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Opinion: For students and scholars, words matter. That’s why this is so appalling

Opinion by Rachel Fish

(CNN) — There are few spaces where words are more important than in higher education.

Words are the tools to foster new ideas, drive knowledge and expand thinking. Academics understand better than most that words have meaning, and we must take that meaning seriously.

So, it’s appalling to see so many college students, faculty members and administrators deliberately diminish the intent and motivation behind the words of Hamas and its supporters. Worse, most fail to offer their own words to condemn Hamas’ terrorism.

Hamas’ brutal barbarism — slaughtering civilians, raping women, dragging bodies through the streets, gunning down families and taking the elderly hostage — cannot be ignored.  

We must not avert our eyes from this hell. Hiding behind words to justify what we are seeing is not an option. This is not “resistance” or “liberation” — it is terrorism.

The atrocities that have been committed will forever change every Israeli. Hamas committed a pogrom the likes of which cannot be fathomed in a modern society where Jews have self-determination and a state of their own. This is the modern manifestation of pure evil.

Somehow, this isn’t apparent to some American institutions of higher education and their student organizations, many of which have responded to the terror by minimizing or even championing the complete lack of humanity on display.

At Harvard — whose reputation lends a particular moral duty to lead in higher education — a group of 30 student associations issued a public statement over the weekend to say they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”  (After intense backlash against the student statement, some students and their groups have tried to distance themselves or say they did not read it before they signed it.) 

When the administration finally weighed in, the first take was a milquetoast, word-salad statement signed by 18 administrators. It did not include a single unequivocal denouncement of Hamas and instead called for “the pursuit of truth in all its complexity.” It wasn’t until Tuesday that Harvard’s president finally issued another statement, saying, “As the events of recent days continue to reverberate, let there be no doubt that I condemn the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas.”

Similar statements using similar words to Harvard’s initial statement have been issued at other campuses. We must question loudly their moral clarity and why they won’t speak clearly without equivocation.

This is a time for presidents, trustees, deans, provosts and donors to articulate that there are no mental hurdles that should ever be jumped to rationalize the destruction and inhumanity perpetrated by Hamas. Those who cannot bring themselves to condemn these deplorable acts are complicit in them.

They are setting an example for their students, who have watched for decades as leaders and faculty at their institutions have created moral “whataboutisms.” These students have watched their teachers embrace the discourse of “decolonization” and post-colonialist rhetoric; this campus climate makes it far too easy for some to paint Israel as the immoral aggressor.

At Stanford University, an instructor has been suspended after they, in the words of the school’s statement, reportedly “called out individual students in class based on their backgrounds and identities.” A student leader who spoke to the first-year students in the instructor’s classes earlier this week told the San Francisco Chronicle that the instructor asked Jewish students to raise their hands, separated those students from their possessions and called that a simulation of what Jews were doing to Palestinians.

The instructor also allegedly asked students where they were from, labeling them “colonizer” or “colonized” depending on their responses, and made comments about colonization that sought to minimize the Holocaust. The school is not identifying the instructor but said in their statement that “this report is a cause for serious concern” and the instructor “is not currently teaching while the university works to ascertain the facts of the situation.”

The rhetoric of “decolonization” gives an undeserved academic veneer to some scholars’ disdain for the world’s only Jewish state, and too many students are clearly buying it. In an utter embarrassment to the university community as a whole, this week, National Students for Justice in Palestine called for a “Day of Resistance”  celebrating a “historic win for the Palestinian resistance” on campuses around the country.

Perhaps their institutions should offer to reimburse these students their tuition as their education has clearly failed them. The mission of a university means nothing if its students can’t distinguish between evil and innocent, between crimes against humanity and the moral obligation of a state to protect its citizenry.

The college campus has become an entry point to normalize these words and ideas. Just as frightening, they continually spread beyond campus. At a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, organized by a group called BDS Boston (proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement), this week, a speaker championed Hamas’ acts of “resistance.”

One proudly stated, “Our resistance is the resistance of poetry and protest. … Ours is the resistance of the stone, the knife, the gun, the drone, the tunnel, the rocket, and yes – the paraglider!” The speaker continued, “No liberation was ever won without risk. Liberation comes at a cost. Are you prepared to pay it?”

These words are incitement against all civilians, Israelis, Zionists and Jews. University administrators should beware. They must recognize these words, and this inhumanity is coming to their campus if it’s not already there.

And in a space where words matter more than anything, few things could be more destructive.

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