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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023

On the Middlebury community’s response to the Israel-Gaza war

At Harvard University, the administration and student groups have been engulfed in controversy and doxxing after issuing statements on the Israel-Palestine conflict. At Dartmouth College, two students were recently arrested for camping out to protest the school’s approach to the war. And at Columbia University, student organizations have staged huge protests, while professors have come under national scrutiny and faced petitions calling for their removal.

So, what has been going on at Middlebury recently?

President Laurie Patton issued a statement, titled “Response to Events in Israel, Palestine” on Oct. 9, and since then we have seen multiple peaceful events such as a vigil for Israeli victims on Oct. 11, interfaith panels and conflict transformation dinners, and an informational teach-in event hosted by Middlebury Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on Nov. 1. The college has, thus far, largely avoided the controversies raging across higher education in the last month. We are grateful to everyone who has refrained from stoking conflict and hostility on campus, but we also hope that this will not manifest in widespread disengagement from the topic. We call on our community to consider how we can maintain thoughtful engagement with the Israel-Palestine conflict in a way that prioritizes authentic human connection and education.

Recent events hosted at the college have largely, in our view, been constructive and thoughtful efforts to facilitate conversations on campus. We appreciate the role that members of the Scott Center for Religious Life have played in an interfaith panel, as well as the participation of the Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation in hosting a recent dinner dialogue. Board members reported how these events were constructive spaces to engage with the issues by speaking honestly and discussing issues, rather than debating them.

Similarly, the informational focus at the recent SJP event helped students learn about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. It is important to create spaces on campus where students can gather to learn from one another through means such as historical education and artistic expression to inform their perspectives on the situation, as we observed at the teach-in. We hope that more opportunities for civil discussion and education take place throughout the remainder of this semester.

If incidents of antisemitism, Islamophobia, or any kind of violence or hatred take place on campus, we expect the college to take immediate action and address the situation. Our community must remain committed to combating hatred in all forms when such incidents arise. The college administration should actively work to ensure all voices on campus are heard and respected, and that no one faces threats of violence or harassment because of their identity or beliefs.

In these times of conflict with deeply personal issues for multiple communities on campus, we urge you to turn to religious leaders, friends, family members and trusted news sources. We recently saw how the vigil organized by Middlebury Chabad and Jewish students at the college for the Oct. 7 attack brought over a hundred students, faculty and community members together in peaceful reflection. The SJP teach-in event last week was focused on education and allowed speakers from various groups to reflect on the conflict in nuanced ways. The vigil for Palestinian lives hosted by the Middlebury Muslim Students Association this afternoon, Nov. 9 will likely continue such a trend. We call on the college to continue allowing respectful events on campus that provide students with space to grieve, express their views peacefully and learn about the conflict in constructive ways.

We also acknowledge that for many people and communities on campus, this issue is deeply personal and cannot be separated from their own identities and experiences. This editorial does not seek to displace nor ignore the voices of those most affected by this issue; rather, we want to encourage everyone in our community to listen to those voices and engage in these ongoing events in order to become more educated on the conflict. We are encouraged to see dozens, even hundreds, of students turn out to have these conversations in recent weeks, and we hope this commitment to learning is not momentary, but sustained. Middlebury promises to give students “one of the most immersive and globally engaged experiences in higher education,” and we should all actively work to fulfill that promise through leaning into ongoing conversations about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

We also encourage students not directly implicated in the conflict to bring the conversation into their lives by having open, honest conversations about these difficult topics. Lean on the people around you when support is needed and listen to people to whom you may have different views. Such open dialogues have helped us make sense of this conflict and gain greater insight into each other’s perspectives, and we hope you consider doing so too.

Middlebury students should also consider when the most productive time to engage with these issues is, and how they can best learn about this issue without allowing burnout to turn into apathy. Prioritize sustainable engagement and education for yourself. 

Oftentimes at Middlebury, activism occurs in small periods and short bursts around specific, on-campus issues — think of the 2017 Charles Murray incident, protesting the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the activism against crisis pregnancy centers at the student activities fair last year — without creating long-term plans to preserve engagement. While these issues address different concerns and involve different groups of students, we have observed a past tendency for student engagement and activism on campus to decline over time, and we urge our community to actively work against such a trend on this issue. We hope that any organizing and future events will focus on building sustainable involvement, and we urge students who may feel disconnected to be purposeful about how and when they choose to engage.

We will not resolve the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine at Middlebury, but we hope the college community will focus on what impact is possible to achieve on our campus. What is feasible and arguably most important for Middlebury is to create open spaces for discussion and education that embrace different perspectives. We hope that such efforts and events will strengthen, rather than divide, our community.