In the wake of the recent violence in Israel-Gaza, students Elias Henderson and Stella Mackler from Davidson College in North Carolina, felt the need to address the profound pain and loss their campus community was experiencing.
“Someone needed to do something because there’s, on all college campuses, a lot of conversation going on around what is happening … people were posting on social media, students were talking about it,” says Mackler, a sophomore Environmental Studies major and Arab Studies minor. “But no one was doing anything.”
The students sought guidance from their Arab Studies professor, Dr. Rebecca Joubin, and Davidson’s dean of faculty, Dr. Shelley Rigger. Henderson, a Palestinian Christian, and Mackler, who is Jewish, organized an on-campus educational event, “Understanding the Crisis in Israel and Gaza,” on October 25.
“We welcome all those who are seeking understanding to join us,” read the campus-wide email sent on behalf of Henderson, co-president of Davidson’s Middle East and North African Student Association (MENASA), and Mackler, a member of the Jewish Student Union (JSU).
Nearly 300 students, faculty, and campus community members gathered in the Lilly Family Gallery, a small meeting space inside the Chambers building, the academic center on campus.
The event began with introductions from Henderson and Mackler, followed by Silvi Toska, Assistant Professor of Political Science, and Karl Plank, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, who spoke on the history and context of the crisis unfolding in the Middle East.
It was a symbolic display of desire to connect and care for one another and to practice compassion.
“It was a symbolic display of desire to connect and care for one another and to practice compassion,” says Julia Watkins, chaplain and director of religious and spiritual life at Davidson College.
Toska took the stage to present some historical context and, according to Mackler, “established the baselines” of the conflict. Plank followed to address questions like “How do we speak about this issue respectfully and ethically?” and “How do we have disagreements with people without personally attacking them?”
In conversation with Interfaith America, the student organizers, Henderson and Mackler, share more about the impact of this moment on their campus community, how they collaborated to plan a campus-wide event, and how the Davidson community has responded to it.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Interfaith America: What led you to organize this event?
Elias Henderson: In the aftermath of October 7, I held a small gathering myself. I invited several students to come and learn about my views on the conflict, where my family comes from, and what it’s like being Palestinian, and as it progressed, that event itself caused some stir on campus.
At MENASA, we had a meeting and discussed that there needed to be more education on the subject. We were drafting a statement to put out like groups across the country have been doing. So, we talked to our faculty advisor, Dr. Joubin, and I mentioned that I wanted to do an educational event. She suggested that she had talked to Stella about something similar and encouraged us to work together.
There was an attempted joint statement between the Muslim Student Association, JSU, and MENASA. Those conversations failed to produce a message, so there was a feeling that we would need to do something ourselves outside the framework of inter-organizational cooperation.
Stella and I met a couple of times, we talked to Dr. Joubin, and Dr. Joubin talked to the dean of faculty, Dr. Rigger. We decided to invite some professors to speak at the event because we wanted some basis in academic legitimacy. We have some very knowledgeable professors, so giving them a platform to educate us on the topic felt important.
Stella Mackler: Dr. Joubin really encouraged us to come together in some way and try to do something to create unity on campus.
And at first, I was kind of like, no, I can’t do anything — I’m overwhelmed, I am tired, I’m exhausted, I want to sit and hurt. After talking to Henderson, I realized that we both had misconceptions about each other’s groups and what it was like to be a part of each other’s groups on campus.
Then we received an email from our college president that he was working on something educational around this conflict, and both Elias and I individually emailed him, stating that we deserve to be included in this planning process. In prior communications to the student body, I personally felt as though the support Jewish students were receiving was misrepresented. They needed to have a voice from an actual Jewish student at Davidson be included in this planning process. That email led to us connecting with the dean of faculty at Davidson, Dr. Rigger, who helped us put the event together and make things happen quickly.
IA: What was it like working together on this event?
SM: At first, I think we were both nervous because we didn’t know what the other wanted, what the other was bringing to the table. And, at the beginning, I didn’t want to meet with anyone just because I felt like this was not my area of expertise. Yes, I’m a Jewish student on campus, but I’m not Israeli. I wasn’t sure about my position as the leader in this and taking this on, but no one else was, and I wanted something to happen.
When we met, we both talked about how we had just been feeling alone and unsupported by the school. No one who isn’t Jewish can understand what it feels like to be a Jewish student on campus right now. And no one who isn’t Palestinian or has closer direct ties to the Middle East can understand what it feels like to be a Palestinian student right now. So we bonded over those feelings of loneliness, and also frustration at the school administration for not doing anything. I think the event worked because we were both very respectful and understanding of each other.
IA: What was the energy like in Lilly Gallery during the event?
EH: Well, it was very tense to begin with, because it was a relatively small meeting space. It was very encouraging once it started overflowing because there was a change from a very tense energy to a sort of exciting energy. It was just good to see people taking time out of their day to be at the event.
Once people started speaking, it was very hushed. And everyone was very present. I’ve been in a lot of lectures, where, you know, students are often distracted or are on their phones, but everyone here was just dialed in on what the speakers were saying.
IA: How has the campus community responded after the event?
EH: Our college president shook hands with me, and thanked me for putting on the event, and said that it was one of the best he had seen during his time at Davidson. So, that was a pretty cool thing to hear.
A lot of people in the days after said that they learned a lot. I had some good conversations about what next steps will look like, what finding resources can look like.
The event was good in that it was a very approachable and community-oriented event. But it honestly lacks a lot of important content due to the nature of the current climate of discussion on college campuses regarding this issue and the way national media and the American government have censored free speech.
So, it was a good event and very informative. But it was not as informative as it should have been or could have been in large part due to the current climate of discussion on this issue.
SM: There was a very strong message for respectful dialogue and continuing education during the event. And I don’t think that that has lasted after.
I was really happy with how [the event] played out and how receptive the community was of it. I don’t think that receptiveness and open mindedness has really continued. I think that there was just a missed opportunity almost to, like, continue the conversation. But I also don’t think it should just be on the two of us to plan this. You know? But it really seems like it has been.
I also do just want to put out there, that this is a really hard time to be a Jewish student on a college campus. With the knowledge that you are Jewish, comes a ton of assumptions about your political beliefs, your political associations. And I think it’s really important that people know that Judaism doesn’t equate standing with Israel or supporting every single thing that the Israeli government does, just like how being American doesn’t equate to supporting everything that the American government does. And I think that’s missing from a lot of the conversation.
I also think that antisemitism is rampant on college campuses right now. There are a lot of protests on campuses, which I think is wonderful. I think people should use their voice, but when there are things that happen [or are said] that hurt your livelihood, or express a sense of hatred towards your identity, in a small liberal arts college, it’s a lot harder to ignore that.