Students for Justice in Palestine holds vigil for lives lost in Gaza

Students gather to commemorate Palestinians killed in Gaza over the summer.
Students gather to commemorate Palestinians killed in Gaza over the summer. Photo courtesy of Marcela Peacock/Contributing Photographer.

On Monday afternoon, a group of students and faculty gathered at Chapin’s steps for the second vigil in two weeks, this time “to commemorate the lives lost in Gaza this summer,” according to the event page on Facebook.  Students for Justice in Palestine organized the event in response to the summer’s deadly war in Gaza.

“We’re here together to commemorate what happened this summer in Gaza,” Maryanne Rodriguez ’15, one of the two primary organizers alongside Aseel Abulhab ’15, said at the beginning of the vigil. “We can’t focus on every atrocity at once, so we’re focusing on this one.”

The organizers created 250 paper roses and laid them in the shape of a heart in front of Chapin’s steps Monday morning, each representing 10 casualties of the conflict.

“Even if every student at Williams made a flower, we wouldn’t have enough” to represent each life lost, Rodriguez pointed out.

The summer’s conflict began on July 8 when Israel began launching airstrikes in Gaza, in response to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, which they blamed on Hamas, the governing party of Gaza. It escalated to a ground war when Israel sent in troops to destroy tunnels under the border,  claiming over 2000 lives, most of them Gazan civilians. A ceasefire struck on August 26 has held so far.

Abulhab and Rodriguez started planning the event over the summer.

“We’re saddened and disturbed by what happened over the summer, and we’ve been thinking about making Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) a bigger presence on campus,” Abulhab said in an interview. “It was also a great opportunity for solidarity with the Ferguson vigil.”

“We didn’t have a chance to do a joint vigil,” said Rodriguez, but she and Sevonna Brown, head of the BSU, talked about the two vigils. Members of each group attended the other’s event.

Rodriguez emphasized in her opening remarks that it was not meant to be a political event.

“This is a vigil, not a debate. I know this is a controversial issue but this is not the place,” she said.

After Rodriguez opened the event, two members of the faculty addressed those gathered. Professor of Arabic Amal Eqeiq read excerpts from writing that had gone viral during the conflict, from a poem and a diary.

“With social media, you participate even if you’re not there,” she said. “You get to know writers you’ve never heard of before … it doesn’t only humanize people, you [also] become with them.”

The next speaker was Armando Vargos, professor of comparative literature. He spoke about an open letter, recently published in The New York Times, from Israeli reservists to their government, saying they refused to do their jobs for moral reasons.

“If the people who are trained to control the Palestinian population have moral qualms, there’s something wrong,” Vargas said.

Vargas pointed to Northern Ireland as a deadly, ingrained conflict where the two sides have been able to make progress in resolving their differences as an example for Israel and Palestine.

Vargas insisted that “we see Palestinians on an equal plane. They are no better, no worse, than anyone else. These are real human beings and they deserve justice.”

The third speaker was Chaplain Rick Spalding, who read a poem called “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye.

“It has seemed to me that there has been so little kindness in this country in our conversations about the deaths in the Middle East, particularly the civilians,” Spalding said. “People with power sending rockets across borders are not thinking with kindness.”

After Spalding, Vargas and Eqeiq spoke, a number of students, including several organizers of the event, stepped up to the microphone to speak. Carmen Nareau ’15 read a poem she wrote called “Daydreaming,” while Sara Hassan ’15 and Amina Awad ’18 read a poem called “Running Orders” by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha.

Hamza Farrukh ’15 spoke about how this summer he “finally decided to pick up those books [he’d] been avoiding” and confront the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seriously. He compared our experience of returning to school to that of Palestinian children, who are starting their school year, much delayed, with 10 days of psychological counseling.

“I tremble to think of what they have to go through,” he said. “I hope they learn to forgive.”

Farrukh encouraged students to do what he had done and go beyond Facebook posts and read books about Palestine.

Abulhab, the second organizer of the event, read excerpts from a speech given last Tuesday, Sept. 9, by Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, to a group of British activists in London. The speech, “What I Saw and Experienced in Gaza,” describes the scale of the destruction in Gaza after the summer’s war.

After the scheduled speakers, there was an open mic period, during which students shared poems, their own experiences and verses from the Bible and the Quran. Several speakers who had prepared remarks shared spontaneous thoughts, and many students discussed why the issue is important to them. The emphasis was on solidarity between victims of oppression and empathy with fellow humans.

“We all had a message that this isn’t about the politics, it’s all about the humanity,” said Rodriguez. “That was a message that we felt throughout and that we could all relate to. I would highlight the different kind of people who came up to speak.”

“It’s one thing where we planned what we were going to say,” said Abulhab. “At first it was slow, but then people got more and more comfortable and it was really cool to see that. You could tell people were thinking about it in that moment. I guess that’s how you know it’s a success.”

Near the end of the vigil, justin adkins, assistant director for gender, sexuality and activism at the Davis Center told a story abut being asked by a student why he cares so much about Gaza, Ferguson and other far away crises.

“I said, ‘Because I’m human,’” he said. “That’s why I care. Because I’m human.”

As part of a push for greater visibility on campus, SJP plans to bring speakers, performers and artists throughout the year.

“This is the first event SJP is doing but it’s not the last,” said Abulhab.