Virginia Tech’s Palestinian students and Israeli students have been holding protests, vigils, meetings, panels and more in light of the recent Israel-Palestine conflict.
On the morning of Oct. 7, Hamas launched an unprecedented attack, launching approximately 5,000 rockets and armed Hamas fighters on Israel, according to ABC News. The aftermath included 1,400 killed and 4,500 injured, 32 being American citizens. According to BBC, the Israeli military says that 242 people are currently being held as hostages by Hamas.
As defined by Britannica, Hamas is an Islamist militant movement that is one of the two major political parties in Palestine originating as a political arm of the section of the Muslim Brotherhood. Currently, Hamas holds control of Palestine and has been deemed a terrorist group since 1997.
In retaliation, on Oct. 13, Israel began bombing Gaza, a Palestinian territory, and has continued its attacks non-stop since, according to ABC News. These attacks have killed 3,400 people and injured 12,000. The same day, Oct. 13, Israel Defense Forces called for Gaza residents to evacuate their homes. To this date, there are more than 1,400 dead and 4,629 injured in Israel and 5,087 dead and 15,273 injured in Gaza, with an additional 1,000 predicted to be trapped under rubble.
The war between Israel and Palestine follows a long history of conflict between the states of Israel and Palestine beginning with the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Thus, recent events did not occur in a vacuum, rather a continuation of a long historical, cultural and political conflict.
On Oct. 12, President of Virginia Tech Tim Sands released a statement regarding the Hamas attack. The statement condemned the Hamas organization and extended condolences to Israel students, with Sands stating that “many of our students and employees have ties to the region, and we know this is a very difficult time for you. We have resources below to support all who have been impacted by these events.”
Similarly, Mark Sikes, the Dean of Students at Virginia Tech, released a statement that read: “Over the weekend we have followed news reports of the violence in the Middle East related to the Israel-Gaza conflict. The conflict has caused many losses of life, and we recognize that this may directly impact many members of our Virginia Tech community.
The statement also urged “As a community, we want to advance any effort that promotes peace, practices civility, and allows differences to thrive. Any act that crosses the threshold towards violence, intimidation, or harassment will have no place in our world, locally, or on our campuses.”
The Daily Progress reported that Gov. Youngkin ordered flags to fly at half-mast in honor of the lives lost in Israel from Oct. 8 through Oct. 14. Virginia Tech followed suit in these orders and had flags at half-mast for the week.
As the conflict has progressed protests, student panels, information meetings and vigils have been hosted on campus for both Israeli and Palestinian students.
Hillel at Virginia Tech released a statement on Oct. 7, which said that they were “devastated to wake to the news this morning of the horrific attacks in Israel. In this difficult moment, we are praying for the safety and security of all our colleagues, family members, friends, partners, and all Israelis. Hillel at Virginia Tech stands in solidarity with Israel. We pray for the safety and well-being of all Israelis and for the members of our extended Hillel community so directly impacted by this war.”
Hillel at Virginia Tech, in addition to releasing a statement, has made their staff available and opened up a space for students to seek peace, comfort and to absorb the current situation.
Similarly, the Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine released a statement urging to end the occupation and in support of the liberation of the Palestinian people. It stated that “Virginia Tech’s students for Peace and Justice in Palestine, along with the undersigned student organizations, express our resolute support of the decolonization of oppressed people everywhere and stand firm in our belief that peace begins at the end of Israeli apartheid.” The statement was released on Oct. 12 and signed by several other campus organizations, including Students for Racial Justice.
Students for Racial Justice hosted an information event on Oct. 12 in collaboration with Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine. The event took place in McBryde Hall in a classroom overflowing with Virginia Tech students interested in learning and understanding the nature of the conflict. The event included a presentation led by Tatiana Kay, a Virginia Tech senior double majoring in political science and criminology and education leader of the Students for Racial Justice, which was followed by several personal statements and thoughts from students of SPJP.
“We just wanted to give people the chance to educate themselves so they could make their own opinions on the topic and judge it for themselves, rather than just listening to what the media is spewing out,” Kay said.
Virginia Tech student majoring in political science and philosophy, politics and economics and president of Students for Racial Justice Preeti Pandey added that they felt the responsibility to educate and speak out about the conflict.
“If we don’t do it, who’s gonna do it? We took on the roles of activists on campus with the student organization,” Pandey said. “I understand the fear, but also, I think, especially being part of the student organizations, it’s our responsibility to speak up.”
Noa Benitah, a senior with a major in animal and poultry sciences and president of Hokies for Israel at Virginia Tech, is a Jewish and Israeli student who wrote a statement on Oct. 27.
“This has greatly affected me on a personal level as well as fellow Jewish and Israeli students on campus who have voiced concern for their families’ safety, and their own on campus,” the statement said. “The rise in antisemitism worldwide is alarming, on college campuses my peers are hiding their Jewish identities, afraid to share their views and attacked for believing Israel has a right to defend itself. This is not one side versus the other. There is no moral equivalence between the actions of the Israeli government and Hamas.”
