The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

Campus is quiet but not silent about Israel and Palestine

Students personally impacted by the conflict say their biggest struggle is getting an activism-shy campus to keep talking
Students+call+for+a+ceasefire+in+Gaza+at+the+CARE+Rockbridge+Martin+Luther+King+Jr.+Day+parade+in%0AJanuary.
Shauna Muckle
Students call for a ceasefire in Gaza at the CARE Rockbridge Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in January.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Feb. 7 to clarify that no advocacy events have been held since October.

Presidents resigning from Ivy League universities. Physical clashes between pro-Palestine protesters and pro-Israel counterprotesters on campuses like University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. For other college campuses across the United States, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has consumed student politics.

To an outsider, Washington and Lee’s campus might appear largely unaffected. There have been three campus-wide advocacy events since Hamas attacked Israel Oct. 7: two vigils to commemorate lives lost in Israel and Gaza and a call for a ceasefire organized by a small group of international students. Since October, there have been no public advocacy events, and just one educational event, addressing the conflict.

But for some international and Jewish students, the conflict remains top-of-mind. Students from Gaza, like Mohammed Mourtaja, ’25, and Karim Abualnaja, ’27, have found it difficult to continue their daily lives at Washington and Lee as the Palestinian death toll continues to rise.

“I carry out this guilt during my classes,” Mourtaja said. “At every meal I eat, I remember I’m eating a meal [the same size as] four of my family members would be eating… I lost interest, excitement in my courses. Everything feels less important.”

More than 27,000 people have been killed and 66,000 have been wounded by Israel’s offensive in Gaza, according to the territory’s health ministry. This includes nearly 900 killed in the past week, after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide. The Israeli death toll remains around 1,200 people, according to Al Jazeera.

Mourtaja said he has lost two dozen family members and his family’s apartment in Israeli attacks. During an interview, he said he hadn’t spoken to his family in five days. He checks to see if they are alive by searching for which places in Gaza have been bombed.

Abualnaja said his parents had to flee Gaza without their belongings, and their apartment was also destroyed.

Mourtaja said he’s grateful that Washington and Lee’s campus is not as chaotic as other schools around the country. But he worries that meaningful dialogue surrounding the conflict seems to have stopped altogether.

University administration has not commented on the conflict or its effects on campus. Nor has the Middle East and South Asia Studies (MESA) program, or Hillel, the Jewish student group on Washington and Lee’s campus. One faculty panel was held in October.

Reigniting campus conversations

Washington and Lee’s ability to engage in dialogue suffers from a lack of dedicated organizations on campus, student leaders said. The university does not have an Israel advocacy group on campus, said Gabe Miller, ’25, engagement chair for Hillel. A Palestinian advocacy organization helmed by Abualnaja, Mourtaja and other international students, People for Justice in Palestine (PJP), launched at the end of January.

The vigil for lives lost in Palestine and the rally for ceasefire came from the efforts of a handful of international students, including Ammar Alhajmee, ’26, and Tania Kozachanska, ’26.

“Yes, it’s true that other campuses are doing events around the clock,” Alhajmee said. “But we also have to consider, those campuses are huge. They have much bigger Muslim, Arab societies there.”

Still, Kozachanska said she’s frustrated with the lack of engagement from domestic students on campus. Kozachanska is from Kyiv, Ukraine, and she said she wanted to use her voice as a survivor from another war to support her Gazan friends.

“The focus of Washington and Lee students is definitely not in social participation, especially political activism,” she said. “The march we organized was great… but compared to other universities even as small as W&L, it was a very small turnout.”

Kozachanska said she’s hopeful that activism and advocacy, like the new group for Palestine, can capture students’ attention.

Abualnaja, vice president of the PJP, said the group is planning a presentation about the history of the 1948 Nakba, during which about 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from what is now Israel.

Faculty tread lightly with

programming

Not all faculty members are staying silent. Seth Cantey, a politics professor and head of the interdisciplinary MESA program, said he was initially reluctant to participate in October’s faculty panel addressing the conflict.

“As Israel’s conduct in this war has been increasingly indefensible, I’ve become increasingly willing to be vocal,” Cantey said. “I think one of the reasons that it’s so hard to have conversations about this topic is that there has been a concerted effort… to conflate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-semitism.”

Matthew Chalmers, a religion professor, is also teaching a course called “Israel: History, Politics, Society.”

Chalmers has completely restructured the course since he last taught it. The course now primarily focuses on Israel’s recent history, moving year-by-year from 2016 to 2023. Israel’s conflict with Gaza has been featured more heavily, Chalmers said.

In the last two weeks, Chalmers also led two lunch-and-learn sessions focused on Israel, sponsored by Hillel.

Even campus events that touch on Jewish identity and the Holocaust, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have given faculty more pause. Alexandra Brown, interim chair of the religion department, is preparing to bring Gerald Cohen, a Jewish composer, to campus for an event this month titled, “Music as witness: A composer commemorates the Holocaust.”

Brown has tread lightly with advertising the event, which has been in the works since last spring, she said. But Brown doesn’t want to shy away from conversations about genocide, which are all the more relevant now, she said.

“You can’t just stop talking. But you can’t talk too much. You can’t talk too blithely,” Brown said. “The only responsible way to be is halting.”

Hillel leaders face extra pressure

Hillel has kept up a regular schedule of programming, said President Gabby Kogan, ’24. Near the end of March, Hillel will hold its annual Israel week, which includes more educational events.

Hillel is the one Jewish organization within an hour radius of campus, Miller said, putting a big spotlight on an organization that is primarily religious and educational, not political. Miller said Hillel does not have a stance on the actions of the Israeli government.

The focus on Israel “makes it very difficult because we’re trying to balance that with other things we do on this campus, like spiritual involvement and support against anti-semitism,” Miller said.

This time of heightened political tension for Hillel also comes as the organization has no staff director, after the previous director departed in summer 2023. The Office of Inclusion and Engagement has helped Hillel keep up its programming.

Kogan said the goal is to reduce pressure on Jewish students who might be feeling extra strain due to the conflict.

“We’re trying to keep daily life normal, but you also have to think twice about any activities you plan,” Kogan said.

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    Michael McLaughlinFeb 17, 2024 at 2:48 pm

    For the casualty statistics between Israel and Gaza, the authors chose to cite Al Jazeera. I think we all know that that is a clearly biased source, and another either third party or Israeli source would have been appreciated.

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  • K

    Kamron SpiveyFeb 6, 2024 at 2:14 pm

    “Since October, there have been no public events addressing the conflict.”

    Professor Matthew Chalmers delivered two public, well-attended lectures on the history of Israel and the conflict there. You mention that in passing later in the article, so why say something factually inaccurate at the beginning? People are talking about the conflict. They just aren’t holding signs about it

    Reply