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The war in Gaza defines campus politics. It’s absent from SGA elections

An Ngo | Graphics Editor
Photos by Kaiden Yu, Sage Russell and Tanner Nalley

The rumbles of protest and discontent have filled Foggy Bottom since October.

The effects of the war in Gaza — clashes over campus free speech, incidents of Islamophobia and antisemitism, and the suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine at GWU — have defined campus politics since the war’s outbreak. 

Yet these issues have been largely absent from Student Government Association presidential and vice presidential campaigns this year. Platforms posted online rarely acknowledged the tension, often doing so indirectly. As elections approach, candidates find themselves toeing a line between discussing issues they believe are imperative and evading on-campus controversy.

“I don’t think candidates, in their eyes, want to say ‘the wrong thing,’” said SGA Sen. Dan Saleem (CCAS-U), a presidential candidate. 

“But I think if someone is running for president, especially at this point, especially at this time and moment, they need to be ready to confront and address and handle situations like this,” he added.

Three of the six top-of-ticket candidates — Saleem, presidential candidate Lauren K. Harris and vice presidential candidate Aly McCormick — agreed to participate in interviews about why campaigns have not proactively discussed campus issues related to the war in Gaza. Presidential candidate Ethan Fitzgerald and vice presidential candidate Ethan Lynne answered questions over email. Presidential candidate Nicky Beruashvili did not return a request for an interview.

The candidates offered a variety of reasons for not mentioning the tempestuous subjects, ranging from discomfort in or fear of publicly discussing the war to not wanting to further sow division between students for the purposes of a campaign. Multiple candidates said the arrival of a doxxing truck that displayed the names and faces of students supposedly involved in a pro-Palestinian student coalition spurred trepidation in speaking out.

“I think the reason that a lot of candidates haven’t put this on their policy plank or haven’t displayed this as something that they’re running on is because there’s a lot of fear surrounding the situation,” Saleem said. “This is a really sensitive situation and at the end of the day, the oldest candidate is 21, I think I’m the youngest candidate at 19. We’re young adults and we’re students, and I don’t think at this point in our lives, we know exactly how to address such a heavy situation.”

“As someone who neither has family in Israel or Palestine, I cannot begin to fathom the pain these students are experiencing and my heart goes out to all those impacted,” Fitzgerald, an SGA senator, said in an email. “I believe it would be deeply inappropriate to use this grief to fuel a campus presidential campaign.”

Officials required the six candidates to meet in a closed-door listening session with Division for Student Affairs officials before campaigns kicked off, where the group learned conflict mediation strategies meant to promote civil dialogue during election season. The candidates said they agreed not to share what they discussed in the circle, but one said the group did not talk about issues stemming from the war in Gaza.

Some staunchly pro-Palestinian campaigns at other universities have found success with students: The winners of the University of Michigan’s student elections promised to halt all student government activity until university officials divested from companies allegedly profiting from Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. Vanderbilt University blocked voting on a referendum asking students about the use of student government funds on businesses with ties to Israel in late March, and a similar ballot measure at the University of Virginia earned support from more than two-thirds of student voters.

GW’s candidates, fearful of angering any segment of the student body while acknowledging a duty to discuss the issues with University officials, are instead pivoting to sometimes nebulous promises to amplify student voices.

Fitzgerald said students should have a “seat at the table” as GW reviews its free speech policies to cultivate “productive” conversations.

“As SGA Vice President, my job would not be to lead based on my own opinions but to amplify the voices of every single student and student organization on campus,” Lynne, an SGA senator, wrote in an email.

And Harris said she felt officials were too “action-oriented” while handling the controversy around the SJP projections and that they should have opted for more mediated conversations with the group.

University officials suspended SJP in November after members from the group projected anti-Israel statements on the facade of Gelman Library, sparking a national outcry over slogans that some deemed antisemitic. SJP did not return a request for comment.

“I don’t think that I’m necessarily the best person to speak on what the community is feeling, but I do think I can best host a productive conversation between both sides,” Harris said.

“Who wants to be heard?” McCormick said. “I think starting there and having those tough conversations where people might not always like the answer or people might not always love what they’re hearing, both administration and students, having this conversation is the first place to start.” 

As candidates try to foster student voices, SGA President Arielle Geismar said she believes her administration has built a strong foundation for relaying student concerns to officials. Geismar pointed to a pair of student councils she created in December — one for Jewish and Israeli students and the other for Muslim, Palestinian and Arab students — to represent affected students and ensure all feel “safe and heard.” 

She said SGA leaders owe it to their constituents to provide resources for students and to confront administrators on uncomfortable topics.

“Sometimes with admin, there’s kind of this question of, ‘Oh is she going to talk about it, is she going to address it?’ F*ck yeah, I will,” Geismar said in an interview. “It’s the elephant in the room. It’s what we’re all talking about. It’s what we’re all thinking about. To not bring it up is a disservice to our community, to ourselves and to the people who are living this.”

Still, Geismar hasn’t publicly commented on officials’ November suspension of SJP, a flashpoint campus decision. She was not immediately available for a follow-up question asking her thoughts on the disciplinary action.

For some GW candidates, the lack of discussion isn’t due to a lack of opinions. Saleem criticized GW’s suspension of SJP, which came about a month after the October Gelman projections, arguing that officials unjustly suspended a student organization for the actions of individuals.

“I think there should be more students consulted and listened to before making such an impactful decision like that,” Saleem said.

McCormick said officials should have been more transparent and fostered discussions about “tough” moments, like the suspension of SJP and the tearing down of posters of Israeli hostages inside the GW Hillel building. 

“If those rules are specifically broken, it makes sense,” she said. “When these things happen, I think administration owes a very full explanation of why, a very detailed explanation and an opportunity to ask questions.” 

But some have shied away from offering their personal feelings on the suspension of SJP, instead deferring to students and officials.

“I believe turning this conversation away from administrators would be irresponsible,” Fitzgerald wrote in response to a question of whether he thought SJP should have been suspended. “It would be disingenuous for me to tell students that the SGA president has any control over suspension of student organizations. The focus of accountability and the weight of the decision to suspend SJP is on administration. I want everyone on campus to feel seen, heard, and respected.”

Nick Pasion contributed reporting.

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About the Contributor
Zach Blackburn, Editor in Chief
Zach, a senior majoring in political communication, is the 2023-24 editor in chief of The Hatchet. He previously served as senior news editor and assistant news editor of the Metro beat. He hails from West Columbia, South Carolina.
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