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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has withdrawn from a prestigious Harvard fellowship over the school's antisemitism. Photo: Video.

Why is it so hard for elite universities to condemn Hamas terrorism?

America’s leading universities have an antisemitism problem—and it starts at the top. This past week, university presidents and deans across the country wrote to their students and faculties to express concern in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas. What they said, and what they did not say, provides a window into the culture of intellectual and moral rot and cowardice that reigns at these once-great elite institutions.

Those who attack Jews or Israel are all too often exempt from their excoriation. Hamas terrorists massacred some 1,300 Israelis, took approximately 200 hostages, most of them civilians, and left an additional 3,200 injured, but you would not know it from some university leaders’ missives this week.

By: Marc Zvi Brettler & Michael B. Poliakoff | RealClear Education

At Harvard University, President Claudine Gay has issued three muddled statements, under pressure, on the horrific events. Her first statement was a tepid confession of “heartbreak” that implied an equivalence between the Hamas attacks and Israel neutralizing the terrorists. This embarrassment was signed by all the university’s senior deans. Only after a barrage of online criticism—and threats by donors—did she muster the strength to condemn the child killers. Not content to leave it alone, she has issued another statement, but still without criticizing the 30-odd student groups who professed to “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible” for the murder, rape, kidnapping, and torture of Jews, referring instead to the principle of freedom of speech. Let us be clear that these students have freedom of speech, but so does Claudine Gay. She has the right to condemn their words. In 2022, Harvard denounced in no uncertain terms “the capricious and senseless invasion of Ukraine.” Harvard knows how to speak clearly about Ukrainian victims but not, apparently, about Jewish victims.

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik offered a masterfully slippery statement: “I was devastated by the horrific attack on Israel this weekend and the ensuing violence that is affecting so many people.” While all lives matter, the mention of “ensuing violence” is a reference to Israeli targeting of terrorists—putting it on a par with raping and pillaging by Hamas. She implied moral equivalence.

The moral lassitude and obscurantism of Shafik’s statement trickled down. Columbia College Dean Josef Sorett emitted the following: “The events in Israel and Gaza over the past several days have shocked the world and impacted many of our students.” Dean Sorett’s “events in Gaza” are, of course, Israeli military operations undertaken in self-defense and in an effort to kill murderers, which he places on par with the door-to-door murder of civilians in Israel.

The dean of Columbia Law School did not outclass her colleague. Gillian Lester wrote to her students and faculty, “The violence that erupted in Israel and Gaza this past weekend is nothing short of tragic,” again implying a moral equivalence between the enemies of the Jewish people and their victims.

At Middlebury College, the senior leadership wrote to “acknowledge the untold pain, suffering, and loss of life unfolding from the violence happening now in Israel and Palestine.” President Laurie Patton seems unclear about who is making the violence “happen.” She goes on to warn against “hate, racism, ethnic discrimination, antisemitism, or Islamophobia.” The equivalence is complete, and we can move on to meet the real threat: Islamophobia. Compare this muddle to the perfect clarity of Middlebury’s official response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: It “wreaked untold havoc in the lives of innocent civilians. Russia’s aggression against its democratic neighbor is a violation of international law, made only more egregious by its escalation in the face of international condemnation. I join that condemnation in solidarity with our Middlebury community.” How easy it would have been to revise that statement ever so slightly to say that Hamas “wreaked untold havoc in the lives of innocent civilians. Hamas’s aggression against its democratic neighbor is a violation of international law, made only more egregious by its escalation in the face of international condemnation. I join that condemnation in solidarity with our Middlebury community.”

The University of California–Berkeley, which spends $36 million annually on its Division of Equity & Inclusion, may be the most openly antisemitic campus in the country. Its law school is under federal investigation for discriminating against Jews. Student organizations there expressed their “unwavering support” for the Hamas pogrom. The president refused to condemn this statement. Instead, he expressed his heartbreak at “the violence and suffering in Israel and Gaza,” pointedly comparing Israel’s self-defense to the terrorist attacks themselves, gesturing, like too many others, to the “complex history” of the situation.

