Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Testimonies Of Islamophobia On Vanderbilt Campus

The striking on-campus memorial exhibit evoked a strong response from the student body

In the two months since Hamas’ October 7 surprise attack on Israel, about 1,200 Israelis have been killed and around 140 remain held hostage in Gaza. Over 17,000 Palestinians have been killed, 70 percent of which are children and women. More than 48,000 have been wounded. About 80 percent of Gaza’s population is now displaced. The following article will share testimonies from various Vanderbilt community members speaking to the grief, anger, and fear they have felt as a result of the conflict, the student body’s response to it, and the administration’s handling of the issue.

On November 15, Vanderbilt’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organized a memorial exhibit of white bags splattered with red paint to resemble body bags. They were accompanied by signage stating statistics of the horrific destruction in Gaza, and a Palestinian flag. A notice was placed beside the memorial by Vanderbilt Student Affairs, unbeknownst to SJP, warning that the exhibit “might cause distress for some viewers”, and encouraged viewers’ “thoughtful consideration” and use of university resources for support. 

Although there had already been a widespread belief on the Vanderbilt campus that criticizing Israel’s government and advocating for Palestinian protection was antisemitic, students had a particularly strong response to the exhibit. Some students took to Instagram to express their opposition to the demonstration, calling it an “utterly unacceptable installation” and condemning Vanderbilt’s approval of it as an “enforcement of antisemitism within this campus.” Another student asserted that by allowing this exhibit, Vanderbilt proved that it “does not protect its Jewish students,” adding that, as a student, they “no longer [felt] safe on [Vanderbilt’s] campus.” Vanderbilt’s Vice Provost for Student Affairs and Dean of Students G.L. Black sent out a campus-wide email on November 20, addressing the “recent student activity on campus.” Dean Black’s email included implicitly biased language differentiating between “Palestinian casualties” and “victims of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.”

On October 28, Vanderbilt’s Muslim Students Association (MSA) released a statement on their Instagram revealing that their members were “being physically intimidated, being called ‘terrorists’, and being harassed while collecting donations for charity.” The statement concludes with a condemnation of all forms of hate, a call for students to educate themselves on the misinformation and biases that have led to these incidents, and a demand for the Vanderbilt administration to “directly address these concerns.” There has not been a statement released by Vanderbilt’s administration condemning these anti-Muslim and Islamophobic incidents.

Following these events on and off campus, five members of Vanderbilt’s community have provided testimonies expressing the discomfort, loss, grief, and fear they have experienced and witnessed on campus as a result of the ongoing war in Gaza, and the student body and administrative responses to the conflict. 

One anonymous student shared, “Although much of what I experienced pales in comparison to the stories of other students who fell victim to prejudice at Vanderbilt, I still feel obligated to share my experience. After the conflict began, I and other Muslims immediately noticed that many of our Jewish friends had stopped associating with us and became visibly uncomfortable around us. This was incredibly disheartening as none of us had mentioned Palestine or the conflict to them, nor did we say anything remotely antisemitic. Yet they likely presumed that because we were Muslim, we would be antisemitic as a result of the conflict.” 

The same student continued, “It is sad that I lost many friendships due to the conflict. Besides losing friendships, I have also started fearing for my own safety. I saw what happened on other college campuses and feared similar things would happen at Vanderbilt. Although tensions here weren’t as bad as other places, I was always uncomfortable when people would “wish death to Palestine” or make Islamophobic comments. However, what bothered me the most was the Vanderbilt administration’s lack of support for victims of Islamophobia, as well as it’s thinly veiled pro-Israel sentiment – something that made me afraid to speak out against the genocide taking place in Palestine. The university administration’s blatant disregard for its Muslim and Palestinian students, and Palestinians in general, ever since the conflict began has made me lose all respect for them while compounding the fear I feel that nothing will be done if I am attacked or harassed.”

Another anonymous Vanderbilt community member shared, “There is silence on campus. And in this case, silence means uncertainty, confusion, fear, and alienation. The first two statements sent out by the Chancellor had no mention of the Palestinian and Muslim community. The university said that it has spent hours speaking to the Jewish community, as it should. Our Jewish community must be protected and kept safe on campus. Nonetheless, we want the same attention and protection extended to Palestinians and Muslims on campus. Finally, [on October 30] the Chancellor sent out another statement with a more neutral tune, expressing ‘concerns about discrimination or discriminatory harassment targeting members of the Israeli, Jewish, Palestinian and Muslim communities.’ The university must provide equal protection to all these communities impacted by this conflict. Staff and students have expressed concern and fear of speaking up or even addressing the current conflict on campus. Pro-Palestinian students have shared that they have been harassed. Others were doxxed for participating in events unrelated to this conflict. These are difficult times. Voices for justice for Palestine are being silenced on campuses. No Faculty or Staff member, here, at Vanderbilt, has issued any statements in support of Palestinian and Muslim students for fear of retaliation. On October 27th, the Senate passed a unanimous resolution condemning what they call ‘anti-Israel, pro-Hamas student groups’ following walkouts across campuses. These are efforts to push a narrative that any pro-Palestinian walkout or protest is a celebration of Hamas, thus antisemitic. This is dangerous. This is meant to suppress voices that are calling for a ceasefire and the protection of innocent children, women and men in Gaza.”

