Controversy of Israel-Hamas war roils UTD campus
Sunny view of the visitor center of The University of Texas at Dallas, Texas
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President, Richard Benson, stands by condemnation of Hamas

By Sharon Wisch-Ray
October 26, 2023

Like many of its counterparts, the University of Texas at Dallas has been rife with conflict since Hamas’ terror attack on Israel perpetrated Oct. 7. The Jewish students have been grief-stricken and resolute in their solidarity with Israel. Meanwhile, the anti-Israel community has been outraged and outspoken, fueled by the organization and rhetoric of its Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter.

UTD is known as having a diverse student body with many students from the Middle East.

On Oct. 16, UTD president, Dr. Richard Benson, addressed the Oct. 7 attack in a message via email to the university community. In his statement, he condemned Hamas and praised the university community’s response.

“Clearly, there can be no justification for the atrocities committed by the terrorist group Hamas, which targeted, killed and kidnapped innocent Israeli civilians, including children. Our hearts are broken for the people of Israel and for all those affected by the violence and inhumanity of Hamas. We will never forget October 7, 2023.

“Yet, in the face of this cruelty, I have also felt pride in what has been happening at UT Dallas. Throughout the week, despite loss and strong feelings, we have seen something impressive on our campus. Students are conversing about their differences; they are gathering donations and peacefully protesting; they are shaking hands.”

Anti-Israel members of the university community took issue with Benson’s statement. In an Oct. 16 editorial, the school’s student newspaper, The Mercury, called on Benson to publicly apologize.

The editorial concludes, “Benson needs to do better. It’s clear that the message from the university has deeply disturbed large populations on our campus, so the time to apologize is now while the damage is still fresh. The university should release an apology and a new statement acknowledging not just the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, but also the current bombings and deaths in Gaza, and extend support to all parties as soon as possible.”

An SJP-backed resolution (Student Government Resolution 2023-06) called on Benson to modify his Oct. 16 statement to include language “extending similar sympathies to the Palestinian” community. It was presented to the student senate Tuesday, Oct. 24, at its regular weekly meeting. The resolution, which can be read here, passed.

Melissa Duchin Friedensohn, director of Hillels of North Texas, said, “Our Jewish students are in pain, and not some distant pain, but fueled by hateful conduct on their very own campus. Resolutions that fail to acknowledge what Jewish students are experiencing right here and right now are deeply inadequate. At Hillels of North Texas, our commitment to supporting our students in the face of antisemitism is unyielding. While we continue to provide a safe place for Jewish students to process and be in community with one another, we have maintained communication with university leadership and urged them to speak clearly against antisemitic hateful speech. We will continue to advocate for a safer, welcoming campus community for all.”

On Wednesday, SJP organized a walkout. Hundreds of students attended. Among the chants yelled by those participating was “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

According to the American Jewish Committee website, this catchall phrase is antisemitic.

“‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free’ is a common call-to-arms for pro-Palestinian activists, especially student activists on college campuses. It calls for the establishment of a State of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, erasing the State of Israel and its people. It is also a rallying cry for terrorist groups and their sympathizers, from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to Hamas, which called for Israel’s destruction in its original governing charter in 1988 and was responsible for the October 7, 2023 terror attack on Israeli civilians, murdering over 1,000 people in the single deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust,” the AJC website states.

On Wednesday, Benson released a new statement addressed to the student government president, Srivani Edupuganti, and published on The Mercury’s website. In his response to the resolution, Benson did not apologize for his earlier statement, but he did encourage mutual understanding among students and empathy for the loss of life on both sides.

“I have been listening closely to our community these past few weeks, and I want to recognize the grief of those whose Palestinian or Israeli family or friends have been affected by the latest eruption of war in the Middle East, those who are anxious about the conflict and those who are concerned about their own safety. I join our community in mourning the tragic loss of life and ongoing suffering for both Israelis and Palestinians, especially the thousands of children who have become victims of this violence,” the statement begins.

Dallas-area Jewish community leaders have been monitoring anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments on area campuses. They praised Benson for not modifying his original statement or apologizing.

“President Benson’s initial statement unequivocally condemned Hamas, not once but twice. It is shameful that the student government considered and overwhelmingly voted to condemn him for this. President Benson showed true moral clarity in responding to the student government but not retracting or amending his original statement,” said Joel Schwitzer, regional director for AJC.

Cyd Friedman, chair of the Community Relations and Public Affairs Department of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, added, “The Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas appreciates President Benson’s sensitive and nuanced letter, released yesterday, October 25, about the war in Israel. As President Benson noted in an earlier statement, ‘there can be no justification for the atrocities committed by the terrorist group Hamas.’ We applaud President Benson’s efforts to promote open and respectful dialogue while prioritizing that all students, faculty and administrators on the University of Texas, Dallas, campus feel welcome and safe.

Rabbi Shmuly Druk, co-director of Chabad of Richardson and UTD with his wife Dini, also commended Benson and said he appreciated the fact that the Jewish campus community was asked for input. Druk added, “We continue to encourage campus administration to stand up for what’s right and moral, and we urge them to strengthen their efforts in making sure that Jewish students are actually safe on campus. We hope that the University will finally confront the support for terrorism and violence that we continuously see at UTD. Of course, we at Chabad are increasing our own efforts to support Jewish students and add light in all of this darkness.”

The TJP will continue to monitor activity on the UTD campus.

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