Now that the horrors committed by Hamas in Israel are being revealed in detail, colleges and universities are issuing statements about the Israel/Palestine war. As I adhere to the University of Chicago’s Kalven Principles of institutional neutrality, I don’t think any such statements should take sides, even though I think that there’s a clear right-and-wrong wrong here: Hamas perpetrated sickening butchery and invaded Israel, and Israel is simply responding in self defense. (It’s morally obtuse to recite a list of Israel’s supposed oppression of Palestine when condemning such barbarity.)
Nevertheless, universities should not, I think, say anything like that so long as they’ve adopted the principle of institutional neutrality embodied in Kalven. The principle is there to avoid chilling speech by avoiding institutional statements, and of course there are those, misguided as they are, who think that Israel got what was coming to it. Their speech should not be chilled or suppressed because the University has taken sides. It should not take sides.
What my University issued was a general statement about the war and about the resources available to distressed students:
Dear Members of the University Community, The attack, ongoing conflict, and loss of life in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank have brought deep concern and sorrow to the University of Chicago community. Our Office of International Affairs (OIA) has extended support to students affiliated with the region who may be directly affected. We recognize that the loss of life, casualties, and escalating conflict bring pain and distress for those in our community, especially those with family members or other loved ones in the region.
Please note that the U.S. State Department has issued a Travel Advisory for the region; we advise anyone considering travel to the affected areas to check the latest guidance from the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Israel. Members of the University community who are planning international travel are always encouraged to use the UChicago Traveler resource.
Students can also contact OIA at 773.702.7752 or firstname.lastname@example.org if they need any information or assistance. Students can walk into the Student Wellness Center (840 East 59th Street) during open hours (8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday to Friday) to meet with the clinician on call in Counseling; or they can call 773.702.3625 and speak with a clinician after hours. Visit the Student Wellness website to learn more about mental health services and for information on how to schedule a counseling appointment. Assistance for faculty and staff is available through Perspectives at 800.456.6327. Please contact our offices if you need support or assistance during this difficult time.
Michele Rasmussenof Students in the UniversityDean
Nick Seamonsof the Office of International Affairs and Assistant Dean of Students in the UniversityExecutive Director
Note that no sides are taken here; the statement gives practical information, a recognition that the events are distressing, and a list of resources available to students who need help. This is, I think, the way it should be.
But only two schools in the U.S.—mine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—have formally announced an adherence to institutional neutrality. Many other schools are issuing statements left and right, most of them mealymouthed because colleges, many quite woke, desperately try to avoid taking Israel’s “side” by condemning Hamas and its actions. (The “proper” Leftist position is to simply condemn Israel for being a colonialist “apartheid state.”)
If a school doesn’t have a policy of institutional neutrality, and has in the past issued statements taking sides on political, ideological, or moral issues (e.g.. George Floyd’s murder, the Capitol insurrection), then it is more or less obliged to say something about Israel and Palestine, and at the very least condemn Hamas. For all moral and rational people must condemn Hamas, and, at the same time, avoid the reprehensible tactic of equating what Hamas did with Israel’s supposed aparthid-ish oppression of Gaza, or of calling Israel an “apartheid state” that had this butchery coming to it because of its “colonialism.” There are other times when you can express such opinions. But I have not seen any letters to a college from its administration that said the right thing. (I’ve omitted several others in this post.)
The NYT article on Harvard’s letter to its community, describing how the University’s ex-president Larry Summers called out the school for its failure to condemn Hamas, made the same point (my bolding below):
The debate over Israel and the fate of Palestinians has been one of the most divisive on campus for decades, and has scorched university officials who have tried to moderate or mollify different groups.
But Dr. Summers’s pointed criticism raised questions about the obligation of universities to weigh in on difficult political matters.
A famous 1967 declaration by the University of Chicago called for institutions to remain neutral on political and social matters, saying a university “is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” But students over the years have frequently and successfully pressed their administrations to take positions on matters like police brutality, global warming and war.
Dr. Summers said in an interview that he could understand the case for university neutrality in political disputes, but that Harvard had forfeited that prerogative by speaking out on many other issues.
