Note: This article is the first in a series of three that covers student and faculty response to the administration’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and ways the NU community can create safe spaces for learning and healing on campus.
In an Oct. 12 letter sent to the Northwestern community, University President Michael Schill condemned Palestinian political and militant group Hamas.
Schill emphasized his words represented his personal beliefs and not those of the University as a whole in the letter. Nevertheless, frustration lingers among some students and faculty.
Political science professor Wendy Pearlman said she was particularly disappointed in the letter’s omission of “Palestine” or “Palestinian.”
“Many of us who study the Middle East feel this is a kind of erasure of the Palestinian people, as if they don't exist, as if they're not humans, as if they don't deserve dignity and rights,” Pearlman said.
Four days later, she and other professors signed a Letter to the Editor published in The Daily Northwestern that penned their disappointment toward Schill’s letter. The signatories wrote that while they also condemned all violence, they disapproved of the letter’s failure to acknowledge Palestinian and Arab members of the University body.
They added the letter failed to address the broader historical context of the crisis, which they said dismisses the Palestinian pursuit of self-determination.
“[Hamas made] an attack on Israel, innocent civilians in Israel, but [Schill’s letter] made no comparable condemnation of the state of Israel's violence against innocent civilians in Gaza,” Pearlman said. “There was an inequality that recognized the humanity of Israelis and their right to live in peace and security, but it did not even mention the word ‘Palestinian.’ So it was one-sided.”
On Oct. 7, Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing at least 1,400 people and taking hundreds hostage. Israel’s retaliation has since killed more than 11,000 Palestinians in Gaza.
The present crisis is part of a century-old conflict. Beginning in the late nineteenth century and later obtaining British colonial support, the Zionist movement set out to construct a Jewish state in Palestine. The overwhelmingly Arab population of Palestine, however, wanted national self-determination in their homeland. Decades of conflict climaxed in the 1948 War that established the state of Israel and displaced some 750,000 Palestinians.
After this initial event, Palestinians became scattered and stateless. One part of historic Palestine, known as the Gaza Strip, came under Egyptian administration. Others lived under Jordanian control in part on the West Bank of the Jordan River, some became Israeli citizens, and still others were expelled or forced to flee outside historic Palestine.
In the course of another war in 1967, Israel occupied Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and came to rule over Palestinian civilians there. In 1993, Israel began a negotiation process that gave rise to a Palestinian self-governing body known as the Palestinian Authority.
In 2006, Hamas won the last Palestinian Authority elections in Gaza. Since then, Gaza has been governed by Hamas and has not witnessed open elections. Israel and Egypt responded to Hamas’s victory with an indefinite blockade of the Gaza Strip, accentuating the humanitarian crisis in the already impoverished area that the Human Rights Watch describes as an “open air prison.”
Repeated rounds of Israeli assaults on Gaza, as well as ongoing Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank, showed that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian struggle for self-determination remained unresolved, even as the U.S. government and public largely looked away.
“Many of us who study the Middle East feel this is a kind of erasure of the Palestinian people, as if they don't exist, as if they're not humans, as if they don't deserve dignity and rights.”Wendy Pearlman, political science professor
Some NU community members have expressed their frustration with President Schill’s initial letter, its impact and his lack of interaction with Palestinian students. His choice to attend the Jewish community vigil on Oct. 9, and rejection of NU’s Students for Justice in Palestine’s (SJP) personal invitation to the Palestinian vigil on Oct. 12, as reported in The Daily Northwestern, further compounded what some see as a clear lack of regard for the Palestinian cause.
“We know [Schill] went out of his way to meet with Jewish students and that just proves a point also that he’s not recognizing Palestinian students,” Weinberg second-year and SJP member Nadia* said.
She added that President Schill has been “indirect” when communicating with SJP and only addresses specific parts of emails when he does choose to reply. SJP members have also passed messages to him through other NU leaders but have not received his response.
“My understanding is that many Palestinian and Arab students on campus saw that as a message that Jewish and Israeli lives matter but Palestinian and Arab lives do not. That is not the kind of message that the leader of our University community should be sending to the members of our community.”Wendy Pearlman, political science professor
NU spokesperson Hilary Anyaso told NBN in an email that Schill has sat down to speak with both Jewish and Palestinian students.
Tahera Ahmad, associate university chaplain and director of Interfaith engagement, said the letter made Palestinian students feel unrecognized by senior leadership.
“I looked at so many of our Palestinian students, they said, ‘We felt erased completely,’’’ Ahmad said. “Justice and empathy cannot be selective. Celebrating diversity means we need to care for all our students with equity.”
While President Schill emphasized his letter reflected his own personal thoughts and was not an official statement made on behalf of the University, Pearlman said it nonetheless communicated some form of authoritative stance.
“My understanding is that many Palestinian and Arab students on campus saw that as a message that Jewish and Israeli lives matter but Palestinian and Arab lives do not,” she said. “That is not the kind of message that the leader of our University community should be sending to the members of our community.”
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.