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Tensions Are Rising Between Universities & Students Over Israel & Palestine

Following the Oct. 7, 2023 attack on Israel by Hamas, a Palestinian militant organization, tension between U.S. universities and their staff and students is rising. Universities and professors are coming out with statements on both sides of the debate, with some focusing on the Hamas atrocities, and others ultimately blaming Israel as a colonizer. There is also a rising tide of pro-Palestinian faculty and student groups who claim universities are not equally condemning the violence against Palestinians.  

In an unexpected attack on Oct. 7, Hamas launched rockets into Israel, killing and injuring civilians. Hamas fighters then raided Israel by air, land, and sea, taking soldiers and civilians hostage. Following the Hamas attack, Israel launched airstrikes on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Hundreds of thousands of Gaza Strip residents are now without homes as the conflict rages on. Israel also cut off electricity, food, and water to two million Gazan civilians, which means supplies are running low. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, made his country’s stance clear on Oct. 7: “Israel is at war.” 

The U.S. includes Hamas on a list of terrorist organizations. While many denounce the Hamas attack on innocent civilians, pro-Palestinian groups argue that Israel’s longtime occupation of Palestine means resistance is inevitable. On U.S. college campuses, the issue has been so divisive that protests have started up at schools like Columbia University, and students are calling on Cornell University to fire a history professor after he made inflammatory statements justifying the Hamas attack. (He apologized in a statement made to The Cornell Daily Sun on Oct. 18.) Other pro-Palestinian faculty and students are facing consequences across the nation for public statements. 

A Cornell University professor is under fire for comments at a pro-Palestine rally.

Professor Russell Rickford of Cornell University made comments that sparked backlash at a pro-Palestianian rally in New York on Oct. 15. Rickford said that despite the horror of violence, the attack meant Palestinians were “able to breathe for the first time in years.” Rickford also stated that if these Palestinians “weren’t exhilarated by this challenge to the monopoly of violence…then they would not be human.” 

Some horrified students took to Change.org to condemn Rickford’s comments as “hate speech” that justifies a “horrific and barbaric attack.” They call on Cornell to fire the professor. The petition also says Rickford’s comments are “against the principles of humanity” and that he is tarnishing Cornell’s name. As of Oct. 19, the petition has 8,908 signatures out of a 10,000-signature goal.

Cornell came out against statements such as Rickford’s. Cornell President Martha Pollack denounced Hamas on Oct. 16, saying the “intentional targeting and killing of innocent civilians is the very definition of terrorism.” She also said that any justifications of the Hamas attack do not reflect Cornell’s position. 

On Oct. 18, Rickford made a statement in The Cornell Daily Sun apologizing for what he said at the pro-Palestine rally. He said, “I recognize that some of the language I used was reprehensible and did not reflect my values.” He said he intended to make a point about grassroots resistance to oppression, but firmly denounces violence against civilians and antisemitism. 

Students call on Yale University to fire a professor after her pro-Palestine comment on X.

In a similar petition that has over 53,000 signatures as of Oct. 19, Yale University students are asking Yale to fire Professor Zareena Grewal. Grewal made a pro-Palestine statement on X, saying, “Israeli is a murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle, solidarity. #freepalestine.” 

The petition organizer, Natanel Crispe, wrote that Grewal “has unequivocally proven that she has no right being in her current role or in the field of education if she considers war crimes against civilians to be acts of resistance.” The petition says Grewal’s statement supports the actions of a terrorist organization, and should not be attached to an academic institution like Yale. Her Campus reached out to Grewal for comment on the petition but didn’t hear back by the time of publication. 

No action has been taken against Grewal. According to the student newspaper, Yale Daily News, the university said Grewal was exercising her freedom of speech on X. The president of the university also made a statement on Oct. 10, which condemned the attacks on civilians by Hamas.

Faculty at New York University support protesting Palestinian students.

Several faculty members at New York University say there is not enough support for Palestinian students. They formed a group called Faculty for Justice in Palestine, to stand in solidarity with NYU’s Students for Justice in Palestine. NYU made a statement on Oct. 10 condemning Hamas. 

The faculty group denounces the Hamas attack, but also points out that Israel’s violent colonization has denied Palestinians their human rights for the last 75 years. They state, “These are the root causes of the current wave of violence; history did not begin on October 7, 2023, however horrific the massive killing of Israeli civilians on that day was.”

Faculty for Justice in Palestine claims that students and faculty at NYU have been censured for supporting Palestine. This statement comes after a pro-Palestine NYU law student lost their position as president of the Student Bar Association and a job offer after they blamed Israel for the violence. 

This is an ongoing humanitarian crisis for civilians in Israel and the Gaza Strip. Here are some civilian relief organizations that you can donate to. There is also mental health support available for people in the U.S. affected by the conflict. 

Lia Freeman is a Her Campus National Writer for the Career and Life sections. She writes weekly articles along with covering more timely content. She recently graduated from the University of Sheffield in England, where she majored in philosophy, religious studies and ethics. Lia was the opinion editor for her university newspaper and the Deputy Head of News at her university's radio station. She also interned with a humanitarian journalist team called The India Story Agency, where she did social media, background research, and writing for work appearing in the British Medical Journal. Lia has freelanced in news and lifestyle for The Tab, Empoword Journalism, and Liberty Belle Magazine. She also occasionally publishes her own stories on Medium! Lia loves road-tripping and camping with her friends, and pretending she could be a Wimbledon star on the tennis court. Oftentimes you'll find her lost in a book or lost online. She is passionate about covering social issues and education, and hearing women's voices in the media.