(JTA) — On Oct. 10, three days into the war that began after Hamas militants killed some 1,400 Israelis and took nearly 200 others hostage, the president of Indiana University issued a statement saying “IU is heartbroken over the horrific violence that has occurred over the past few days.”
The brief statement by Pamela Whitten said the university would provide counseling and other support services to “students, faculty and staff affected by these attacks, especially those who may have family or friends in the region.”
The reaction to what in other contexts might have seemed an anodyne statement was swift — and angry. Jewish students and alumni complained that by mentioning neither Hamas nor its Jewish victims, the statement was an example of “both-sides-ism,” or drawing parallels between the Hamas attacks and Israel’s response.
“Now is only the time for swift and unequivocal condemnation of Hamas (a registered Foreign Terrorist Organization) and an unwavering commitment to the Jewish community,” read a petition organized by Ethan Fine, president of the campus-based Indiana Israel Public Affairs Committee. “We URGE you to retract your statement and issue a new, stronger statement condemning Hamas and showing your support for the Jewish people.”
On Oct. 12, Whitten issued a new statement. “Let there be no ambiguity, Israel has suffered grievous atrocities at the hands of Hamas terrorists,” the statement read in part. “We recognize the pain and fear that is affecting the Jewish community on our campuses.”
Indiana University wasn’t the only campus to be convulsed over a statement about the Hamas attacks. At Northwestern University, president Michael Schill first issued a statement saying that while he was personally “repulsed, sickened and disappointed” by Hamas’ actions, there would not be a university position on “political, geopolitical or social issues.” Later he released a follow-up note, saying “the abhorrent and horrific actions of Hamas on Saturday are clearly antithetical to Northwestern’s values — as well as my own.” But he still said the university would not be making an official statement because it “does not speak for our students, faculty, and staff on these matters.”
In an essay for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a professor at Chicago’s DePaul University School of Law wrote about her disappointment with an administration statement Oct. 9 saying “Our hearts ache to see the horrific violence and tragic loss of life taking place right now in Israel and Gaza. We pray for peace.”
“The university’s pleas for de-escalation in this context not only diminished the suffering of those who were so brutally attacked, but also compounded the pain for Jewish students, staff and faculty, all of whom were already feeling isolated and fragile,” wrote Roberta Rosenthal Kwall.
Clashes over statements reflect a wider debate over how and if universities and corporations should weigh in on global crises. For many Jews, however, the war of the statements is not just about “good governance” or corporate responsibility but whether elite American institutions apply a double standard when Jews are the victims of violence and invective.
“Condemning the worst mass murder [of Jews] since the Holocaust, clearly, unequivocally with heart, with concern, without context, was the right thing to do and the smart thing to do,” said Nathan Miller, CEO of Miller Ink, a strategic and crisis communications firm that works with Jewish and non-Jewish clients. “If you can’t see these images and speak with humanity about them, without justification, rationalization or context, it means you have a bad comms team.”
JTA reviewed more than 600 responses to the Israel-Hamas war by businesses, universities and politicians, compiled by a communications firm that asked not to be named. (Yale’s School of Management is also tracking statements.)
Statements by numerous corporations shortly after the attacks were unequivocal in denouncing Hamas as terrorists and offering sympathy for the Israeli victims. “In the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks targeting Jews in Israel this past weekend, we must all do what we can to support the innocent people experiencing so much pain, violence, and uncertainty — particularly children,” Robert A. Iger, Disney’s CEO, said in an Oct. 12 statement. “We condemn these attacks, the hate that motivated them, and all acts of terrorism, and we will continue working to find more ways to provide support in the region, and to honor the victims, their families, and all those affected by this war.”
But as the story shifted to Israel’s retaliatory air strikes on Gaza, some companies expressed increased concern for victims on both sides. “With each passing day, the horrific attacks on Israel and the intensifying hostilities become more painful and difficult to watch,” HP’s CEO, Enrique Lores, tweeted on Oct. 14. “My heart breaks for all who are facing unimaginable loss and uncertainty right now.”
