How Should Universities Have Responded To Hamas Attacks?

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As the number of Israeli civilians massacred by the Hamas fighters who invaded Israel from Gaza four days earlier mounted towards 1,300 with another 3,000 being wounded, University of Arizona’s President Robert C Robbins issued a public statement that, because of its forthrightness, stands out from those issued by most North American college and university presidents.

“As we continue to witness the horrendous acts of terrorism by Hamas in Israel targeted at innocent civilians, including children, this clearly is not just a political debate or incident related to geopolitical differences. Let’s call it what it is: antisemitic hatred, murder and a complete atrocity,” read the statement.

That same day, as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a war cabinet and the Israel Defense Forces began preparing for a massive counter attack that would “crush and destroy” Hamas in Gaza, the Association of University Heads, Israel (VERA) issued a public castigating, which, because it was in English, was aimed mainly at timorous responses of most North American college and university presidents to what’s been called the worst pogrom since the Holocaust.

Perceiving that many of their North American colleagues, concerned about inflaming passions on their campuses, had taken refuge in bromides and expressions of concern about the loss of both Israeli and Palestinian lives, the heads of the University of Haifa, Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and six other universities told their colleagues that they had erred by considering Hamas’ attack as “just ‘one more event’ in the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which can be understood from multiple perspectives”.

Knowing that their letter would be received against the backdrop of an ever-growing list of pro-Palestinian protests – one of the first, announced just hours after news of Hamas’ invasion broke, was called by the Students for Justice in Palestine at Ohio State, which used Instagram to call on the people of Columbus, Ohio to “honor our resistance and our martyrs” and to march to the Statehouse to “celebrate Gaza’s resistance” – VERA’s authors pulled no punches as they sought to spur college and university presidents to denounce the “barbaric violence” meted out by Hamas and support Israel and, by extension, their Jewish students who were both grieving and shocked.

At Tufts University in Boston, where approximately 25% of the 13,300 students are Jewish, Micah Gritz, a senior and COO of Jewish on Campus, told The Hill that Jewish and Israeli students are “incredibly scared”.

“On campus, we’re seeing students either turn a blind eye to the conflict, or we’re seeing those who are openly celebrating our pain, you know, glorifying it, justifying it. They’re casting the murder of Jews and Israelis as progressive, as liberation. It’s just honestly very, very scary as a Jewish student on campus who has friends and family in Israel,” said Gritz.

To prompt their colleagues to act, VERA’s letter sets out details that would, they warned, “disturb” their colleagues sitting in executive suites in North America, “no less than they have shaken us”.

Such details include accounts of “kids attending a music festival, peace activists, elderly people in their 80s, toddlers … Many were slaughtered on the spot, others huddled in their homes for hours before being found and killed or held hostage”.

Support for Hamas

The Israeli heads did not name the universities at which some faculty and students had rushed to show support for Hamas, although they must have been aware that across North America some student groups and faculty were openly supporting Hamas.

They must also have been aware that while the administration of America’s most famous and prestigious school remained silent, the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Group (HPSG), made up of 35 student clubs, including the Harvard Islamic Society and the Harvard Graduate School of Education Islamic Society, issued a statement praising Hamas, calling Gaza an “open-air prison” and Israel an “apartheid state” and asserting that “the Israeli regime [is] entirely responsible for the unfolding violence”.

A 15 minute walk away through Cambridge, Massachusetts’ leafy streets, officials – not students – in Harvard’s Divinity School’s Religion and Public Life program (HRPLP) issued a statement that downplayed the killings in Israel by using the curious word ‘spate’ in its title: “Current Spate of Violence in Palestine/Israel.”

In its effort to contextualise the war, the HRPLP referenced only Israeli military actions against Gaza and not Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel.

Further, the ‘Palestine/Israel’ locution is telling, for it elides the fact that the area Hamas attacked lies on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line established in 1949 in the Armistice Agreement with Egypt and, thus, effectively, is an internationally recognised border.

The day before VERA issued its letter, at New York University, in the heart of the city in which the 1.1 million Jews make up 9% of the population, the president of the Student Bar Association, posted on social media that “Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life”.

(This post cost him a job offer with the Chicago-based law firm of Winston & Strawn and triggered the university’s Student Bar Association to begin the process of removing him from the association’s presidency.)

