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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Middlebury Students for Justice in Palestine hosts teach-in, as over 500 alumni sign letter on Israel-Palestine war

Middlebury's Students for Justice in Palestine Nov. 2 teach-in drew a large crowd for its various student and faculty speakers.
Middlebury's Students for Justice in Palestine Nov. 2 teach-in drew a large crowd for its various student and faculty speakers.

Over 250 students attended “Gaza in Context,” a teach-in event led by Middlebury Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on Wednesday, Nov. 1, featuring perspectives from members of the Middlebury community, students and faculty. The teach-in came at a time when SJP has been circulating a letter with over 500 signatories calling for the college administration to take a stronger stand condemning what they identified as human rights abuses against Palestinians.

The teach-in event focused on information and the history behind the conflict in order to lean into Middlebury’s role as an educational institution, according to Joshua Glucksman ’25, co-president of SJP and event co-organizer. Glucksman shared his perspective on the gathering and why it included a range of speakers and different forms of information.

“Not only is so much of this war emotional and experiential, but we actually reproduce harmful narratives if we solely focus on numbers and facts, which is why we had poetry and prose in addition to the political background,” Glucksman wrote in a message to The Campus.

The organizers arranged the 20 speakers in an effort to have an intersectional approach to the conflict, centering faculty and Palestinian voices as well as students from all backgrounds. 

“To have someone speaking from a queer perspective about Israeli pink-washing, to an environmental perspective about Palestinian food sovereignty is one example of the success of our interdisciplinary teaching,” Glucksman wrote.  

Student leaders from a variety of groups, including the Muslim Student Association, the Environmental Science department, Middlebury’s Amnesty International club, Middlebury West Asian and North African Students, Middlebury Black Student Union and the Middlebury South Asian Student Association gave remarks in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. 

“I believe all of us who hail from parts of the world that once suffered under western colonial rule have a duty to stand up for each other — historically as well as today,” wrote Yuvraj Shah ’26, co-secretary of the South Asian Student Association, in a message to The Campus. 

The variety of speakers invited by SJP was appreciated by students who attended the event.“I think it was great that there were so many different viewpoints that were acquired from all over campus just for this one topic. That there were so many people from different organizations just to speak on this was very special,” said Islam Abushareah ’26.5, a student who attended the teach-in.

Other students who attended the teach-in event reflected on their own experiences in order to connect their personal heritage and identities to the historical context of Palestine. 

“It is important for me, as a third-generation Tibetan refugee, to attend this event. The struggles faced by the people in Gaza resonate closely with the experiences of our ancestors. I learned about different perspectives tied with the Palestinian struggle, and how they collectively contribute to decolonizing imperial power” said Tenzin Youtso ’26, an attendee at the event.  

Professor of History Febe Armanios began the talk by providing historical context on the lasting impact of colonialism in the Middle East, tracing it back to the Ottoman Empire. Armanios explained how the deliberate establishment of geographic boundaries by the British Empire fostered ethnic conflicts and connected those legacies of British colonialism to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict over land. She concluded her speech by emphasizing that the modern status of Palestine is rooted in this history and that the current situation remains untenable.

“The status quo is simply not viable,” Armanios said to the crowd.

Kaveh Abu Khaleel ’26, co-president of SJP, shared their perspective on how students of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) identities are not supported at Middlebury in a message to The Campus. 

“One of the biggest problems that students of MENA background face on this campus is invisibility — that our lives and backgrounds are treated as something far far away, as conflicts that uprooted our lives are treated as intellectual exercises,” Khaleel wrote. “Middlebury needs to reckon with the fact that admitting MENA students means recognizing their presence on this campus and in these very classes, and protecting our right to live and resist.”

Wafic Faour, a local Palestinian refugee, also spoke about his experience. Faour stated that three words that sum up the Palestinian experience are occupation, genocide and apartheid. He told attendees that the only way to find justice is by fighting Israeli apartheid.

Student leaders for SJP also read the letter signed by over 500 alumni criticizing the college administration’s response to the Israel-Palestine crisis. The letter calls on the administration to support a ceasefire in Gaza, issue a statement condemning Israel’s human rights violations and take actions to protect free speech on campus and protect the expression of pro-Palestinian views. Middlebury issued a statement on Oct. 9, entitled “Response to the War in Israel, Palestine,” which acknowledged “the untold pain, suffering, and loss of life unfolding from the violence happening now in Israel and Palestine.” 

The letter took issue with the college’s statement and what it saw as a lack of historical context provided to students.

