The candles could have stood for the 80th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. But Thursday night, they stood for peace in the Gaza Strip.
Over 70 students and faculty gathered in 19-degree weather on Cross Campus on Thursday evening to call attention to the conflict in Gaza with a silent candlelight vigil. Event organizers said they scheduled the event on King’s birthday to draw on his life’s commitment to interfaith unity and to give students from various faiths the opportunity to come together and express their desire for peace between Gaza and Israel.
“This isn’t something we’re addressing in any political way,” said University Chaplain Sharon Kugler, one of the organizers of the vigil. “It’s something we are trying to express from the religious communities — standing for hope — and being, in some ways, a vessel for people just to be there.”
Renewed fighting between Israel and Hamas opened Dec. 27 following a six-month ceasefire. The conflict has resulted in the deaths of at least 1,076 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Thousands more have been wounded, prompting calls to end the conflict from heads of state across the globe.
Student leaders publicizing the vigil said they hope the event raises awareness surrounding a conflict about which they claim many students are barely aware.
“It’s unfortunate that there can’t be more direct action, but it’s touching to see this gesture,” said Jesse Williams ’12 who attended the vigil.
Joshua Menke ’11 said he thought the vigil’s silence was an apt way to demonstrate the significance of the event.“There is a lot of power in silence,” Menke said. “Coming together as the broader faith community is really powerful and meaningful.”
Still, words used in advertising the vigil ruffled feathers in student groups Tuesday. After learning that the Muslim Students Association had advertised the vigil as an “Interfaith Vigil for Palestine,” Yale Friends of Israel president Benjamin Alter ’11 was quick to clarify who he felt the vigil was for.
“It isn’t a vigil simply for Palestinian victims, but rather a vigil in hopes of peace and in prayer for the victims in both Gaza and in Israel,” Alter wrote in an e-mail to the News.
YFI declined a request from Associate Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt to co-sponsor the vigil, Alter said, because the group’s political agenda would have tainted the event.
“If groups like [YFI and the Arab Students Association] are sponsoring, it takes away some of the meaning of it, to be a thoughtful and unpolitical and silent prayer,” he said.
This tension underscored difficulties faced by campus groups with heterogeneous memberships. “It’s very controversial — ASA doesn’t take a side,” said Mahdi Sabbagh ’10, a former co-president of ASA. “We definitely don’t support Hamas. We’re very much a secular organization, with Muslim, Christian and Jewish members.”
The nearly 1000-student International Students’ Organization also intends to remain neutral on the issue, ISO president Imran Bhaloo ’10 said. Bhaloo said the board reached that decision Monday following much debate.
“We recognize that this is a very sensitive time,” said ISO treasurer Kunal Lunawat ’11. “It’s impossible for us to take any stance.”
ISO hopes to hold a fundraiser for both Palestinian and Israeli victims of the conflict within the next two weeks, Bhaloo said. The group has approached YFI and ASA but had not received confirmations from either group by press time Thursday.