Protest just one component of activism for West Virginia University students

May 25—MORGANTOWN — Amid cries for help one of the first things to strike the attention is the water. It's dirty. Polluted by the rubble left behind after the bombs and rockets strike.

That is the mental image Omar Sabbagh and his fellow West Virginia University students hoped to conjure when they set up a "Step into Gaza" event inside the Mountainlair on May 11.

"It started with a stamping station, so people when they walk in would get stamped," Sabbagh said. "This signifies that people in Gaza, their parents actually write their name on their arm because when they get bombed, their bodies get so disfigured that their parents actually can't tell who they are."

"Step into Gaza" is just one of several activities created by a coalition of students from a wide variety of backgrounds. Muslim students, Jewish students, members from both the Morgantown and campus community, among others. The Muslim Student Association is one of the groups involved with organizing. Sabbagh, who enters his last year fall, will be its president next semester. Sabbagh is one of the main organizers of the Palestinian activist movement at WVU.

Protests have so far dominated much of news cycle. Students from Columbia University to UCLA made headlines for their clashes with university and city police departments. However, at WVU protesting is just one component of a much more holistic approach to activism regarding the situation in Palestine. Sabbagh said they've maintained a low number of protests because they don't want the fact there's a protest to take center stage over why a protest is happening.

To that end, Sabbagh and the other student activists have focused on doing more educational events such as "Step into Gaza."

"We've done a lot of tabling events where people can walk up to us, ask us questions and we just ask people if they're interested in learning about what's been happening in Gaza," Sabbagh said. "It's good to balance those two. It's good to drag attention. It's good to wake people up but it's also good to do it in a very calm way like a tabling event."

However, when protests happen the community turns out. On May 11, close to 100 protestors gathered outside of the Mountainlair before marching to the Monongalia County Courthouse in downtown Morgantown. While graduating students scoured for the best spot to take photos with members of their families in front of Woodburn Hall, protestors launched into impassioned speeches criticizing the state of Israel for the war that's left 35,709 civilians dead and close to 14,000 dead children.

Palestinians haven't been the only victims of the aggression between Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas. According to Social Security data examined by France24, the final death toll of the music festival attack on Oct. 7, 2023 is 1,139. Thirty six were children.

"A lot of people paint this as a Palestinian versus Israeli issue, as Jewish versus Muslim," Sabbagh said. "It's not that at all. It's humanitarian issue. It's a genocide."

Olivia Dowler comes from a Jewish background and was also heavily involved in planning and executing campus activism around the issue. She graduated the same weekend the protest took place.

"A lot of people are confusing being anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic," Dowler said. "You do not have to be a Zionist as a Jewish person. You don't even have to be Jewish to be a Zionist. A lot of people who are white supremacists are Zionist. Judaism and being Jewish existed before the State of Israel existed. It's still gonna exist after the State of Israel. I think it's important to recognize that there's definitely a difference between being anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic."

Zionism as a modern political force first emerged in the late 19th century by secular Jews as a response to rising anti-Semitism in Europe. Theodor Herzl published an influential book called "The Jewish State" in 1897 that envisioned a future independent Jewish state during the 20th century. However, even Jewish contemporaries of Herzl criticized the idea of political Zionism.

Ahad Ha'am, a cultural Zionist, argued for Jewish spiritual life to flourish in Palestine as opposed to a formalized state. The center of Jewish spirituality could then be emulated by the Jewish diaspora worldwide. Ha'am argued Herzl's project had no creativity, it's culture was European and used Jews as transmitters of imperialist European culture. Jewish Historian Hans Kohn argued Zionist Nationalism "had nothing to do with Jewish traditions; it was in many ways opposed to them."

The topic is deep and the history possesses several twists and turns. For that reason, Dowler believes education is important.

"You can't just believe what you see on the internet at face value," Dowler said. "It's easy to get lost in this. It's easy to be scared to say something and be labeled as anti-Semitic. But if you have a little bit of research, you can literally get that at your fingertips with Google. It takes understanding that it didn't just start on Oct. 7 but there's a history of 76 years going back with this."

The same week of the protest Dowler and Sabbagh attended, activists delivered a letter to WVU's administration requesting information on what kind of ties the University has not just with Israel, but with companies that do business in the country. Communications Director April Kaull said in an email the University has no direct investment in Israel.

However, student activists are not convinced. WVU Dean of Students Corey Farris is in charge of discussing the demands made by the students. Kaull refrained from providing Farris's perspective until the University has had a chance to meet with students.

The week after the protest, Dowler said the university had made initial contact but only promised to continue discussions. A Freedom of Information Act request to the University for any emails from Farris's office regarding the activists and their demands has been delayed until June. The university said it needs more time to make their document search.

Sabbagh and the others are undeterred. Sabbagh said he plans to continue the pressure through the summer. Despite facing harassment from a couple of individuals, the community's reception over all has been positive. One individual in particular was caught ripping down a flag outside the Muslim prayer room and writing racial slurs, an act that ended in their arrest.

Nada Mikky, 19, has perhaps the closest connection to the protests. She is from Gaza. She said the majority of protesters are white people, especially from the Jewish community.

"It's heartwarming," Mikky said. "I'm not going to say it's enough, but it's really heartwarming to see support within a state like West Virginia, just due to the low number of Muslims and Arabs. But it's incredible."

Reach Esteban at efernandez@timeswv.com