The authors of the VERA letter knew that among the many universities and colleges that had remained silent or offered pro-forma statements, including ones that failed even to mention Israel, had posted strong statements denouncing racism and police violence after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and in support of Ukraine after the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022.

Criticisms of Harvard

Even as the HPSG statement supporting Hamas became a cause célèbre, with faculty, politicians, donors and others denouncing it, Harvard’s administration remained silent – that is until, in a series of X posts on 9 and 10 October (and an interview by on Bloomberg.com a day later), Lawrence Summers, a former Secretary of the Treasury, criticised the university of which he had been president from 2001-2006.

On 9 October Summers wrote: “In nearly 50 years of affiliation [with Harvard], I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today. I very much hope appropriate statements from the University and College condemning those who launched the terrorist attacks and standing in solidarity with victims will soon be forthcoming.

“To be clear nothing is wrong with criticising Israeli policy, past, present or future. I have been sharply critical of PM Netanyahu. But that is very different from lack of clarity regarding terrorism.”

Following Summers’ tweet, Harvard’s president Claudine Gay issued a statement that begins by saying: “We write to you today heartbroken by the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel this weekend, and by the war in Israel and Gaza now underway,” before turning her attention to the emotions on campus.

After admitting to having “no illusion that Harvard alone can readily bridge the widely different views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, Gay appeals to “shared values” to “moderate rather than amplify the deep-seated divisions animosities so distressingly evident in the wider world”.

Summers was having none of it, declaring in a series of X posts: “The delayed leadership statement fails to meet the needs of the moment.

“Why can’t we find anything approaching the moral clarity of Harvard statements after George Floyd’s death or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when terrorists kill, rape and take hostages of hundreds of Israelis attending a music festival?

“Why can’t we give reassurance that the University stands squarely against Hamas terror to frightened students when 35 groups of their fellow students appear to be blaming all the violence on Israel?”

Summers’ trenchant criticism appears to have prompted Gay to issue a second statement, welcomed by Summers.

In part, she wrote: “As the events of recent days continue to reverberate, let there be no doubt that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. Such inhumanity is abhorrent, whatever one’s individual views of the origins of longstanding conflicts in the region.”

Gay continued: “While our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group –not even 30 student groups – speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”

Harvard’s first statement and Stanford University’s statement were so timorous that Asher Cohen, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote to each institution castigating them for statements that did not “meet the most minimal standards of moral leadership, courage and commitment to truth” in response to Hamas’ aim and tactics: “to commit genocide against the Jewish Israeli population.”

Gay’s call for “maintaining ‘one Harvard community’ over the commitment to unequivocally condemn evil” and Stanford’s “hope to encourage thoughtful opportunities for sharing knowledge about the situation… as members of a common intellectual community” amounted, Cohen told his fellow presidents, to a pusillanimous embrace of the members of each community that “hold immoral positions about these atrocities”.

Both administrations failed ‘us’ he said, referring to their Israeli colleagues, but they also undermined themselves as academic leaders who are “expect[ed] [by] their colleagues to present higher moral standards, and more courage,” he said.

The criticisms Cohen levelled at Stanford and Harvard could equally apply to several of Canada’s major universities. The statement issued on 9 October by the University of British Columbia (UBC) Graduate School, for example, did not mention Israel, Hamas or the Palestinians and used the term ‘terrorist attacks’ without specifying the killings, torture and rapes of civilians.

“We are deeply saddened and concerned by the recent violence and terrorist attacks in Israel and the tragic loss of lives across the region. The escalation of this longstanding conflict and developing events is intensifying distress and concern among members of our university community,” read the statement.

That same day, the University of Waterloo in Southwestern Ontario posted on X: “UWaterloo recognises the detrimental impact of the violence taking place in the Middle East,” which erased where the violence was occurring and who was involved.

As did other Canadian universities, including the University of Ottawa, Waterloo found itself issuing a second, stronger statement. On 10 October, the university in southwestern Ontario said it “condemns the reprehensible terrorist attack on Israeli civilians this weekend and is saddened [that] this has resulted in the outbreak of war in the Middle East.

“We grieve the loss and suffering of innocent Israelis and Palestinians caught in this violence and join the international community in calling for a peaceful resolution,” the statement read.

