Universities were engulfed by controversy this week over how their leaders responded to Hamas’s Saturday attack on Israeli civilians. Brandeis University was an exception.
The Waltham school’s president, Ronald Liebowitz, quickly and clearly denounced Hamas’s attack, which included militants gunning down families in their homes, as “terrorism” in a campus-wide missive sent around 6 p.m. the same day.
That approach separated him from many other university leaders.
At least three schools — Harvard, Tufts, and Dartmouth — first issued statements that did not describe the attack as terrorism, followed by second statements, a day or so later, that did. Other university presidents called the attack terrorism in their first statements, but took days to issue them. Some have said nothing at all.
To be sure, Liebowitz is in a unique position. He is, by his own description, “an American Jew who feels strongly about Israel,” leading an institution with a strong Jewish identity, founded in 1948, the same year the state of Israel was established. And the median student view at Brandeis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be different than at other local institutions.
Still, his response offers a window, if an imperfect one, into how things might have played out differently on college campuses this week.
By late Saturday, news reports made clear the barbarity of the Hamas attack and that subsequent Israeli airstrikes were killing large numbers of Palestinians. Some university leaders seemed to be trying to thread a needle: acknowledging the devastation in both Israel and Gaza without taking a side, even as some student groups justified or even applauded Hamas’s attack. But the school leaders’ statements, critics charged, ended up implying a moral equivalence between Hamas’s incursion and Israel’s retaliation.
Liebowitz, by contrast, did not deliberate long about when or how to speak. “It was pretty clear these were terrorists,” he said in an interview with the Globe. “They were going after civilians.”
“It does no one any good to call it anything other than what it is,” he added.
Liebowitz’s Saturday message was an unalloyed condemnation of the attack. “This morning we awoke to news of a deadly terrorist attack on Israel,” he began. “We condemn in the strongest way terrorism such as we have seen today perpetrated against innocent civilians.”
The next day, he attended a campus vigil with his wife and one of his sons, and read a psalm.
“It was very important for the Jewish community here to see that we have the university’s support,” said Michael Schwartz, a senior at the school. (A spokesperson said Brandeis estimates the student body is about one-third Jewish.)
Liebowitz’s public participation differed from the actions of other university leaders, which at least some Jewish students viewed as more tentative.
Claudine Gay, the newly inaugurated president of Harvard, attended a private dinner organized by the school’s Hillel organization on Sunday, but did not go to a public vigil in Harvard Yard.
The next evening — nearly three days after news broke of the Hamas attack — she and other university leaders issued their first public statement, which many Jewish students and advocates found disappointing.
“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 under way,” she and Harvard’s top deans wrote in a statement released Monday evening.
“They seemed to be trying to find balance,” said Jonah Steinberg, the head of the Anti-Defamation League’s New England office and a former director of Harvard Hillel. But Steinberg and many Jewish students, faculty, and alumni were dismayed immediately after the statement was released that it did not, in their view, acknowledge the attack’s brutality.
The Hamas militants murdered parents in front of their children, slaughtered more than 200 concertgoers at a festival, and kidnapped an estimated 150 people now being held in Gaza.
The next day, Tuesday, writing under her own name, Gay issued another statement that was more straightforward. “[L]et there be no doubt that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. Such inhumanity is abhorrent. . .” she said.
Liebowitz said university leaders, including Gay, had been in a difficult position, pulled in different directions by competing interests and constituencies.
“It’s unfortunate, I think, that it took a couple of different statements and a few days to address what many people were waiting for,” Liebowitz said of the Harvard response.
At least one other university president, Michael Roth of Wesleyan, also immediately denounced the “Hamas atrocities” Saturday. His school, like Brandeis, has avoided substantial controversies this week.
Gay’s predicament was complicated by an inflammatory statement issued by about 30 student groups Saturday that seemed to justify Hamas’s attack. “Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum,” the statement said. “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”
That statement, coupled with the university’s silence for nearly three full days, sparked a controversy marked by sharp public criticisms from figures such as former Harvard president Lawrence Summers and US Representative, and Harvard graduate, Seth Moulton.
At least two student groups at Brandeis have made statements this week that were explicit in their defense of Hamas. One group, Students for Justice in Palestine, said it “reject[ed] the characterization of Palestinian resistance as ‘terrorism.’” Another group, Revolutionary Student Organization, said in a statement, “Colonized people everywhere. . .have the right to resist by any means necessary.”
But those comments came after Liebowitz had already made his position clear, so there was no significant pressure for him to respond.
In the Globe interview Thursday, he called the comments “beyond the pale” and, in the spirit of an educator, said they stemmed, in part, from a lack of knowledge. “This whole idea that Hamas is representative of Palestinians reflects ignorance,” he said.
Since the Hamas attack, which killed about 1,200 people, Israel has pounded Gaza with airstrikes, killing more than 1,500 people, officials said.
Liebowitz did not get through the week free from criticism. He received some “angry” emails from alumni about his Saturday statement, he said.
“They said I didn’t go far enough. They felt it was a weak message,” he said. “They thought I should have been much more condemning. And I only wrote ‘Israel’ once or twice.”
Globe correspondent Daniel Kool contributed to this report.