Over 8,000 people have been killed, more than 17,400 people have been wounded and over one million people have been displaced since Hamas — a militant Islamist group that has controlled Gaza since 2006 — attacked Israel Oct. 7. This enormous loss of human life deserves our unequivocal condemnation. The deaths and endangerment of civilians is never permissible or justifiable. The scope of the humanitarian and moral crisis that not just Palestinians and Israelis who are directly impacted are experiencing but also that diasporic communities across the world are reckoning with is unfathomable. How does the world begin to deal with this abominable loss of life and livelihood? How do we, as a diverse and multicultural University community, think, feel and talk about such an emotional yet tangible tragedy?
Over the past two weeks, University students, organizations and administrators have been grappling with these questions. Students have held vigils, teach-ins and walkouts, clubs have released statements of solidarity and administrators have written emails intended to articulate a path forward. While grief and anger are not a momentary or passing thing, the University is one of the institutions that is uniquely equipped to help us chart a path toward a peaceful future, and it must embrace its role as such. The University is also uniquely situated to provide much needed contextualization that encourages everyone to move beyond harmful generalizations and embrace a solution-based dialogue driven both by real emotions and historicized understandings of the space this conflict inhabits.
In his message to the University community, President Jim Ryan explained that in keeping with the institutional mission, the University will “leverage the expertise of our faculty and staff to advance our understanding of these events and the history that led to them.” While he himself neglected to provide the context for which he advocated — the word Palestine was not used in his email, an absence which marginalizes Palestinians — his larger point remains.
The University, like other educational institutions, has the resources to provide genuine contextualization of moments such as these and to instill in its students useful ethical and moral frameworks with which to examine these global issues. Historians, political scientists, ethicists, religious studies scholars and many others at the University have spent their lives endeavoring to understand Israel and Palestine. The context that University scholars can provide is completely essential because the world has failed to adopt a balanced and nuanced approach to this conflict, a failure which will only further the violence and bloodshed.
Take an example at the highest level. President Joe Biden unequivocally condemned the actions of Hamas which resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Israelis as “pure, unadulterated evil [unleashed] on the world” but contextualized Israel’s actions — inhumanely killing 3,000 Palestinians — as an extension of Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Hamas’ inhumane actions were unequivocally condemned while Israel’s actions were given a layer of nuance — the disconnect here is concerning because it suggests that these groups are held to different standards. An equal right to contextualization should not be seen as precluding condemnation.
Organizations and people directly invested in this conflict have also promoted a simplistic discourse. The statement released by Students for Justice in Palestine at U.Va. expressed support for “the right of colonized people everywhere to resist the occupation of their land by whatever means they deem necessary.” Here, SJP implies that the oppression of Palestinians empowers them to kill Israeli civilians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, at the outset of this escalation, that “what happened today has never been seen in Israel. We will take mighty vengeance.” With this statement, Netanyahu implies that the scope of the destruction perpetrated by Hamas initiates and rationalizes Israel’s own excessive and inhumane use of violence.
International law dictates that all participants in war must uphold humanitarian law, regardless of the relative “justness” of a cause — both Hamas and Israeli forces have claimed that the justness of their causes legitimizes their actions, but this is not the case. One of the most important principles of international law is that civilians cannot be targeted or disproportionately harmed by military action. Yet, Hamas rampaged through Israel, killing over 1,400 Israelis and taking at least 200 people as hostages Oct. 7 and Oct. 8. Following the massacre, Israel has spent much of the past week besieging Gaza, killing over 6,500 Palestinians — many of them children — and preventing vital supplies from reaching innocent civilians. Hamas and Israeli forces are engaging in war crimes and crimes against humanity. It seems the imperative to adhere to international legal standards, especially humanitarian ones, has been forgotten by all.
Studying international humanitarian law — the basic rules which govern conflict — provides us with an avenue through which we can deepen our understanding of the war that is unfolding. It is not, however, the only avenue. History, religious studies and political science all provide us with useful frameworks that can help us to refine the way we think and talk about the ongoing violence.
There are few spaces in this world that are as rich in intellectual resources as universities, and it is these very intellectual resources which the University must now marshal to promote a nuanced understanding of the current conflict in Israel and Palestine. This can take many forms — lectures, open office hours with administrators, increased classes on this topic, resources for affected groups on Grounds and much more. Irrespective of the path or paths taken, students need to be able to quickly see tangible evidence of the University’s self-declared responsibility to advance our understanding of this complex situation. While we as students have a responsibility to embrace inconvenient nuance and work productively on intransigent problems, the University must strive to instill this mindset of global stewardship in its students.
Emotions — grief, fear, shock, anger — will always be a part of understanding violence and should not be bracketed so much as enriched by contextualization and solution-oriented mindsets. On many other issues, this demand for contextualization would not be an argument worth making because we often take it for granted that to critique an issue, you must first understand it. We should be able to hold many different sentiments simultaneously — grief for those who lost their lives and livelihoods, anger for the history that brought us to this point, shock for the magnitude of this human-made conflict, condemnation for Hamas and Israel’s war crimes and hope that this war will end soon and that a peaceful two-state solution can be reached. All is not fair in war, but all is fair in nuance.
The Cavalier Daily Editorial Board is composed of the Executive Editor, the Editor-in-Chief, the two Opinion Editors, their Senior Associates and an Opinion Columnist. The board can be reached at email@example.com.