That same day, Daniel Jutras, the rector of the Université de Montréal posted on X: “I am distressed by the events of recent days in Israel and the Gaza Strip, and shocked by the brutal escalation of violence.” However true this statement is, it elides the fact that Hamas invaded Israel and killed more than a thousand civilians, even as it fails to mention the cost to Gazans of Israel’s counterattack.

The statement formula

According to Arizona State University English professor, Krista Ratcliffe, who is both foundation professor and chair in the Department of English, and an expert in rhetoric, many of the university statements followed the same template: name the problem and the institutional response to it, express sympathy for the people involved, students, Israelis, Palestinians, people in different countries, and indicate what resources students who are in distress can access.

UBC’s statement was interesting, she told University World News, because: “There’s no agency in the statement. Harvard’s second statement names Hamas, but some of the others try to hide it. They talk about a crisis, an Israeli-Palestinian crisis, or something, but you don’t know what is.”

By way of example, she discussed Columbia University’s statement, which begins with President Minouche Shafik stating: “I was devastated by the horrific attack on Israel this weekend and the ensuing violence that is affecting so many people.”

Ratcliffe said: “The York University (Toronto) post says the university ‘unequivocally denounced the attacks against civilians in Israel,’ but again, they didn’t make clear what they meant by the terrorist attacks.

“What we see here is the level of description and how far each school is willing to go in terms of naming agency and how they phrased it.”

While Ratcliffe qualified the next part of her answer by saying that she cannot get into someone’s heart and figure out intent, she said: “The problem with erasing the agency of Israelis is that the text could come across as being anti-Semitic, whether it was intended as such or not.”

For her part, Judy Zelikovitz, vice-president for university and local partner services for the Ottawa, Ontario-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, expressed disappointment that many Canadian university administrators did not take a strong stand against the attacks against Israel.

She said Israel was a sovereign state while Hamas was “a terrorist organisation” [Hamas or its military wing is designated as such by the US, Canada, UK, Japan, New Zealand and the European Union] responsible for infiltrating borders and kidnapping children, before going on to list other alleged horrific crimes.

“A lack of clear public condemnation at the onset of these atrocities by many Canadian universities has left an opening in some cases for antisemitic and anti-Zionist entities to express support for terrorism,” explained Zelikovitz.

“It is deeply disturbing that student groups are trying to justify and legitimate the brutal torture and murder of Jewish civilians.”

The day University World News received Zelikovitz’s email, 13 October, the York Federation of Students, York University Graduate Students’ Association and the Glendon College Student Union issued a “Statement of Solidarity with Palestine” that referred to the “so-called Israel”, “so-called Canada”, and linked the “liberation of Palestine” to the struggle of Canada’s First Nations for “indigenous sovereignty”.

This statement was quickly denounced by the university’s administration and the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose president and CEO Michael Levitt said in part: “After more than 1,300 Israelis were brutally murdered by Hamas terrorists, thousands more wounded and dozens kidnapped, including children, this statement from York University’s student unions is shockingly reprehensible.”

Zelikovitz closed the statement provided to University World News by asking: “How are Jewish students supposed to feel safe on their campuses?”

Chicago Principles

The decision on whether to speak out on, for example, the Russian invasion of Ukraine or Hamas’s invasion of Israel is a complex one.

Approximately 200 universities and colleges subscribe to the so-called Chicago Principles (CP), including the University of Chicago, Princeton University, Purdue University, Columbia University, Georgetown University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Wisconsin, as well as all of the publicly funded colleges and universities in the Canadian province of Alberta.

In the name of academic freedom, these universities and colleges generally do not take public positions on political issues that do not directly affect them. As University World News was told by a senior communications officer in an elite American law school, universities and colleges that subscribe to the CP refrain from issuing statements “in order not to chill speech on campus”.

The communications officer added: “If people know you’re publicly on one side or another, they will have an issue showing their feelings and opinions if their position is different than the one taken by their college or university.”

The CP are also meant to insulate college presidents from the pressure that might be brought by a major donor who wants the school to take their position. The day we spoke, several important donors to the University of Pennsylvania called for the resignation of both its President Liz Magill and board of trustees Chairman Scott L Bok for what the donors believe was their inadequate public response to the attack on Israel.

Further, University World News was told that in crafting public statements responding to the war, communications committees must wrestle with a welter of considerations: “You may have students who might be Palestinian or Arab, who have Palestinian sympathies. A segment of the American left tends to be pro-Palestinian.”

