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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Students and faculty reflect on college’s educational approaches to Israel-Gaza war

A Fox News story published on Feb. 16 discussed an accusation made by StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice that Middlebury is failing to protect Jewish students who face antisemitism on campus. The reporting prompted community responses and the college’s release of a web page titled  “Middlebury’s Educational Approaches to the War in Israel and Gaza,” which outlines the college’s community standards and resources available to those affected by the war.

Dean of Students Derek Doucet shared that he believes the resources available on the web page increase awareness of Middlebury’s community standards and encourage difficult conversations about the war. Doucet also described how he and the college have sought to support students especially affected by the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza. 

“In addition to [the webpage], we conduct personal outreach to students who we believe may be particularly impacted by the war, support student-initiated programming, and provide health and wellness resources to students who need additional support,” Doucet wrote in an email to The Campus.

Khuram Hussain, vice president for equity and inclusion, described the webpage as a living document, meant to evolve and expand to best support student needs.

“The ongoing conflict raises fears of how political debates can serve as cover for reinforcing harmful stereotypes and our ongoing efforts should be responsive to the emerging needs of our community,” Hussain wrote in an email to The Campus. 

Jenna Abraham ’26.5, a member of Middlebury Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), said that many of the efforts of the college feel more like responsive moves by the administration in the wake of criticism from the Fox News article rather than genuine efforts to create a positive environment.

“As a Palestinian, I don’t feel any of that administration reach-out, or this kind of environment that they are trying and saying that they’re creating… I don’t see it, I don’t feel it,” Abraham said.

Since Oct. 7, there have been various events organized within and for the Middlebury community relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict, including a vigil, interfaith panels and a teach-in. Hussain and fellow faculty members have worked alongside the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion to organize additional programs, dialogues and dedicated physical spaces for the community. 

Hussain reflected on how moving it has been to engage with students and hear about their experiences through these events.

“What has stuck with me the most is the sensitivity, nuance, and perspective of so many of our students who talk about the conflict. With generosity, many of our students name their needs while being mindful and curious about the needs of other students who are experiencing the conflict differently than they are,” Hussain wrote.

The Kathryn Wasserman Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation also hosts periodic “Dinner and Dialogue” events —  gatherings open to students to process the effects of more than 75 years of conflict. The program, which started in spring 2023, increased in student attendance after Oct. 7, but the meals are open to the broader Middlebury college community.

Abraham was part of the initial startup of the dinner and dialogues. 

“Sitting in a room with a bunch of Jewish and Arab students or, you know, people — there were professors from Iran, Israel, Palestine —  it was just incredible,” Abraham said. “The majority of us left that meeting crying over how impactful it was to humanize the other. It was such a great opportunity. I've been jumping on an opportunity to go to any of those dinners ever since.

Still, she emphasized that it was students and specific faculty and staff collectives, rather than the work of the college, that has made it so special. 

“When it comes to constructive and caring dialogue, already that’s the kind of student that Middlebury attracts. It’s not impressive that they have these certain things created and supported by student involvement. It works because of the character of the student body. It’s purely people’s willingness to learn and listen,” Abraham said. 

Hussain agreed with the need to address varying perspectives. 

“Throughout all of our community’s efforts to educate, understand and thoughtfully engage about the the war in Israel and Gaza, it is important to recognize that we all come into these conversations with different histories, understandings, and connections to the region and its people — and our lived experiences influence how we feel about, participate in, or experience those conversations,” Hussain wrote.

Associate Professor of Political Science Sebnem Gumuscu has also been involved in organizing dialogues and has provided extra office hours for students following the attacks on Oct. 7. Gumuscu taught “Contemporary Conflicts in the Middle East” over J-Term to teach students about the different approaches to the war and other conflicts. She believes conflict transformation is an essential tool when approaching this issue because it allows interested people to examine issues critically, and better evaluate how to move forward. 

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Historical, cultural and personal narratives, often excluded from popular discourse, are vital to the formation of a comprehensive understanding of the conflict, according to Gumuscu. 

“I think it is important for our students to know about this framework and the skills and dispositions necessary to experience that transformation,” she wrote in an email to The Campus. “That is how I believe, they can discover their agency, reclaim their power, and build a different world.”

Gumuscu stressed the importance of engaging in productive conversations, both in and outside of the classroom. During her classes, she creates spaces for students to listen to each other, and to debate and conceptualize global conflicts. Through this, Gumuscu teaches her students to approach difficult issues with empathy and compassion. 

Abraham is taking a course with Israel Institute Teaching Fellow Adi Livny this semester titled “Zionism and ‘Roads not Taken.’” 

“It's great to have these classes. But people that don't care — that aren't connected — aren't going to go and take them unless it's a distribution requirement, unless like, some kids are genuinely curious,” Abraham said. “That's the kind of approach that falls on individual students, and Middlebury’s willingness to be a part of it is just taking credit for the students’ hard work.”

SJP Co-President Islam Abushareah ’26.5 spoke of the college’s efforts to handle the broader Israel-Palestine conflict on our campus, and the need for open communication with experts in the field. 

“I do think that the administration does want to do what's best, I think that they are not going about it the right way because they're not having direct communication with people with experts, who have been studying this stuff for a very long time. And we have those experts right here at our school. And I think they really need to communicate with those people,” Abushareah told The Campus. 

Abraham agreed, given the personal nature of the conflict. 

“We can have all these conversations structured by administrators and have all of these resources, but the end of the day, there's not going to be that kind of change we're all looking for if people feel like they're guided through that discussion, if there's any other reason other than they want to be there because they want to be there.” 

Both Abraham and Abushareah credited the students for their hard work. 

“I think that's one of the great things that Middlebury provides. Because we have so many international students, and because we have so many people from all walks of life, there is an ability within Middlebury to bring up a student that is worldly and able to understand these walks of life,” Abushareah said. “At least from the perspective of like, this as a human being”