Just as the Better Together team at Ohio University was getting back to campus and getting their feet under them for this year’s campaign, something happened that changed everything.
On September 2, the newly elected president of Ohio U’s Student Senate uploaded a video response to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge she was issued by the university’s president. Rather than a bucket of ice water, Megan Marzec dumped a bucket of fake blood over her head, while calling attention to the Israeli government’s treatment of the people of Palestine and calling on the university to divest from all academic and other institutions connected to or supportive of the government of Israel.
Within hours, the university president issued a statement distancing himself and the university from Marzec’s position. The Student Senate issued an apology for her actions, and made clear that her statement didn’t express the Senate’s opinion. And representatives of several Jewish and/or pro-Israel student groups showed up at the September 3 Senate meeting to call for Marzec’s resignation.
Then things went viral. Within days, Marzec’s email and Facebook were flooded with hate messages, death threats, rape threats, and vitriol from all over the world. The university and the local chapter of Hillel were deluged with phone calls and messages from concerned parents and donors, threatening to pull their students and/or money from a campus that (to them) was feeling more and more unsafe. It seemed like things couldn’t possibly get worse.
Things got worse. Members of Bobcats for Israel attended the September 10 Student Senate meeting and, as it was called to order, mounted a “filibuster,” reading a statement decrying Marzec and then reading testimonies from administrators at various universities arguing that academic sanctions were counterproductive. They held the floor for close to 40 minutes, while student senators, faculty members, and students shouted their disapproval, raised chants against them, and, at times, physically confronted them. Some at the meeting heard students call them “fascists” and “Nazis,” and video of the event captured something that sounded like “bring on the rope.” At that point Marzec called for a Senate vote on whether they should be removed from the meeting, and four of the protesting students were arrested and removed. Tensions were high.
Meanwhile, our Better Together campus organizers (remember them?) were busy planning our fourth annual 9/11 Interfaith Peace Walk. Started on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Walk has offered an opportunity each September for hundreds of students and community members to come together to embody a different vision of what religious diversity might look like—people from all faiths united in their commitment to peace. It’s also served as a ready-made public kickoff to the year’s Better Together campaign—a way to get the name and the message out there, on the streets of Athens, in front of several hundred of our best and/or newest friends.
So, the day after four students were arrested at a Student Senate meeting where they called for the resignation of the duly elected Senate president, the week after the University was propelled onto the biggest stage many of us had ever imagined, we called people of all faiths together to walk for peace, and to cultivate peace from the inside out. “We’re at the center of a media storm, and right now peace seems pretty far away,” I said in my introductory remarks. “And yet however tempted by despair, we have brought our sore and heavy hearts here to be something extraordinary, together. It starts here. Right here, in our sore and heavy hearts, is where we need to begin to make peace.” And we walked—Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, Unitarians and agnostics and atheists and Buddhists. In silence, in quiet conversation, in community. At the end of the walk, in the light of the candles we held, we sang: “I’ve got peace like a river, Joy like a fountain, tears like the raindrops, strength like a mountain.”
In light of how everything changed, think about what Dean of Students Jenny Hall-Jones said at the walk: “There’s healing power in saying ‘This is who I am, and I’m standing next to someone very different from me, but we’re all in this together.'” Or what Student Senate Vice President Caitlyn McDaniel said after making the walk with students from the Muslim Student Association and Bobcats for Israel: “This was very necessary for the community, and it was a beautiful thing to see people coming together, especially today.” Think about seeing the president of Bobcats for Israel on the lawn of the campus Islamic Center, chatting with other students who came to the walk. Our work changes things.
It’s still too soon to know exactly how our community will respond to the interfaith challenge Megan Marzec raised. But we will respond. We’re planning panels and teach-ins and movie screenings. We’re beginning, here and there, to figure out how we can talk about all this. And in all these conversations we’re beginning to build the social capital that will make us resilient, that will empower us to face future controversies together.