On Oct. 7, the world watched in horror as Hamas launched an unprecedented terrorist attack against Israel, killing 1,200 civilians and kidnapping around 240 more. In the weeks that have followed, Israel has carried out a horrific bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip, killing at least 11,000 civilians, most of whom have been women and children — along with an escalation of its blockade, creating a humanitarian crisis. Jewish students, Arab students and indeed our whole community has been deeply affected by this conflict, and many have called on the University to take a stance on the war by backing a ceasefire. However, to preserve the scholarly mission of the University to “serve the community, the nation and the world,” Brown must continue to remain impartial on political matters.
The Brown community is composed of nearly 11,000 students, more than 1,600 faculty, over 3,500 staff members and tens of thousands of alumni and donors. These individuals hold different views, and while the University must be a place for thoughtful discourse, it cannot take part in this conversation itself. President Christina Paxson P’19 P’MD’20 acknowledged this in her explanation of why she would not comment on a ceasefire — as faculty had urged in a letter — stating, “A university is not a single person, but a community of people who hold diverse views.” Instead of elevating the position of one faction over another, she argues that Brown’s focus must be on promoting safety, countering harassment and supporting freedom of expression on campus. I wholeheartedly agree.
The question of the proper role of a university when navigating political and social matters is not a new one. As the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Committee “Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action” reminds us, “the university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” If Brown were to take an institutional stance on the war, it would create a chilling effect on the scholarship of those holding other opinions, and risk creating a narrative which oversimplifies a complex history. To be neutral does not mean to be a bystander. Instead, by creating an environment in which faculty and students are free to voice their opinions, we further our understanding of complex issues affecting our world in the hope of contributing to solutions.
As I have previously written, universities today face renewed threats to academic freedom, which have only been exacerbated by the war. At Harvard, leaders of student groups who signed the Palestine Solidarity Committee response to the Oct. 7 attacks have faced doxxing and death threats. At Cornell, a student made anonymous posts threatening to stab, rape and shoot Jewish students on campus. At Penn, donors, aghast at both the university’s decision to host a controversial Palestinian literature festival and its failure to take a stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have led a boycott against the university and called for the president of Penn to resign. And, egregiously, Columbia suspended its chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace for the bureaucratic and unconvincing reason that its protests violated “University policies related to holding campus events.”
Brown too has experienced this turmoil: Nov. 8 saw the heavy-handed arrest of 20 Jewish students peacefully occupying University Hall and demanding a ceasefire. Further, we have seen poster warfare in which students have put up competing fliers; however, those supporting Israel have reportedly been torn down. Silencing the voices of those with whom you disagree is also a form of intimidation and deserves our outrage. During these difficult times, Brown must redouble its efforts to protect free inquiry on campus and create an environment in which students and faculty feel safe to engage with one another. As Paxson reiterated, there must not be a “Palestinian exception.”
The ongoing violence between Israel and Palestine has revived longstanding calls for the University to divest its endowment from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. While both critics and advocates of divestment argue that this is a political move, the Kalven report makes clear that the decision to divest is one the University makes “in its corporate capacity.” This action must only be taken “in the exceptional instance” that such investments are so “incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences.” Whether the current investments in the occupied territories meet that definition is a matter of open debate, but it is one the University must have without yielding to outside pressure. Brown must avoid the appearance of singling out a particular state and consider the ethical impacts of all investments it makes.
In terms of immediate action, Brown should establish a fund to sponsor research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a political, historical, social and humanitarian lens, much like it did in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd. I commend the initiative of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs in creating an Israel-Palestine lecture series and of the Division of Biology and Medicine in launching a series of panel discussions on humanitarian medicine. The University should continue fostering this dialogue in the hopes that through understanding, consensus building and knowledge, we can all work towards a more peaceful world.
Tas Rahman ’26 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.