“We were disappointed to see a letter from the administration on October 9th that purported to uphold these same values, but, in reality, contributed to a misguided and empty stance on Israel’s war in Gaza,” the letter reads. “Statements like Middlebury’s wholly and willingly ignore and erase the power differential between Palestine and Israel.”

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The letter also referenced the Jewish lives vigil on campus on Oct.7, calling it a manifestation of the larger anti-Palestinian culture in America. “We were frustrated to see the way our alma mater promoted and handled the problematic Jewish lives vigil,” the letter reads. 

Middlebury alumni who signed the letter shared their reasoning for signing it with The Campus, explaining that they were disappointed to see their alma mater not take a strong moral stance against the deaths of Palestinians.

Amer Shurrab ’08 told The Campus that he believes the college’s statement failed to meet its bare minimum moral obligation of condemning violence against Palestinian civilians and protecting the free speech of pro-Palestinian advocates on campus.

“The response of the administration is a microcosm of the wider American society. It fails to recognize Palestinians as humans. Middlebury’s official statements, going back decades, never mentions the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine, and Israel's apartheid in Gaza and the West Bank,” Shurrab wrote, explaining how he believes the college did not provide sufficient historical context about Israeli occupation of Palestine in its initial statement. “I signed the letter because I believe my beloved alma mater should stand up for justice and equality and not with occupation and oppression.”

Shurrab also discussed how this issue has great personal significance to him as a Middlebury alumnus with family in Gaza who has been directly affected by the invasion by Israel and the growing humanitarian crisis.

“Today, my brother and sister and their 6 kids live in Gaza. Israel destroyed my sister’s home. They have not had electricity in weeks. It takes them 10 hours to get a loaf of bread every day, and hours to get enough water for a day. They watch as Israeli bombs drop around them, try to comfort their kids, and wonder if they are the next Israeli target,” he wrote.

Other alumni who signed the letter echoed Shurrab’s objections to Middlebury’s Oct. 9 statement as insufficient, characterizing Middlebury’s lack of subsequent statements as a moral failure of the institution at which they once studied.

“Middlebury's leadership is out-of-step not only with current students, but also more than 500 alums who stand in solidarity with Palestinian freedom. As an anti-Zionist Jew, I am proud to be one of them,” Maya Goldberg-Safir ’12.5, a signatory to the SJP letter, wrote in an email to The Campus. “The College is not only shirking away from naming a genocide occurring in plain sight, but also failing to support its own students rightly demanding ceasefire.”

Jacob Udell ’12 also signed the alumni letter and shared how his perspective working in the West Bank and witnessing violence against Palestinians there has informed his desire to see the college more strongly support SJP.

“As a Jewish alum who grew into my politics at Middlebury and then living in Israel / Palestine after graduation, I find it deeply upsetting that the College continually seems unable to stand for the right of SJP and other faculty and students to speak out against Israeli atrocities past and present,” Udell wrote in an email to The Campus. “Students and faculty with the courage to bring these things to light should be celebrated. That the College refuses to protect them from being harassed or reassure them that they are not at risk of being punished is astonishing to me.”

“The College’s original official statement felt so general to me, like it could fit any crisis if tweaked, and it feels very full of platitudes especially in light of every development since October 7,” Becca Amen ’22, another signatory of the letter wrote in a message to The Campus. “Students can and should more and more urgently expect a new statement from a community leader that addresses the particularities of this humanitarian disaster.”

Student leaders for SJP echoed these calls for further support for Palestine at the college, as they hope to transform the attention and strong attendance received at the teach-in last week into concrete actions.

“Awareness is only meaningful if it translates into action,” Mars Etgu ’26, a member of SJP, wrote in a message to The Campus. “I appreciate everyone showing up and being willing to learn. There are many ways of participating without publicizing it, so don’t let that fear stop you from acting. Also, considering the privilege that an American citizenship has, I’d really encourage pro-Palestinian Americans to get out of their comfort zone for the sake of showing support.”

The SJP teach-in and letter together have brought hundreds of students and alumni together to address Middlebury’s response to the Israel-Gaza war and what many of the letter’s signatories view as both a betrayal of the institution’s values and a sign of the college’s disengagement from the ongoing conflict.

“It's clear Middlebury is becoming increasingly alienated from the current political reality. Generations of alums will never forget this moment,” Goldberg-Safir said.

Editor’s note: Editor in Chief Maggie Reynolds ’24 and Managing Editors Katie Futterman ’24 and Ryan McElroy ’25 contributed reporting to this article.