Last week I received an email from my alma mater, and my heart – quite naively – sank.
“Dear fellow members of the Columbia community, I was devastated by the horrific attack on Israel this weekend and the ensuing violence that is affecting so many people.”
The email was from Minouche Shafik, the newly chosen president of Columbia University. In this email that went on to elaborate the importance of being supportive to the Columbia community, the only mention of Palestine was to point out that a webinar was to be hosted by its political science professors, which included speakers like Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In the past week or so, as the horror in Israel and Gaza unfolded, there was not a single person who would not condemn the appalling, indescribable brutality — the tales of Hamas using three-month-old babies as target practice will outlive the organisation. The Israeli death toll from the Hamas attacks goes over 1,300 while 3,200 suffer injuries. But not as many were as quick to decry — or say a few kind words at the very least — about the devastating counter-attack on Gaza, or the decades of apartheid, in their first responses, and no where was this rift more evident that in the North American university campuses considered to be the epicentres of superior thinking.
At least 2,700 people have been killed and 9,600 injured in Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes, according to the Gaza health ministry.
Minouche Shafik, who wrote the email, is an Oxford-educated economist, who was previously the president of London School of Economics, the deputy governor of the Bank of England, and has worked with the International Monetary Fund in the MENA region after the Arab Spring. It is difficult to believe that the woman who became the first female president – and that too, one of colour – in Columbia’s 269 years cannot write a more nuanced response that at least acknowledges the violence in Gaza or Palestine by name.
Immediately following the Hamas attack and Israel’s retaliation, a collective of student associations in Harvard sent out a statement saying that they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence”.
“Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum. The apartheid regime is the only one to blame. Israeli violence has structured every aspect of Palestinian existence for 75 years,” it said. But the letter did not directly condone terror attacks either. A barrage of reactions descended upon the student associations ranging from a former Harvard president to hedge fund CEOs such that the statement had to remove the names of the student associations signing the letter, to protect them.
Former Harvard president Larry Summers said he was sickened by it, adding, “The silence from Harvard’s leadership, so far, coupled with a vocal and widely reported student groups’ statement blaming Israel solely, has allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.”
Billionaire hedge fund CEO Bill Ackman and several other business leaders demanded that Harvard University release the names of students publicly and blacklist them, so that nobody employs them. If there is one thing that the statement by the students is guilty of, it is this — not condemning the attack on Israel in the same breath as the counter-aggression on Palestine. It is guilty of doing exactly what those with decades of experience and walls of accolades are doing — picking a side, and tacitly erasing the other. In another incident in Harvard, five administrators and one visiting professor who leads the Religion and Public Life programme at the university wrote a statement urging people to “challenge single story narratives that justify vengeance and retaliation”.
“Start with the rockets fired into Israel by Hamas on October 7, 2023 and not with the illegal occupation of Palestinian land by Israel and the blockade of Gaza since 2007, and you have an entirely different story,” they said, adding “To acknowledge the context out of which this latest spate of violence arises is not to diminish the pain and suffering of Israeli and Palestinian victims”.
In response, the dean of that institution, Harvard Divinity School, David F Holland put out a rejoinder saying that they do not represent the views of the institution. While university campuses erupt into a deafening din of “whataboutisms” and who gets to have the last word, throwing the right to freedom of expression to the dogs, the major takeaway is lost — people died like ants on both sides. Since the Nakba, 75 years of complicated history precedes the violence of today, and whatever form this war takes now, it is never going to be just.