Another anonymous testimony states, “It’s shocking to see not only the student body’s response to the genocide of Palestinians, but also the administration’s response. On social media, I’ve seen countless undergraduates expressing their disregard and disrespect for Palestinian lives by reposting and sharing posts that equate all Palestinians to Hamas. One popular post in particular is a statement that says, ‘I’m waiting for all you ceasefire people to call out Hamas for firing rockets 15 minutes into this humanitarian pause because if you don’t it’s clear that what you really wanted was for Israel to stop firing and for Hamas to continue.’ Words like this are extremely violent and dangerous because it perpetuates the idea that the genocide of over 15,000 Palestinians is in any way justifiable. The sole intention behind a call for a ceasefire is to end the barbaric and unnecessary killings of innocent Palestinians. Period. The administration has also made their stance on the genocide of Palestinians quite obvious by differentiating between ‘Israeli victims’ and ‘Palestinian casualties’ in a campus-wide email. It hurts my heart to know that in addition to my Palestinian friends watching their families be murdered en masse, they have to walk the grounds of an institution dedicated to diminishing and disrespecting a genocide of their people.”

A third anonymous student shared, “It has been a difficult time as an international brown student. I am not really religious myself, and have always fought for interfaith harmony and humanitarian causes. When you’re fighting for these causes, there is always opposition, However, in this case, there is no space for dialogue or dissent. There is blatant censorship and complicit silence in this issue. While we should not be neutral in the face of injustice, the emails from the Chancellor and Vanderbilt administration don’t even feel neutral – they feel like they enable discrimination. I have seen posters around campus being removed. It was even more disheartening to see an event be held which invited a speaker that glorified settler colonialism and, essentially, white supremacy. This person was also transphobic. Vanderbilt still hasn’t approved the land acknowledgment statement of being on native land itself, so maybe it is naive of us to believe that they would have stopped this event as well. 

The same student continued, “Given the current climate, I know Muslim students who are terrified of leaving their homes and being on campus, because they are visibly Muslim. Vanderbilt has been at the forefront for upholding student safety and progressive values, except for when it comes to speaking about Israel and Palestine. It was really helpful when I was part of a processing space on campus that provided us a safe space to voice our emotions. But the conversation was prefaced with the statement that this is a ‘complicated issue’, and therefore, we will not talk about the political nature of it. But, it is precisely because it is complicated that we need to talk about it. Vanderbilt needs to promote dialogue and education around this issue, moving beyond religious divides and towards a humanitarian and political lens. We are told by the media that Israel has the right to self-defense, but that same consideration is not given to the Palestinians who are – and have been for decades – killed and displaced. Do brown and Arab lives matter less? It is absolutely anti-Muslim, racist, and xenophobic to be neutral in the face of Palestinian genocide. I have been to protests in Nashville, and it is heartening to see such diverse communities – including Jewish voices – unite for a call to end occupation and violence. Palestinian struggles did not start in October, and neither did settler colonialism or Western imperialism. I have also reached out to my Jewish friends around campus, and I love and support them. It shouldn’t be hard to support each other, fight against genocide and occupation, and fight for basic human rights. If you deny people that, there will of course be resistance. The bare minimum Vanderbilt could, and still can, do is to put out a statement supporting a permanent ceasefire. Ceasefire, which is cessation of hostilities from BOTH sides, should not be a political statement at all, but a humanitarian one.”  

A fourth anonymous student shared, “An incident I recently encountered with some classmates outside of class has prompted me to reflect on the environment created here at Vanderbilt, one where students feel at ease expressing hate. While studying for an unrelated test, one of my classmates expressed strong, negative feelings towards Palestine without any provocation. He was somewhat taken aback when we condemned this expression of hate. He went on to tell us that Israel was not engaging in a genocide, and that we were misinformed. He continued to make other uncomfortable statements, while the rest of us did not engage and were clearly uncomfortable. I believe the fact that this student was so comfortable with this disgusting statement toward a group of people speaks volumes about Vanderbilt’s current campus environment. Being Arab and growing up in an Arab family with Palestinian family friends, I’ve known about this conflict my entire life. It’s always been something in the back or front of my mind, depending on the day, and it’s just super hard to see people who are either miseducated or completely uneducated on the topic step in and have such an opinionated and loud voice. Obviously, there’s no second perspective to genocide. But, I do have Jewish and Israeli friends, and I do understand that some of them were raised in a way where they believe they’re simply standing up for their people and the values of their religion when defending Israel’s recent war crimes and over-the-top violence. It’s just super difficult when religion, family traditions, and family learning come into play, because obviously those are some of our most important values as humans.”

The same student added, “Being at Vanderbilt during times of heightened tensions adds another layer of complexity. The university’s intellectually vibrant atmosphere, one where everyone has a plethora of information and opinions, can sometimes make it challenging to engage in productive conversations. It becomes especially difficult when faced with insensitive questions or comments, and I have observed many instances of discomfort faced by Arab students on campus. It is disheartening to hear about classmates openly expressing negative views about Palestinians and Arabs. I believe that though the school preaches an environment of diversity and inclusion, our campus is far from that in many regards.”

Vanderbilt is an institution that prides itself on its diversity and champions its dedication to free speech, open dialogue, and civil discourse. As Chancellor Diermier said in an email to the Vanderbilt community on October 9, “free speech is a bedrock Vanderbilt value,” along with its commitment to “providing a forum for diverse voices.” However, the administration’s lack of support for the diverse perspectives they speak of, and the neglect to explicitly and equally condemn acts of Islamophobia, has distorted everything the university allegedly stands for.

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About the Contributor
Olivia Chung, Contributor
Olivia is a sophomore at Vanderbilt from South Orange, New Jersey majoring in Public Policy Studies and Medicine, Health, and Society and minoring in Cognitive Studies. Outside of VPR, she is active in the Vanderbilt Hustler, 'Dore for a Day, and The Vanderbilt Prison Project. In her free time, she enjoys listening to music, writing, and drawing.