The shocking news and images which have rocked the world on and since October 7th, have had a major impact in the United States- not just in Washington, but here in Charlottesville. College campuses across the country have been roiled by activism, unrest, and even acts of violence. This tense atmosphere on grounds has led to debates among friends, discussions in class, as well as public memorials and demonstrations. At such an international university, even wars thousands of miles away are still felt deeply by many with friends, family, and lives overseas.
One of the first and most controversial on-grounds reactions came from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which released a statement praising the “right of colonized people” to “resist loudly”, among many other controversial statements. This post quickly received condemnation and was met by anger from across the United States. The Virginia Attorney General, Jason Miyares, released a statement, saying: “I strongly denounce the hateful message of [UVA SJP] in the strongest terms possible”. The Anti-Defamation League, a group focused on combating extremism and anti-Semetism, also mentioned the statement alongside other similar publications by a variety of groups in the United States. This marks one of the first times the University of Virginia has been specifically mentioned by the ADL since the Neo-Nazi rally and subsequent murder which shook the University in 2017. Anecdotally, personal conversations have seen many students express both support and fury regarding the conflict in general, as many students here have without a doubt experienced the same. The first few days after October 7th clearly marked a very emotional time for many on grounds.
Beyond statements, two events took place on grounds the following week in reaction first to the hundreds of civilian deaths, and the second in support of the Gazan people. On Tuesday, October 10th, students gathered for a memorial, with many Jewish students and a focus on the lives lost, those injured, and those captured when Hamas attacked civilian settlements in Israel. Up to 300 students came to the McIntire Amphitheater, some with flags, many with electric candles passed out by organizers. The organizers and those in attendance also mourned all civilian lives lost, including those in Gaza. With songs and tears, the memorial provided an emotional outlet for many on grounds who had been deeply impacted by the horrors inflicted during Hamas’ attack. That day, a group of Jewish students at the University published an article in the Cavalier Daily, denouncing the hatred many on grounds had expressed by praising the actions of Hamas, and asking for compassion and recognition for all lives lost- including executed and forcefully abducted Israeli civilians.
The first message from the University in response to, in the words of President Ryan, “the brutal terrorist attacks on Israel on Saturday”, came the next day on Wednesday, October 11th. He would also mention efforts by the University to support international students who live in the region, while professing a deep hope for the end of the conflict. This statement would also be met with controversy, as two representatives on the Student Council denounced the statement, and announced an effort to denounce the message.
On Thursday, October 12th, students hosted a rally with over 100 in attendance, in the form of a teach-in focused on supporting the Palestinian cause. Speakers discussed the history of the Palestinian people, living conditions in the region, and their perspective on the causes of the Hamas attack and violence within Israel and Palestine more broadly. Though the speakers did not comment on the controversy during the rally, they did not back down in their views on decolonization and the conflict. This rally caught broader media attention, including from local media outlet NBC29.
The impact of a war an ocean away on this university has been felt before, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine caused pain on grounds for the many students here with family and friends caught in the fighting. The University of Virginia is an international university, with hundreds of international students and those in study abroad programs. When so many students have deep connections with the wider world, events from nations all over the world will always cut deeply into the fabric of the University. The peaceful discussions, events, and debates that have occurred on grounds in the last two weeks will always be an integral part of the University of Virginia. However, it is also important that those who have suffered as a result of the pain inflicted on their homes should be kept in mind during the tumult and controversy of political discourse at a university dedicated to free speech and expression.