WASHINGTON – The evening of September 4 started out as a typical night on American University’s campus: groups of students withstood the humidity to lounge on the steps of Mary Graydon Center, while others filed out of Bender Library in retreat to their rooms. For the circle of students gathered on Bender Quad, however, sundown signaled a time to reflect.
American University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) lead thirty fellow students in a vigil to commemorate those killed in Gaza as a result of the seven-week “Operation Protective Edge” strikes by the Israeli Defense Force in July and August. Four SJP members alternated in reading aloud all 2,100 names – 495 of which were children’s – in the ninety-minute ceremony.
SJP is a self-described “student organization that works in solidarity with the Palestinian people and supports their right to self-determination.” American University is one of five member colleges that make up the DMV Students for Justice in Palestine, a coalition formed in response to “the boycott, divestment, and sanction campaign call issued by Palestinian civil society in 2005.” Its goal, according to its website, is to spread awareness of the Palestinian predicament and to “expose the atrocities committed by the Israeli Occupation Forces in occupied Palestine.”
In the opening remarks of the ceremony, a SJP member spoke through a megaphone to those gathered. He encouraged them not just to grieve, but also to reflect. He expressed that as our school year commences, “the children who survived and the rest of Palestine have yet to regain their livelihood.” For the club, reciting every victim’s name discloses the magnitude of how many were lost and, more importantly, serves a reminder that they were “more than just a statistic, but real human beings.”
When asked why SJP decided to hold a vigil rather than a panel on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hannah Ross, a sophomore at American University and an active SJP member, thought the occasion bore more emotional weight than a panel could handle. “It’s something everyone is thinking about,” she explained, “so we thought it was just sort of timely.” For Ross, the parallel between the aftermath of the attacks and the beginning of school was yet another reason to organize a participatory event. “There are thousands of people in Gaza who were also planning to start school,” she noted, “and now they’re not.”
A row of candles on the quad outlined the silhouettes of those congregated. Besides the candles, the only indication of the ceremony was the quiet recital of names and two Palestinian flags. One student held a flag by a thick pole, while another wore one draped around his shoulders like a cape. By the end of the vigil, the circle had doubled in size from onlookers joining in to pay their respects.Students who joined the group were handed a picture of a victim accompanied with an explanation of how and when the person had died. One picture showed the face of a young man smiling in his kitchen. The text below the photo identified the man as Fu’ad Zuhair Jaber, “a 27-year-old paramedic that was killed on Sunday, July 20, 2014 during the Israeli massacre in Shuja’iyya, Gaza City, after Israeli forces shelled an ambulance that attempted to enter the city.”
The ceremony concluded with words from a SJP member who felt a direct connection to those attacked. She spoke of her upbringing in Jordan and the pride she always felt when introducing herself as Palestinian. Before the solemn crowd dispersed into the night, she left with them the final notion that “it doesn’t matter if it was 3 or 2,100 dead – every life is a life.”