On Oct. 11, Starbucks expressed its “deepest sympathy for those who have been killed, wounded, displaced and impacted following the heinous and unacceptable acts of terror, escalating violence and hate against the innocent in Israel and Gaza this week.” It also sought to put out a corporate fire after the Philadelphia-based union organizing the coffee chain’s workers posted “Solidarity with Palestine!” on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“To be clear: We unequivocally condemn these acts of terrorism, hate and violence, and disagree with the statements and views expressed by Workers United and its members,” Starbucks wrote. “Workers United’s words and actions belong to them, and them alone.”
In conversations with JTA, Miller and other communications professionals described the tightrope universities and companies walk when they comment on political and hot-button issues. (A few asked not to be named, saying they were protecting the confidentiality of their clients.) Each has advised clients or prospective clients on how to frame their responses to the Oct. 7 attacks. All agreed that institutions failed when they declined to call out the Hamas attacks as the unacceptable murder and kidnapping of civilians. But they also acknowledged that no single statement is right for every institution — and that companies, universities and nonprofits, including Jewish organizations, have to tailor their comments to their own goals.
‘That’s a good statement’
On Oct. 9, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, chancellor of the City University of New York, issued a statement saying, “CUNY is devastated by the scope of death and destruction in Israel, still being assessed in the aftermath of Saturday’s violent attacks by Hamas militants. The University is putting in place counseling and related supports to our impacted students, faculty and staff. We are especially concerned about members of our community who have families, colleagues and friends in the Middle East.”
He continued: “We want to be clear that we don’t condone the activities of any internal organizations that are sponsoring rallies to celebrate or support Hamas’ cowardly actions. Such efforts do not in any way represent the University and its campuses.”
“That’s a good statement,” said Noam Gilboord, interim CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “We’re proud that the chancellor put out a clear and unequivocal statement in support of Israel and the Jewish people.”
In recent years, Jewish critics have charged that the vast CUNY system has tolerated expressions of antisemitism and anti-Zionism from faculty and students. An internal report in 2016 concluded that some incidents on campus were antisemitic.
Gilboord said the JCRC has served as “a partner and an advisor on Jewish affairs” for CUNY, “to guide them in their ability to produce messaging and programs and other items that would help make the campus climate better for the Jewish community.”
CUNY’s messaging on the Hamas attacks suggested to him that the partnership has paid off. “They have become much more sensitive to the needs and positions of the Jewish campus community,” he said.
Gilboord said he couldn’t recall a specific conversation with university officials about its statement, but he said there were conversations concerning the attacks between JCRC and CUNY leaders, who were scheduled to travel to Israel together before the war’s outbreak scuttled those plans.
He is also aware of the pressures that are brought to bear on a large, diverse public university system like CUNY.
“The reality is that there are Israelis and Palestinians who are affected by this, and many university campuses are home to both populations. And they should be sensitive to their entire population,” said Gilboord. “At the same time, I do believe that our leaders both on campus and otherwise need to have the moral clarity to understand that a barbaric attack that killed at least 1,400 Israeli civilians [and soldiers] in a day through mass slaughter, torture, rape and kidnapping by an Iran-backed terrorist group, they should be able to condemn this. And they should also be able to differentiate between [that and] the Israeli Defense Forces’ attempts to defend their communities and disable Hamas’ ability to commit further attacks.”
‘People are getting stuck’
CUNY issued its first statement shortly after the Hamas attack, and before the scope of Israel’s anticipated response was apparent. In particular, it came before an explosion on Oct. 17 at a hospital in Gaza brought more international pressure on Israel to limit its military response. The attack was initially pinned on Israel, but both Israel and the United States insist, citing evidence, that a Palestinian group was responsible.
In turn, the international outcry over the hospital explosion brought pressure on institutions to weigh their outrage over the Hamas attack and hostage-taking against concern over Palestinian civilians caught up in the fighting.