Kay also explained that when talking to students and friends from SPJP, she noticed a hesitancy to speak up.
“I think they feel alone right now,” Kay said. “It’s very hard for them to continue to be activists in this time. Because I mean it’s just not safe.”
While students were the first to lead the discussion of the conflict with perspectives from both sides, a handful of professors joined the conversation shortly after.
On Oct. 18, a panel discussion was held at Williams Hall hosted by the international studies program of the Department of Political Science with co-sponsorship from the School of Public and International Affairs, the Department of Religion and Culture, and the Middle East Working group. The panel was composed of four scholars: retired U.S. Ambassador Hon Kenneth Yalowitz; Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies Daniel Breslau; Professor of Political Science and Director Yannis Stivachtis; and Professor and Assistant Chair of School of Public and International Affairs Joel Peters.
The panel discussion was moderated by Associate Professor and Director of International Studies Besnik Pula. Each panelist spoke about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, addressing it through their respective area of expertise. The general themes discussed were the context that led to the Hamas attack, the current state of the conflict and possible repercussions of the war accounting for small scale and large scale consequences. After each panelist spoke the floor was open for questions to be answered by the panelists. During this portion of the discussion, several students spoke out stating their disappointment with a lack of representation from the Palestine side of the conflict. All four panelists remained objective in their discussion, however, due to their area of study and specialization reported through the Israeli lens.
Both Kay and Pandey expressed disappointment in the way that Virginia Tech is handling the conflict and supporting its students. Both were disappointed with the fact that the statement released by Tim Sands failed to mention and acknowledge Palestine.
“This violence isn’t happening in a vacuum, you know, like there’s 100 years of history here that people are ignoring and the university is ignoring as well,” Kay said. “I think there is a way to condemn the Hamas attack while also condemning the way Israel is responding and the way Israel has put them in a position that they have to fight for their lives.”
Pandey agreed, stating that the support from Virginia Tech has been one-sided, as she feels the Palestine community has not been appropriately supported during this time.
“And that’s not to say there isn’t violence on the other side either, but we’re just saying this Palestine community has been affected by this for over 75 years,” Pandey said. “So, I feel like when you don’t even mention that, and there’s so many Palestinian students that go to school. There are people that are being personally affected by this in our community. So why don’t they feel like that’s something they can address, you know, where is the disconnect?”
When asked what they would like to see from the university regarding the conflict, both Kay and Pandey agreed that acknowledgement and accuracy of information would be ideal. Furthermore, they believe that the main focus should be to take care of the student body.
“I think acknowledgement is first and then just supporting Palestinian students as well, in their grief and their trauma. Maybe lighting up Burruss in Palestinian colors,” Pandey said.
Benitah says in regard to Jewish and Israeli students that “it is important to understand that Jewish and Israeli students are not representatives of a higher organization or government. And if students do not agree with the Israeli government, they should not displace their anger and hatred towards Jewish and Israeli students. It’s impossible to have any kind of reasonable peaceful dialogue because tensions are so high during this war.”
Protests were also organized by both the Palestine and Israeli communities to speak out against the conflict.
On Oct. 19, Hillel at Virginia Tech hosted a silent protest, advertising it as an opportunity to “show your support with the hostages and their families and against Hamas terrorists.” Students from Virginia Tech attending the protest walked around the campus with signs, flags and a community of Israeli students. Sun Mor, Israel Fellow to Hillel at VT, said that they “have a higher cause” when explaining their reasoning for the silent protest.
Hillel also posted pictures of students in Israel with the caption “Hillel at VT stands with Israel.” It declined to a Collegiate Times interview, as they are “focused on supporting the needs of the Jewish students on campus.”
Additionally, Hillel at Virginia Tech, Hokies for Israel, Jewish Student Union, Chabad at Virginia Tech and Alpha Epsilon Pi announced that they are “in solidarity with the hostages taken by Hamas and the loss of over 1,400 lives in the terrorist attacks over the past two weeks.”
These organizations stand in solidarity together for Israel and continue to work to help students at Virginia Tech and honor the lives lost.
On Oct. 20, SPJP called an emergency Palestine protest in front of Moe’s Southwest Grill near Squires Student Center. The advertisement post stated that “massacres will never stop the struggle of Palestinians.” The protest marked the end of a week of solidarity and action hosted by SPJP named “Stand with Palestine.”
The protest included a charity potluck in Goodwin Hall to raise funds for Afghanistan Earthquake relief and aid for Palestine. The protest was followed by a martyrs vigil at Burruss Hall later that evening with the goal of honoring the lives lost and those still living under violent occupation.
Both Pandey and Kay attended the protest and felt that it had a positive impact on the Blacksburg community and displayed a lot of support for the affected Palestine community at Virginia Tech by creating “a community for them to lean on.”
As the conflict continues, Virginia Tech students and organizations continue to hold vigils, meetings and speak out on the conflict at hand honoring and supporting both affected communities.