On May 15, 2024

UVM, don’t punish student protesters

Dear Editor,

As a pastor, I feel it is my professional and moral responsibility to speak to the crisis of conscience facing our nation and state.

As of this writing, the civilian death toll in Gaza stands at around 34,654 according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health. A third of these casualties are children.

I do not say this without hesitation, and I thank my Jewish sisters and brothers who have already spoken up in support of peace. The systemic and targeted military operation the nation of Israel is conducting against the people of Gaza cannot be called anything other than genocide. It is our moral failing as a nation that we continue to stand on the sidelines of this humanitarian atrocity while profiting from our relationship with Israel. Is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” solely an American right? Can we call ourselves peacekeepers when we look the other way as our ally murders and pillages the ordinary people in Gaza? The October 7th Hamas attack on innocent Israeli citizens was an act of war, but the innocent citizens of Gaza do not deserve to pay the price for that attack!

Not only does this atrocity intensify the lingering hatred of the West in the Arab world, but it also damages America’s objective to bring about a lasting peace to the region and any credibility that we ever hoped to achieve.

This brings me to the student protests on college campuses, including Middlebury College and the University of Vermont. UVM is moving to initiate disciplinary action against student protesters who set up a camp on its grounds. I would faithfully offer this advice to the UVM administration and any college administration seeking to punish student protesters exercising their First Amendment rights: Don’t — you do not command the moral high ground.

Our nation is struggling as Israel goes down a path we cannot follow. The voices of our young people echo a moral call we all know must be heard, but we refuse to hear because it is too painful. It is not profitable to hold Israel accountable for this war against innocent people. 

When Russia invaded Ukraine, our nation imposed sanctions immediately, offered military assistance and funding immediately and made it very clear how much power and influence we still have in the world. Likewise, through sanctions and the reduction of military aid, we could make it clear to Israel that we do not support the senseless destruction of Palestinian homes, schools, hospitals, infrastructure and lives. These are just people who want to live their lives as we do. They do not deserve to die for living in Gaza.

College students are justifiably outraged that our nation contributes to this genocide. They are also justified in forcing us to pay attention when we refuse to listen. By taking disciplinary action against students outraged by such atrocities, we are sending the message that we don’t respect freedom of speech when it is hard to hear and threatens financial gain.

We must listen to the moral call to love those who suffer most. We cannot punish those willing to put themselves on the line to bring compassion into the world. It is unjust and immoral.

Rev. Devon Thomas, South Burlington

Editor’s note: Rev. Devon Thomas is the pastor of
Ascension Lutheran Church.

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