Several college student organizations in the United States are backtracking on support for an Oct. 8 open letter justifying the actions of Hamas in its war against Israel after intense backlash.
Authored and publicly released by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) through its Instagram page, the letter was co-signed by more than 30 other student organizations and stated they held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”
Hamas, a recognized terrorist group, launched a surprise Oct. 7 attack on Israel from its stronghold in the Gaza Strip, killing over 1,000 Israelis, wounding more than 2,000, and kidnapping many others.
In a feud stretching back decades that has seen ongoing conflict in the region, the Islamist Hamas has said it does not accept the existence of the state of Israel, and has tried to claim the land of Israel for the state of Palestine through armed resistance. Other Palestinian groups like the secular Fatah differ with Hamas in that they emphasise negotiations.
The PSC’s statement quickly received widespread condemnation from politicians on both sides of the aisle, Harvard faculty, and the public.
The common theme among critics of the letter is that regardless of opinions on Israel and Palestine’s ongoing bad blood and the origins of the conflicts, it does not justify the latest Hamas attacks and the atrocities being committed.
Harvard Student Organizations Try to Distance Themselves From Letter
Following the backlash, at least five organizations that initially signed the letter withdrew their support.
According to the student newspaper of Harvard University, The Harvard Crimson, the Harvard Undergraduate Nepali Student Association, Harvard College Act on a Dream, Amnesty International at Harvard, and the Harvard Islamic Society have all backtracked on their support.
Another organization, the Harvard Undergraduate Ghungroo, released a statement on Instagram to “formally apologize,” for signing the letter and retract their signature.
“We would like to clarify that we stand in solidarity with both Israeli and Palestinian Victims and Families,” the statement said.
The students also “strongly” denounced and condemned the “massacre propagated by the terrorist organization Hamas.”
Israeli soldiers carry the body of a victim of an attack by militants from Gaza at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, in southern Israel, on Oct. 10, 2023. (Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters)
“We truly apologize for the insensitivity of the statement that was released recently.”
The PSC later amended the letter to hide the organizations who signed, citing safety concerns over ongoing harassment of students in those groups, even ones that graduated years ago and are no longer members.
The PSC also cancelled a planned vigil on Oct. 10 that was to mourn “all innocent lives lost.”
“To restate what should be obvious: the PSC staunchly opposes violence against civilians—Palestinian, Israeli, or other,” a member of the PSC said in a follow up post.
She condemned the “terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas,” and stressed that “while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group—not even 30 student groups—speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.”
“We will all be well served in such a difficult moment by rhetoric that aims to illuminate and not inflame. And I appeal to all of us in this community of learning to keep this in mind as our conversations continue.”
Signed Without Seeing Letter
At least one of the students has apologized in a post on X, the platform formally known as Twitter.
Danielle Mikaelian, a Harvard Student, said in an Oct. 10 X post, “As a board member of a Harvard group that signed the statement on Israel, I think it was egregious and have resigned from my role.”
It’s unclear which organization Ms. Mikaelian was part of, but she has claimed that nobody in their group even read the letter’s contents before signing, and they have since withdrawn their support.
However, when she realized what the letter said, Ms. Mikaelian says she prevented “another student group I remain on the board of from signing on.”
She also stressed the letter justifying the actions of Hamas as “not representative of my values and my heart is with those impacted.”
In an update, Ms. Mikaelian revealed that she knows “firsthand some of my fellow students are in this situation too. I wasn’t the only board member who stepped down today.”
This appeared to be confirmed by former Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, who wrote in an Oct. 11 post on X, that while he stands by his previous condemnation of the letter, he asks everyone to “take a deep breath.”
Former Treasury Secretary and Harvard Professor Larry Summers makes remarks during a discussion on low-income developing countries at the annual IMF and World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington on April 13, 2016. (Mike Theiler/AFP via Getty Images)
“Many in these groups never saw the statement before it went out. In some cases, those approving did not understand exactly what they were approving. Probably some were naive and foolish,” Mr. Summers said.
“This is not a time where it is constructive to vilify individuals and I am sorry that is happening,” he added.
Sadness and Frustration
Previously, in an Oct. 10 X post, Mr. Summers expressed his sadness and frustration at the statement from the student groups and the lack of a firm show of support for Israel by Harvard’s leadership.
“In nearly 50 years of Harvard affiliation, I have never been as disillusioned and alienated as I am today,” he said at the time.
Harvard President Claudine Gay came out with her own statement later that day, condemning Hamas.
At least 250 faculty members so far have also signed an open letter, condemning the actions of Hamas, but also lamenting the response from Harvard’s administration as falling short.
“As a University aimed at educating future leaders, this could have been a teaching moment and an opportunity to remind our students that beyond our political debates, some acts such as war crimes are simply wrong,” the letter said.
Mr. Summers and Harvard Computer Science professor Boaz Barak, two of the signatories, shared a copy of the letter on X, on Oct. 10, and Oct.11.
“The conflict is complex but ‘the events of this week are not complicated. Sometimes there is such a thing as evil,'” Mr. Barak said in his post quoting the staff letter.