Student groups hold vigils as violence continues to sweep Middle East

October 17, 2023

By Owen Fullerton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, YGK News

Two separate vigils were held on Monday night on Queen's campus, with two communities mourning the tremendous losses that have accumulated over several weeks of heightened violence in the Middle East. 

After a brutal and bone chilling assault by Hamas -a militant group sworn to Israel's destruction- on October 7 left at least 1,400 Israeli citizens dead and more taken hostage, Israel's government promised a swift and merciless response.

That response, including the reported use of white phosphorus gas in the densely populated Palestinian territory of Gaza, has resulted in over 2,500 dead Palestinians and hundreds of thousands displaced as Gaza as a whole crumbles under the unrelenting Israeli air assault and the ever looming threat of a ground assault. 

The heightened conflict has left people around the world connected to Palestine and Israel feeling helpless, and in light of that both the vigils hoped to provide a space for people in Kingston to come together in community and mourn.

On Monday night all the various Jewish organizations in Kingston, led by Hillel Queen's, hosted their vigil at Grant Hall.

The vigil focused on the theme of unity, coming together to pray for Israeli lives lost and the uncertainty hanging over what is believed to be nearly 200 Israelis held captive by Hamas. 

Yos Tarshish, the Director of Queen's Hillel who delivered closing remarks on Monday night, said Jewish students at the university have been deeply impacted, and in the last few weeks the increased fear of antisemitism has also been a concern. 

Tarshish says Hillel wants to ensure students and the larger Jewish community can come together and safely grieve.

"Jewish students at Queen's are deeply troubled by the horrific terrorist attack committed against innocent civilians on October 7. Many students have loved ones who have been personally impacted by the attacks," Tarshish said. 

"Hillel Queen's is committed to supporting Jewish students through these terrible times and are working directly with students to ensure they all have a safe and welcoming place to gather and grieve."

Later on Monday night, Palestinian students and community members held their own vigil outside of Summerhill, with a smaller group lamenting the losses in Gaza that show no sign of stopping and the decades of what Amnesty International has deemed an apartheid state.

Organizers said they only learned about the adjacent vigil held by Jewish groups shortly before hosting their vigil, saying that communities are mourning and the campus is small but there was an urgent need for both communities to hold space to grieve.

Yara Hussein of Queen's Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) said neither vigil was the space for discourse, but instead to provide a safe space and opportunity to mourn. 

She said while committing to safety on campus, she hopes the university is also committed to providing appropriate space for both of those things.

"We hope that their biggest priority is also to allow safe spaces for students to mourn and perform their activism without being threatened," Hussein.

"When people are mourning I think it goes across the board that it's not a place for arguments or it's not a place for anyone to counter the vigils."

Queen's University has said that safety on campus is the number one concern, with Principal Patrick Deane saying in a statement on Friday that while tension and debate are unavoidable, it's important for all members of the community to remain respectful of the massive weight felt on both sides of the debate. 

"What is occurring in the Middle East will almost inevitably give rise to heated local debate about issues at stake in the conflict. This is to be expected, as fundamentally universities are places of open debate and expression," Principal Deane wrote. 

"But there are important parameters to be observed: there is absolutely no place in the academy for threats, hatred, harassment, or discrimination. However the debate runs, I ask that we nevertheless be careful to remember the human suffering and trauma experienced on all sides, and that we respect the right of those directly affected to mourn what and whom they have lost. Queen’s must be a place where people can come together safely with thoughtfulness, respect, and compassion. We must not succumb to intolerance or worse, to violence."

While both the Jewish and Palestinian groups have demonstrations planned this week at Springer Market Square more related to activism, the two vigils -with some security and police presence- remained peaceful and civil, and acted as a space to grieve. 

A rally will be held on Tuesday at 4:30 PM in Springer Market Square decrying Hamas, while a rally advocating for divestment from Israel and liberation for Palestine is being held at 4 PM on Wednesday in the Square.