I don’t understand much Arabic, but growing up in the Lebanese community there’s a word that I will always recognize. It’s aiwa, a word that means “yes” but is often used as an expression of celebration — a word I learned at weddings and church parties. It’s something people shout as they dance around a couple at their wedding. It’s a word I associate with celebration and joy. At a screening of footage from the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, shown at Harvard University on Dec. 4, I heard what sounded like that same word, also used as a gleeful exclamation — but this time, at the death of a Jew.
I call my parents when I want to share good news. A cousin is engaged, a new piece is coming out, a friend got a new job. In this footage, a man also calls his parents. His good news? He killed 10 Jews, he told his father, shouting for his mother to come hear. It sounds like cries of joy.
I praise God for many things. For my family, for my friends. But I have never thought of invoking God’s name over the bodies of slain men, women, and children. I heard “Allahu Akbar” shouted with jubilation as Hamas fighters indiscriminately shot at people in cars or brought them back to Gaza to show to a large group of men, many filming.
There were many other things I couldn’t comprehend and will never be able to unsee. A group of women my sister’s age huddled in a room together. Then killed or taken away. A corpse being beheaded with a knife, another with a blunt garden hoe. People burned beyond recognition, including the tiny body of a baby. Men dragging injured women away; a young man whose arm is gone, just bone sticking out. A Hamas member taking a bottle of soda out of the fridge of a man he had just murdered as the man’s now-fatherless sons watched in disbelief. Young men and women — many my age, and many the age of college protesters — enjoying a music festival. Then paragliders come in. Then they’re running for their lives. Many don’t survive.
Harvard was the first Ivy League university to show footage from Oct. 7, which has mostly been reserved for private viewing by journalists, politicians, and public leaders. The footage was compiled by the Israel Defense Forces primarily from Hamas bodycams, surveillance cameras, and social media videos and shown during an event hosted by Harvard Chabad, the Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, and hedge fund CEO Bill Ackman, who has been a vocal critic of anti-Israel sentiment on campus.
Why would anyone want to watch such gruesome and cruel material, much less show it to college students? Chabad’s Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi told me he was initially opposed to the idea of the screening because he “didn’t believe that this is something that any human being should ever watch.” But he changed his mind as he saw students on campus start to minimize the barbarity that took place on Oct. 7 with chants calling for “Intifada” and “from the river to the sea.” The Consul General of Israel to New England, Meron Reuben, who was present Dec. 4, told me before the event that there isn’t a “specific reason” why the screening is being hosted at Harvard. “Our focus is to try and get this on to as many campuses as possible.”
Showing the footage to people in higher education is especially crucial as groups on campus continue to romanticize the notion of “resistance” to the point of trivializing terrorism and sexual assault. Ackman told me in an interview that when it comes to the “resistance of an oppressed group” students don’t think critically about “how vile [the crime is], no matter the nature of the victim, whether it’s a military soldier or a 6-year-old girl.”
Across American campuses, a subset of pro-Palestinian voices have praised the attacks or sought to rationalize them as legitimate armed resistance, as if Hamas were just some slightly overzealous civil rights group. Columbia University’s Joseph Massad called the attacks “awesome.” “The sight of the Palestinian resistance fighters storming Israeli checkpoints separating Gaza from Israel was astounding,” he wrote. At a “Vigil for the Martyrs of Palestine” on Oct. 10 at George Washington University, one speaker said, “Our resistance fighters are defying Zionist intelligence as we speak, exposing the cracks and its ironclad foundation and dispelling the illusion of its invincibility.”
The screening was meant to help students understand why such statements are beyond the pale in the wake of such an attack, especially when they can use other words to signal their support for Palestinian rights. Ackman told me if students “want to know what ‘Intifada’ means” or what the Hamas charter means, they should see the footage. “They’re supportive of it because they view it as resistance, the resistance of an oppressed group.”
Whether or not students are aware of the implications of many of their statements is perhaps beside the point. Using those statements in any situation points to a dire need for colleges to model civil debate and cultivate a willingness among students to listen to ideas they might not agree with. Ackman, who told me he believes in free speech on campus, is especially concerned about students’ conduct. “What if people put on white hoods and chanted ‘kill black people’? You can say ‘OK, that’s permitted speech,’ but … that’s not conduct becoming a Harvard student.”
Accepting that the Oct. 7 attacks were brutal acts of terrorism doesn’t mean you have to agree with how the Israeli government has responded to them. And the anger at campus protests must not be mistaken as anger toward the Palestinian cause. Moral clarity on the issue includes sympathy for innocent Gazans currently caught in the crossfire as well as understanding that not all pro-Palestinian students support Hamas. But the broader campus climate at elite institutions demands students embrace a sort of cartoon-caricature view of Israelis as pitiless colonizers, always the villains of the story — and, conversely, of Hamas as resistance fighters for Palestinian victims. It’s clear that such a narrative has eclipsed basic knowledge — like which “river” and which “sea” students are even chanting about — signaling a dire need for more open dialogue and instruction in the classroom.
The Harvard auditorium used for the screening was nearly full, but it appeared there were few undergraduates present. According to Harvard Chabad, there were about 270 people present, including undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, and faculty members, including some faculty deans. One young student shared that she was nervous to be seen, a sign of the unpopularity of pro-Israel views on campus. I’d wager that very few — if any — of the students who signed onto a controversial student group statement blaming Israel for Oct. 7 were in attendance. But Ackman remains hopeful. “These students, each of them, have their circle of influence and I suspect this will be talked about among people, the student body, the faculty.”
No matter what you think about Israel, no matter how many mistakes you believe the nation has made, it should be easy to see and hear accounts of Hamas’s actions that day and condemn them as profoundly inhumane, beyond the pale of any resistance — and not the fault of anyone except for those who chose to perpetrate them. The Middle East is complicated — especially when it comes to the Israel-Palestine debate — but certain events are simply evil. Oct. 7 is one of them.
Carine Hajjar is a Globe Opinion writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.