I agree with Summers. If you habitually issue statements taking sides on political or ideological issues (e.g., condemning the Jan. 6 insurrection), then you’re more or less obliged to say something about Israel and Palestine, and that means condemning what Hamas did—for what Hamas did is indisputably immoral and worthy of condemnation. Unfortunately, colleges, fearful of taking the side of Israel, have waffled and weaseled about the issue. Below are letters of that type from two schools: Amehert College and Cornell University.
An anonymous person at Amherst College sent me a copy of the email that the Dean of Students sent to all students. The bolding in the second paragraph is mine.
From: Angie Tissi-Gassoway
Date: Sun, Oct 8, 2023 at 4:13 PM
Subject: Amherst College and the violence in Israel/Gaza
We are reaching out to offer support related to this weekend’s recent and ongoing violence between Hamas and Israeli forces. As of this writing, over a thousand Israelis and Palestinians have lost their lives this weekend, and thousands more have been wounded. Like many of you, we are closely monitoring this unfolding conflict.
We are appalled by and condemn acts of war and terrorism that target civilian loss of life and the taking of civilian hostages. The conflict in Israel/Palestine tends to be tremendously polarizing, leading those with strong views to frame current conflict as originating from or justified by their own impression of that history. Whatever our beliefs, allegiances, and desired outcomes, let us not overlook this very real and significant loss of human lives.
Here on campus, we know that many of you particularly—our Jewish, Muslim, and Middle Eastern and North African affiliated students—have close family, friends, religious, and cultural ties to that region and its people. We know some of you may already be greatly impacted by events of the past two days, while others of you may more so be bracing in anticipation of local and social media reaction of various forms.For every student who may be experiencing difficulty in your own way, we are here for you, and want to hear from you. We care about how you’re doing and what you need, and understand that support can look very different for each person. In addition to the resources shared below, please know that the two of us, and the wider Student Affairs team, are here to listen, to see you, and to hold space. We’re holding you in our hearts.
Finally, across the many different views, opinions, and convictions related to Israel/Palestine, we encourage you to stay human, to resist oversimplifying and vilifying those who may seem and feel to be “other” or at fault. It can be tempting to project the other as a monolith, and to lash out at any who hold possible affiliation. Our community needs to be better than that — and our community is better than that. Last spring, at a CHI salon, we heard from a Palestinian and an Israeli working together with the Roots organization in Israel, two individuals with intergenerational and opposing ideologies about the region who also understood the necessity of not allowing pain, grief, and anger to erode one’s own humanity — and the ability to see the humanity of others.
The Amherst community has a long history of negotiating challenging moments of conflict, and we will work to support one another through this one. Please take care of yourselves, and please take care of those around you. We’re here for you.
Chief Student Affairs Officer & Dean of Students
Note that Amherst (which has no Kalven report) does make one minor statement that takes sides, and I’ve put it in bold. Israel did not take civilian hostages; Hamas did. (Using soldiers as hostages to negotiate, especially threatening to kill them if you don’t get what you want is also a war crime.)
The rest of the letter is “both side-ism”, noting that there are diverse opinions about Israel and Palestine, which is true, but throwing that in has no place in a letter condemning a specific incident that by all rational lights is disgusting. Again, this holds only if you have previously issued statements taking sides on political issues, and my correspondent says that Amherst indeed has done so. This part is especially galling:
Finally, across the many different views, opinions, and convictions related to Israel/Palestine, we encourage you to stay human, to resist oversimplifying and vilifying those who may seem and feel to be “other” or at fault. It can be tempting to project the other as a monolith, and to lash out at any who hold possible affiliation. Our community needs to be better than that — and our community is better than that.
“Stay human” my tuchas! Was Hamas “staying human”?
It goes on in that vein, but in this case it is not oversimplifying matters to unequivocally condemn Hamas’s actions. Biden did so in his speech yesterday, and note that he didn’t go over the issues his administration had with Israel in the past. That’s true, but it would only cloud what he was trying to say.
The whole tenor of Amherst’s letter is that the situation is “complex” and we shouldn’t pass judgement on what happened. After all, we have to “stay human” and “not oversimplify” the situation. Of course Palestinians are not a monolith, but Hamas pretty much is, and it’s Hamas that needs to be condemned, and its members as deserve criticism as a group. What Amherst is doing is giving the impression, ever so subtly, that Hamas and Israel are moral equivalents.
