A month has passed since Hamas launched its horrific attack on Israeli civilians, killing over a thousand people and taking hundreds of people hostage, including children and the elderly. Those atrocities ignited a military response that has killed and displaced many thousands more in Gaza with the death toll still rising. The destruction and deaths have created unimaginable suffering for Israelis, Palestinians and all living in that region. It has also deeply affected many in our own UW community who have lost loved ones, have loved ones in harm’s way, or have ties to the region and the struggles there. We continue to mourn the killing of UW graduate Hayim Katsman by Hamas, though we are heartened that retired UW lecturer Ramona Okumara was allowed to leave Gaza, where she had been caring for child amputee patients before the war broke out.
Across the country and at many universities — including ours — there have been peaceful vigils held by our students to mourn the loss of life and build community. But there have also been protests advertised with imagery that glorifies the terrorist attacks and where extremist and divisive rhetoric is used that goes well beyond urging an end to the war, support for Palestinians, or a new political order for the region. While such speech is protected, and as a university we very much encourage the expression of a range of ideas and opinions on highly complicated and emotional issues, the violent sloganeering that has too often been used does not serve to encourage constructive and respectful dialogue and has led many of our Jewish students, faculty and staff to feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some Palestinian, Muslim, and Middle Eastern students have also told us they fear it has led some to believe that they all support terrorism, which could not be further from the truth.
One fact is clear and not open to debate: deeply disturbing incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise around the country and on college campuses, and we must unite to combat them, and all forms of bias and discrimination based on religion, ethnicity, or country of origin. If you experience or learn of any incidents of harassment, discrimination or bias, any UW community member can use our anti-bias tool, as well as the resources available through SafeCampus. And be assured, there will be consequences for any students, staff or faculty who are found to have engaged in acts of discrimination or harassment.
We are a large and diverse community, and on any given issue, a range of opinions will exist, and indeed members of the Jewish or Palestinian/Middle Eastern communities do not all share the same view on the conflict or the desired resolution. Different opinions can co-exist and be expressed in a manner that does not elicit bias or fear. This requires us to first and foremost recognize one another’s shared humanity. Simplistic binaries and sloganeering not only work against a deeper understanding of the issues underlying the conflict and our disparate views of it, but they can also feed into stereotypes and biases that serve to not only divide but dehumanize us. I know that we can do better, and we must.
Our community is rich with resources to learn about what is happening in the Middle East, including the deeply complex and nuanced historical context that underlies the current conflict. I hope we can take from this tragedy the opportunity to gain insight, as we search for ways to make progress and work on meaningful solutions. I call on every member of this community to acknowledge and recognize our shared humanity, and to seek ways to spread light — not heat — through our actions and words. And if you see a member of our community in distress, do reach out and lend an ear, shoulder or hand. The UW is our chosen community, and we can honor that choice by approaching each other with compassion, empathy and care for one another’s well-being.