College and university leaders at elite institutions in the US and other countries are being criticised for saying too little, too late in response to the Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent events in Israel and Gaza. It is even alleged that some of them have hesitated to condemn Hamas due to anti-semitism and donations from certain Arab countries.
Their lack of immediate and forceful condemnations of the Hamas group has been deemed “anti-Israel.” Prominent donors have condemned student statements in support of peace and Palestinian rights.
What seems lost in the complaints is any attention to the humanity of the people in both regions. The desire for peace is not an appeasement of Hamas.
The media also make it seem that what is happening at Harvard and Penn Universities in the US is widespread, while ignoring the initiatives taking place at other campuses worldwide.
A major goal of education is to foster questions and debate. I can question US policy and still be patriotic. I can question Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies and still believe that the Russian people deserve respect and security.
Why is it I cannot question Israeli policies without being called anti-semitic? Why cannot we question Hamas’ ideology without being called anti-Palestinian? Why cannot we advocate peace and security for Palestinians without be called apologists for Hamas and other Palestinian groups?
We should not be afraid of asking questions, even when the questions and the answers are uncomfortable. We should be afraid of those who demand silence or unquestioning obedience to their own dogmas. We learn from questions, not from mandated silence.
Campus leaders can organise teachable moments by calling upon faculties in Mideast Studies, Jewish History, Muslim and Islamic Studies, and US and European Foreign Policy to organise panel discussions and study guides, as the Dartmouth University faculty has done. They can acknowledge that the students are young and idealistic, just as they were one day.
After my tour in the US Navy, I was part of Vietnam Veterans against the War and could do so as a patriot without desecrating the lives of those who served and died in that war. I opposed an unnecessary war that put our troops in harm’s way.
Unfortunately, today, vengeance has been chosen as a major strategy. Vengeance is motivated by anger and ideology and has blotted out chances for dialogue and peace. It also has provoked hate-filled actions against innocent people on campuses and in other communities everywhere. Vengeance has exacerbated a victim-oppressor dynamic.
In response to the criticisms mentioned above, all universities must uphold the right to free expression and the value of academic freedom. The principle of free speech is not at all a cover for hate speech.
We must uphold the right of free expression even as we oppose violence and vandalism. We must recognise that people can have different views about Government policies even as they have similar values such as the desirability for peace and the equality of opportunity for secure lives.
Recognising the humanity and rights of Israelis is not the same as condoning Israeli Government policy, just as recognising the humanity and rights of Palestinians is not the same as supporting Hamas or other Palestinian groups. Both peoples deserve full security and the right to self-determination according to International Law.
The attack by Hamas, labelled as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union (EU), was indeed a horrific, barbarous act deemed a war crime by the United Nations (UN).
We should recognise that there are victims are both sides. University leaders should be among the first to call the attack and the response what they are: a prelude to war with no winners.
Gaza will be in ruins, with many thousands dead and millions dispossessed and ill. Israel, too, will suffer as the balance of the economy shifts even further toward defence and control of the Gaza Strip.
It is time for university leaders to call for campus discussions, “teach-ins,” to recognise this teachable moment and recall the well-known lessons of history, to discuss the humanity of all peoples, and advocate for an end to violence in this conflict and other conflicts around the world.
It also is time for religious leaders of all faiths, including scholars and chaplains, to encourage dialogue and learn from peace makers and statesmen like Nelson Mandela, Leymah Gbowee, and Mahatma Gandhi.
Every person deserves a chance to live in dignity with adequate food, shelter, safety, and a homeland as enunciated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
The first step is to acknowledge these First Principles of Human Rights. The second step is to advocate actions to realise the promise of these principles everywhere around the world. University dons and faculty should be in the forefront of this effort to preserve humanity from the scourge of war.
Some will say that colleges and universities should stay out of political discussions, but the principles of free speech, academic freedom, and peaceful dialogue are political only to those opposed to them. They are essential to our students’ futures.
PEN-America, an organisation of writers that promotes free expression worldwide, suggests guidelines for institutions to follow in times of conflict and controversy.
They make sense for establishing the conditions for teachable moments: Embrace free speech; Educate the community on the issues; Defend a space for open dialogue and discussion; Reinforce norms of civil discourse. Thus we must: Ensure physical safety; Support and demonstrate solidarity with targeted students, faculty, and staff; Investigate incidents of violence and vandalism and hold perpetrators accountable.
It is time for university chiefs and dons to be moral leaders denying any place on their campuses for hate and anger and promoting peaceful solutions through thoughtful discourse among students and faculty members.
Dr. Robert A. Scott is President Emeritus of Adelphi University, US, and author of “How University Boards Work,” Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018