Stanford University's campus from above / Wikimedia Commons
Stanford University campus (Photo/Wikimedia)

Universities’ failure to condemn Hamas gets an ‘F’ from faculty

With Harvard University in the national news for its controversial, lackluster response to Hamas’ surprise attack in Israel, faculty members at Bay Area universities have reacted with consternation to their own employers’ lukewarm statements.

“The message actually made Jews feel less safe,” said Jonathan Roth, a history professor at San Jose State University, about the statement from his own administration following the Oct. 7 attacks.

The concerns about how university leaders are addressing the crisis come at a time of heightened tension on campuses, as students and faculty report an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety, especially in light of the calls for “a day of jihad” from Hamas on Oct. 13.

“It doesn’t seem like our universities are meeting the moment,” Tye Gregory, head of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, told J.

Faculty are voicing concerns over what they see as a lack of leadership and empathy from their administrations during a time of extreme stress.

“There was a good deal of fear on campus last week,” John Wilhelmsson, who teaches ethics at SJSU, told J. in an email Oct. 17. “I personally know a Jewish professor who was concerned about going to her Friday class, and one of her Jewish students was so concerned that they did not attend class.”

Three San Jose State members of the Jewish Faculty and Staff Association (JFSA) told J. they were very unhappy with the school’s lack of explicit condemnation of the attacks in a statement released on Oct. 10 by the school’s interim chief diversity officer, Dawn Lee.

“While many have strong feelings about the long history of struggle in the Middle East, no matter one’s perspective, the violence and terror taking place halfway around the world reverberate here,” Lee wrote. “As a university community, we have emphasized that we stand against hate, violence and oppression.”

Lee also invited the community to join a vigil hosted by the JFSA “where we can come together in solidarity and hope for peace.”

“What she is doing is making it worse,” said Roth, pointing out that the letter did not mention the word “Hamas.”

Faculty pushed for a response from the university’s president but had similar concerns when that appeared.

“Activism rests at the heart of San José State University, and is a hallmark of who we are as a community,” began a letter to faculty by Cynthia Teniente-Matson, SJSU’s president since January. “This university does not support or endorse violent actions under any circumstances, and condemns all acts of terrorism.”

San Jose State is not the only school to get pushback from its own community. As previously reported by J., the Jewish community at Stanford voiced displeasure with Stanford’s initial statement, which Hebrew University of Jerusalem called ““shockingly feeble condemnations” of the Hamas-led massacre.

“A lot of schools, universities and businesses are putting out statements that are a version of ‘all lives matter’ statements,” said Gregory.

JCRC reached out to renowned medical school UCSF after faculty and staff contacted the agency with complaints about administration reaction.

UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood issued a statement on Oct. 9, reading in part: “The news from Israel and Gaza this weekend is deeply distressing and it is impossible not to feel a profound sense of heartbreak for the many lives across the region that have been lost thus far.”

A letter from Gregory to Hawgood called the statement “unacceptable and biased.”

There was a good deal of fear on campus last week.

“The University was unable to mention the largest massacre of the Jewish people since the end of the Holocaust, and offered up no humanitarian organizations to support families of victims of terror, including the 1,300 murdered and 150 kidnapped in Gaza,” Gregory wrote in the letter, which was made available to J.

JCRC also took issue with an email sent by UCSF chief diversity officer Renee Navarro that mentioned a web gathering last week titled “Community Circle for Palestine” and subtitled “Voicing the Enormity of this Moment.”
“Though this appears to be a private event, [Navarro] has endorsed it on behalf of the university, with absolutely no broader context, no empathy for a nation in grief, and no support for Jewish students,” Gregory wrote in the days before the Oct. 16 online event.

Among the speakers listed was Hatem Bazian, an Islamic law and theology scholar who is an outspoken critic of Israel and co-founder of Students for Justice in Palestine.

But Bazian, an ethnic studies professor at UC Berkeley, was also the co-signer of a letter with political science and Israel studies professor Ron Hassner to their own community at UC Berkeley. The pair said that though they disagree “vehemently” in terms of politics, they were both heartbroken at accounts of violence on campus.

“Disagreement and differing points of view are an essential part of campus life, and we expect that you treat one another with the same respect and dignity that we are modeling here,” read the bulk of the short letter, which was posted on X.

Sven-Erik Rose, a professor of German and director of the Jewish studies program at UC Davis, said that while he couldn’t speak for his colleagues, “I personally very much appreciated the statement” put out Oct. 9 by UC President Dr. Michael Drake and UC Board of Regents Chair Richard Leib.

“Our hearts are heavy in the face of the horrific attack on Israel over the weekend, which involved the loss of many innocent lives and the abduction of innocent hostages, including children and the elderly. This was an act of terrorism,”the statement began.

“I think the response was an admirable attempt to address the nature of these terrible events while holding all of those affected in our hearts,” Rose said.

UC Davis released its own statement Oct. 10 “on the terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens and the violence in the Gaza strip” written by Chancellor Gary May.

UC Santa Cruz released an unsigned “statement on Israel-Hamas conflict” that said, “We condemn this act of terrorism” without mentioning anything about hostages or civilian victims.
“We have watched with deep sadness the unfolding violence in Israel and Gaza, and we are gravely concerned at the escalating conflict across the region,” the statement said. “Our hearts go out to everyone in harm’s way and all who have been affected.”

Said Becka Ross, executive director of Santa Cruz Hillel: “Some people felt it was a great statement, some people felt it could have been a lot stronger.”

She said that she was focusing not on words but on “the actions that they’re taking.” To that end, she was pleased that both UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive and campus provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer both showed up at a vigil for Israeli victims.

Still, she added, since the war began it’s been “a hard climate” and “students were scared.”

“There’s a lot of really intense rhetoric online,” she added. “Even if it’s not targeted to students, they’re seeing it.”

Up Highway 17, tensions at San Jose State have come on the heels of a September incident in which a student manning a table for the Jewish student union and a campus pro-Israel group was hit in the face by a juice box thrown by a pro-Palestine student. The alleged attacker subsequently was arrested and suspended, according to campus police.

Roth, the history professor at SJSU, said that his administration’s response to such incidents and especially to Hamas’ terrorist attack in Israel is more crucial than ever. Yet, he continues to be frustrated by the lack of empathy and support from his employer of 20 years.

In situations like that, “naturally we’re going to feel abandoned, naturally we’re going to feel alone, naturally we’re going to feel afraid,” he said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.