“And that’s where I think a lot of people are getting stuck,” said the head of a communications firm that advises Jewish and non-Jewish groups. ”And this is what we’ve been talking to our clients about. You can criticize the terrorism [against] Israel, full stop — and still say that you shouldn’t take it out on Palestinian kids and babies. But there are people in our [Jewish] community who think no, you can’t do that. Like the second you say that, then you’re engaging in both-sides-ism. And I’m saying that’s not reasonable.”
In recent days, left-leaning Jewish groups have tried to strike that balance — and perhaps feel they have more leeway than universities and corporations to express concern for both Jewish and Palestinian lives. In a statement issued on Oct. 19, J Street, the liberal Jewish Israel lobby, wrote, “Like the Biden Administration, J Street stands with the Israeli people in their grief, and we support Israel’s right to defend its citizens, disarm Hamas, and respond to this horror in accordance with international law.”
The same statement added: “At the same time, we are profoundly worried for the safety of the over 2 million Palestinian civilians in Gaza — half of whom are children — as this conflict turns their streets and their homes into an active war zone.”
The communications professional who spoke about people getting “stuck” (and who requested anonymity, citing client confidentiality) also represents a range of clients, “everything from people calling for a ceasefire, to people who won’t use the word Palestinian, to those asking, ‘How do I write a statement beating the crap out of [Michigan Rep.] Rashida [Tlaib] because she still hasn’t taken down her tweet blaming Israel for the hospital’” explosion.
“I try to be an honest broker,” said the communications professional. “You have to craft your advice towards the organization, what it stands for and what their goal is.”
‘Is it your job?’
Universities and companies have often sought to remain neutral on social and political matters. In 1967, the University of Chicago issued a declaration saying a university “cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” The economist Milton Friedman, who taught there, said famously in 1970 that the only social responsibility of business is to “increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.”
But in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the feminist movement, student activists demanded that universities express where they stand. Universities have issued statements on climate change, LGBT issues and diversity. With the renewed racial justice movement that grew out of the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “many presidents released statements expressing solidarity with protesters and/or against systemic racism.”
In the 1990s, many companies saw that “corporate social responsibility” could be good for business. “Many consumers, particularly younger ones, really want to utilize their purchasing power now to address these challenges,” Geoffrey G. Jones, a Harvard Business School professor who wrote a history of corporate responsibility, told the Economic Times.
And yet PR experts understand why businesses and universities may not want to weigh in on political or controversial issues, out of fear of alienating consumers or, according to some campus free speech advocates and partisan critics, angering donors, students and faculty who don’t agree with the statements.
“Sometimes I ask people, is it your job to interpret Israel-Palestine issues for your employees? And they’ll say, ‘No, we just need to know how to help them to work safely,’” said a consultant who advises clients on prevention and response strategies to antisemitism. In such cases, the consultant may advise the client not to take a stand.
But the Hamas massacre was of a different nature than a controversial political issue, the consultant said, both because of its personal impact on Jewish students and employees and its shocking nature. “This is different. This is in the category of a mass shooting,” said the consultant. “It’s like something that happened on a neighboring campus, and you have a population that’s really impacted by this.”
Gilboord also thinks it was fair to expect institutions to issue statements about the Hamas attacks, especially universities and businesses in cities, like New York, with a large number of Jewish employees and students.
“If your business has individuals who are connected to this violence and who are affected by some of the worst violence we’ve seen since the Holocaust, and you feel you have a responsibility as a caring place of work, to ensure that your employees are cared for and that their suffering is acknowledged … it’s my belief that you should make a statement recognizing that terrorism is terrorism, and it should be condemned,” he said.
Miller, the communications executive, was disappointed by statements that either did not unequivocally condemn the Hamas violence, or that appeared to equate the attack on Israeli civilians with Israel’s military response.
“It’s important for the Jewish community to demand more than those initial statements that came out in the hours or days immediately following this horrific attack where they tried to give justification or rationalization,” he said. “I think it was an autopilot thing that many people did, but here are cases where I think there’s some malice as well, where they truly believe that Jewish blood is cheaper.”