Cornell University is known as one of the wokest elite universities in America: FIRE ranked it #212 out of 248 colleges in freedom of speech, giving it a “below average” speech ranking. Thge school does not adhere to institutional neutrality and has issued more than a few political statements in the name of the University. Here’s one issued by President Martha Pollack in 2020 (compare that to what she says below):
So here’s what its President sent to everyone hard on the heels of the Hamas attacks. Again, bolding is mine.
Dear Cornell Community,
Today I write with the heaviest of hearts in response to last weekend’s attacks by Hamas militants in Israel and the brutal fighting that continues in its aftermath. Many in our community are deeply affected by this devastating and violent situation, and I wish to express my horror, sadness and concern.
As a university, our first priority, as always in these situations, has been to identify and contact all faculty, students and staff whom we knew to be in the area, to assure their safety and to make arrangements for their passage home, if desired. We have also reached out to all students who have a registered address in the region to offer whatever support we can. And we continually offer a broad range of mental health and other support services. Please reach out and seek help if you need it.
The loss of human life is always tragic, whether caused by human actions such as terrorism, war or mass shootings, or by natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires or floods. Regrettably, there are so often horrific events around the world, and because it is impossible to respond to each of them, there is no way to acknowledge the pain that different members of our community feel when such events occur. Just last month, we saw atrocities in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and this past weekend there was a terrible earthquake in Afghanistan. Today, as we mourn the loss of life in the Middle East, I want also to call out events like these and acknowledge the distress of our community members impacted by them.
In stressful moments like this, we need to embrace our shared humanity and be supportive of one another. As a community of scholars, we can also learn about the history and politics of the Middle East. Perhaps some of our current students will ultimately have the wisdom that has so eluded world leaders, and find a way to permanent peace, not just in the Middle East but around the world.
Martha E. Pollack
Once again there’s a lot of hand-wringing about loss of life and the horrors of fighting, even comparing this event to natural disasters like earthquakes. There’s a general “mourning of loss of life in the Middle East”, but not a mention, much less a condemnation—at least Amherst had the word “condemn” in its letter—of what Hamas did. This is certainly a “both sides” letter, giving the impression that both Israel and Hamas (“the brutal fighting that continues in its aftermath”) bear responsibility for the fighting going on now. Since Cornell has no Kalven policy, Pollack’s failure to condemn the kidnapping, rape, and murder of civilians is a moral lacuna. She’s clearly not “sickened” by Hamas’s rapes, murders, and kidnappings.
Other people noticed that, too, and so Pollack had to issue this embarrassing clarification today (bolding is mine):
Dear Cornell Community,
Earlier today, I wrote to you with the goal of providing information about the efforts that we have made over the last few days to reach out to and support our faculty, students and staff who have been impacted by the devastation in Israel, and to acknowledge the impact that this and other recent tragedies have had on members of our campus community.In the hours since, I have heard from a number of you who expressed dismay that I failed to say this explicitly: that the atrocities committed by Hamas this past weekend were acts of terrorism, which I condemn.
I offer my heartfelt apologies for the omission from my previous message.
Sincerely,Martha E. PollackPresident
Can you take her words seriously? She had to be REMINDED that Hamas committed reprehensible and horrific acts of terrorism! What kind of moral compass did she have?
Now this whole mess can be rectified by following the two guidelines below, adopting the first and, if you won’t do that, abiding by the second.
1.) Adopt a policy of institutional neutrality like the Kalven report. A university or its units (like departments) is to make no political, ideological, or moral pronouncements, for they tend to chill freedom of speech. Like Kalven, a few exceptions may be warranted if national or global issues directly affect the workings of the university.
2.) If you don’t have the guts to adopt a Kalven-ish principle, and feel that you must take sides, do it rationally and thoughtfully, not as a way of avoiding contradicting “woke” ideology or as a way of saying that all sides are always morally equal. Absent Kalven, the administration’s job is to provide moral clarity, not to satisfy its “customers” by adhering to au courant liberal principles.
This is often a mess, of course, as you can see above, so it’s always best to adopt principle #1. As Summers said, you forfeit the prerogative of neutrality if you’ve spoken out on many other issues.