religious life and director of the Scott Center.

Middlebury released a statement on Oct. 9 titled “Response to the War in Israel, Palestine.” “Open expression and the free exchange of ideas are core to the Middlebury mission. However, there is no place here for hate, racism, ethnic discrimination, antisemitism, or Islamophobia. We have received unconfirmed reports of such acts on our Vermont campus, and we are investigating and will take appropriate action should any of these reports be confirmed,” President Laurie Patton, Interim Provost and Executive Vice President Michelle McCauley and other administrators wrote in the update.

Middlebury Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) released a statement on their Instagram on Oct. 11 in response to the recent events. “There will be no justice in Palestine without the end of occupation and apartheid… We were frustrated to see information released on campus which either spread misinformation or lacked important historical context. As Middlebury students, we are called to engage with a wide variety of viewpoints in order to arrive at a balanced conclusion.”

Middlebury Hillel also posted a statement on their Instagram on Oct. 12. “Let us be clear: Middlebury Hillel stands firmly against the murder of both innocent Israelis and innocent Palestinians, and any attempts to justify these actions,” the group wrote. “We are sending all of you strength to remain proudly Jewish and stick together during this hard time.”

Orten explained the college’s role in facilitating these discussions between different groups on campus in the context of international developments.

“As an educational institution, Middlebury values and encourages opportunities for open expression and the exchange of ideas among those with opposing viewpoints and supports peaceful protest,” Orten wrote in an email to The Campus.

At the recent vigil, attendees passed around a prayer book, saying prayers and lighting candles for those who passed away in the Oct. 7 attack, according to Joshua Garson ’25, who was in attendance. 

Patton did not attend the Oct. 11 vigil for lives lost in Israel, but Rabbi Danielle Stillman delivered written remarks in her stead. In the remarks, Patton wrote, “Our hearts go out to all who have been affected by the deeply painful, destructive, and unacceptable violence we have seen in Israel and Gaza, which must be condemned in the strongest possible terms… As people of the world we long for justice, in and for Israel, in and for Palestine.”

According to the Addison Independent police log, the Middlebury Police Department “Provided a presence at a Middlebury College student-organized candlelight vigil off Old Chapel Road on Oct. 11. Police said students requested their presence.”

Some members of the Middlebury Muslim Student Association and Middlebury SJP traveled to Burlington recently to attend a candlelight vigil at the University of Vermont (UVM) in honor of the Palestinian lives, now numbering nearly 5,000, which have been lost since the start of the war. There have been ongoing discussions about holding a vigil on campus, although no such event is currently planned, according to Rabbi Stillman. 

“A lot of people often call Judaism one of the most particularist religions, but I definitely interpret Jewish values, in many cases, to be universalist. And that’s why I felt uncomfortable that this vigil was only mourning the Jewish deaths from this war in Gaza, and I would have liked to see a commemoration also of Palestinian and other lives,” Joshua Glucksman ’25, a member of SJP and Hillel, said. 

Other members of SJP declined to comment, citing security concerns amidst recent controversies at other colleges, such as the public outcry to the Harvard SJP open letter and the doxing campaign which followed.

Glucksman added, “I know that myself and other students feel that there is a lack of mourning for the Palestinian lives lost, specifically because this event is part of a cycle of violence against Palestinians that has continued since the creation of the state of Israel.”

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“I feel it’s very sad–my grandfather was the only survivor of the Holocaust in our family, he was at Auschwitz and he was liberated at Bergen-Belsen, so for me to see that the slaughter of Jews is again a rallying cry for any organization, and people don’t condemn it… this was a victory for some people. And it shouldn’t have been a victory for anyone,” Garson said.  

Glucksman referenced the Holocaust as well, but maintained that it should not be connected to the present war between Israel and Palestine. “One concern I had with the vigil’s messaging was the way that it linked these atrocities and violence of the past two weeks with the Holocaust and other histories of Jewish suffering,” he said. “I actually think that this instance of Jewish death needs to be seen in the context of 75 years of oppression in the name of Judaism.” 

Harry Griff ’26 was among the attendees at the vigil. “I think what’s important for people to not do is dehumanize what is going on,” Griff wrote in an email to The Campus. “When it comes down to it, these are people, many around our age, who will bear the consequences of their parents’ actions. I saw people on social media criticizing the vigil for many different reasons, which frustrated me because at its core, it was a place for mourning and community. There shouldn’t be anything political about that.”

Rabbi Stillman described the vigil as having done what the organizers hoped it would. “It provided a space of support and just a space to express grief, – not just for the Jewish lives that were lost but for all the innocent Palestinian lives as well.” she said.

The college has maintained its policy of supporting requests to organize events such as vigils, protests or providing education materials via tabling. SJP requested to set up tables outside of the dining halls, and has done so for the past few weeks, Orten wrote. The members have posted signs linking to go/Gaza, providing external links to education about the ongoing conflict. 

Middlebury students can also expect more events in the coming weeks. The Scott Center Conflict Transformation Collaborative is putting together a dinner with small-group facilitated discussions, according to Orten.