Word choice is contentious. “If a university did speak out and talked about an attack on Israel, that’s perfectly safe. But then it gets into the question of whether or not you use the word ‘terrorist’. Most universities that have spoken out were comfortable going there.

“But then there’s a secondary question. What do you do with students who might be upset because they have family in the region that was subject to retaliatory strikes?”

Later in the discussion, we returned to this question in detail, noting how a first statement creates a moral onus that can shift over the course of the conflict, with each subsequent statement being as difficult to craft as the first.

“Once you’ve spoken out, when do you stop speaking out? So, you spoke out after the initial attack, what happens if there’s a second attack. Or what happens if x number of people die in a retaliatory strike? What do you do with that? You see some of these statements that talk about ‘innocent civilians who have died’, but which ones are they talking about? And is that recriminating Israel because you’re talking about someone who might have died in a retaliatory strike?”

Almost all of the approximately hundred university statements this reporter has read have referred to mourning the loss of life of innocent civilians in both Israel and Gaza. However, as of writing, this reporter has seen no statement issued by a North American college or university that has specifically referred to Israel’s military retaliation in the Gaza strip.

Accordingly, universities and colleges have remained silent on 2,400 Palestinians killed and 9,200[/url] wounded in the first nine days of the conflict, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Additionally, the UN has warned that the forced movement of one million people from northern Gaza, after being ordered to evacuate by the Israelis who have cut off water, power and telephone service to the whole enclave, risks creating what the UN called a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

(According to the Reuters, water service was returned to parts of southern Gaza on the afternoon of 15 October.)

In addition, no North American university has issued a statement concerning the bombing on 11 October of Islamic University of Gaza, which the Israeli Defense Forces alleged had been transformed into a “training camp for weapons development and military intelligence”.

Educational mission

What, then, is the purpose of a university or college statement on the current war started by Hamas?

According to Kenneth S Stern, newly appointed head of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate (Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York) and author of The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate (University of Toronto Press, 2020), universities and colleges are not the State Department and their presidents are not newspaper columnists giving their opinions.

Rather, their responsibility is to keep their campuses open to ideas, to words, but not, of course, to thuggery or harassment.

“Administrators should think, first, that there may be students that are feeling some angst when something happens, particularly something that goes to their identity.

“In this case, there are students who have family on both sides of the border, who are clearly worried about them. I think talking about what the campus can do in that environment is a very useful thing. We want to bring students together,” said Stern.

Stern’s uncompromising view, that even when dealing with a war that affects students deeply, the job of faculty and administrators is to further their educational mission, will not satisfy everyone.

Yet, it is reached by his decades of work as a lawyer, director of the division on antisemitism and extremism at the American Jewish Committee and by studying hate crimes.

“Even if you have strongly felt opinions, as you know I do, and as you [referring to me] do about how horrible the massacre was, that this was a pogrom, the point for universities and colleges, I think, is that when ‘there’s something terribly disturbing going on’, how are we going to use it, to sort of mine it, for the purpose of education? Because nobody on campus can solve the problem,” he says.

Rather than “parsing the statement of various college presidents, asking ‘Was it good enough?’ or ‘Were they saying the things I wanted them to say?’, the proper question is: ‘What are you doing with your students? What are you doing to create educational opportunities to understand the conflict?’”

Both Stern and Ratcliffe noted that besides the obvious function of helping to keep campuses peaceful and informing students of the mental health resources available to them, the most useful university statements were those that managed to avoid falling into binary logic.

Drawing on her studies of rhetoric, Ratcliffe said authors fail at their task when they do not take into account that they are writing for multiple audiences – and that each audience has its own culturally defined frame of logic that determines who is right and who is wrong.

The tendency to assign all justice on one side and all injustice on the other is, Stern says, is understandable when everyone is deeply concerned with and affected by an issue such as war. The danger for the campus, Stern warns, is that because people are in binary boxes, they “almost want the university, as an authority figure, like a parent, to choose between them”.

Since this is not the role of the university, he told University World News, he believes “it’s not really a good idea for administrations to issue statements on these types of broad issues”.

If a statement is deemed necessary, it should always have the institution’s academic freedom at its core, he said. “The sweet spot is: Is this going to help our campus and our students and faculty or is it not going to?”

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