In reality though, no complexity is so great as to obscure the distinction between the intentional slaughter of innocents and targeted strikes against terrorists. Some schools eventually issued careful statements—but their initial reaction—or lack of reaction—is most telling, especially when contrasted with quick and decisive past declarations of outrage.

At Stanford University, the administration has covered itself in special disgrace by adding dishonesty to cowardice, despite finally acknowledging the horror. Criticized for its silence about the weekend’s slaughter, Stanford claimed in an unsigned statement that it “does not take positions on geopolitical issues and news events.” But when Russia invaded Ukraine, Stanford’s president released this statement: “The unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and the attack it represents on democracy, is beyond shocking.” He continued, “It has been remarkable to witness the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people.” Stanford also commented when a child’s skipping rope was found in a tree in 2021, where it had been tangled for some years, officially denouncing it as a “a potent symbol of anti-Black racism and violence that is completely unacceptable under any circumstances.” Stanford discovered the principle of institutional neutrality, it seems, just in time for the Sabbath assault on Israeli civilians.

Under the principle of institutional neutrality, colleges and universities should indeed refrain from speaking corporately on contemporary social or political issues, unless they transcend the institution’s values as a whole (such as the wanton taking of innocent life by terrorists). Higher education’s mission is to encourage diversity of thought. But condemning brutality and savagery, whether the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a policeman, or the civilian carnage Hamas wrought, is not a political statement. No one has asked presidents to endorse Zionism or the two-state solution or anything vaguely geopolitical. They needed only to affirm human decency without which the university is a place of moral chaos.

However serpentine the ongoing contortions of these administrators, what is revealed in these official reactions by colleges is a cancerous moral rot and intellectual confusion. Bothsidesism is a symptom; the root cause is worse. They were perfectly able to rush to condemn the murder of George Floyd, the seedy depravities uncovered by the #MeToo movement, and the brutal invasion of Ukraine—as they should. They pronounce vocally and volubly on the events of January 6, 2021, and on horrible killings at houses of worship. They take flamboyant public positions on everything from affirmative action to climate policy to marriage equality. So why is it so hard to condemn the slaughter of Jewish babies? Why is it so hard to offer proper support and empathy to their grieving Jewish students?

The University of Pennsylvania’s president had no word of censure for Penn’s Palestine Writes festival, which ran between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and featured Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, notorious for exhibitionist antisemitism. Then came the anemic initial response of Penn’s president to the Hamas atrocities. Jon Huntsman, a Penn graduate and donor and a former governor of Utah, pinpointed the cause of his alma mater’s failure: “Moral relativism has fueled the university’s race to the bottom.” If only Penn’s administration possessed such moral (and pedagogical) clarity.

To be fair, some universities have offered proper statements that unambiguously condemn the pogrom of Hamas. But these are few and far between. The United States used to lead in higher education, but now we need to look for leadership abroad, for example in the exemplary statement of the German Rectors’ Conference that noted quickly, clearly, and unambiguously:

We are deeply shocked and appalled by the terrorist attack of Hamas on Israel, the terrible massacres, and the kidnappings.

On behalf of all German universities, I would like to express our sincerest condolences and heartfelt sympathy. We are deeply saddened by the senseless loss of life. Our thoughts are with those killed and injured, those still in danger, and their families and friends.

As the German Rectors’ Conference, the voice of German universities, we stand in solidarity with the Israeli universities and academic colleges and all their members. We would be grateful if you could share this message of sympathy and solidarity with your member institutions.

Educational institutions have a responsibility to educate and lead—not only in subject matters but in basic issues of morality. Those who fail to condemn the slaughter of children and fail to show empathy to their students who identify with this slaughter, are failing their mission at the most basic level.

Marc Zvi Brettler is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor in Judaic Studies at Duke University. Michael B. Poliakoff is the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

This article appeared on ReaclearEducation on October 20, 2023.

ACTA is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to academic freedom, academic excellence, and accountability in higher education. We receive no government funding and are supported through the generosity of individuals and foundations.



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