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UF faculty respond to Ben Sasse’s email in support of Israel

University of Florida students held a vigil on Turlington Plaza Oct. 9, 2023, for victims of the attacks on Israell before a scare caused the crowd to run for cover. (Augustus Hoff/WUFT News)
University of Florida students held a vigil on Turlington Plaza Oct. 9, 2023, for victims of the attacks on Israell before a scare caused the crowd to run for cover. (Augustus Hoff/WUFT News)

As international conflict rages in the Middle East, faculty and student organizations nationwide -- and at the University of Florida -- are raising their voices and prompting responses from university officials.

Harvard University, Stanford University and Columbia University have each chosen to take a neutral approach while encouraging faculty and student debate.

UF President Ben Sasse chose otherwise, however, expressing support for Israel and condemning Hamas in an email to Jewish alumni on Oct. 10.

“Sadly, too many people in elite academia have been so weakened by their moral confusion that, when they see videos of raped women, hear of a beheaded baby, or learn of a grandmother murdered in her home, the first reaction of some is to ‘provide context’ and try to blame the raped women, beheaded baby, or the murdered grandmother,” Sasse wrote in his email.

“We will protect our students and we will protect speech,” he said. “This is always true: Our Constitution protects the rights of people to make abject idiots of themselves.”

Sasse pressed his case again this weekend on Fox News Sunday, criticizing leaders of other universities for not taking on complex and controversial issues more directly.

Some UF faculty say Sasse’s strongly worded comments discourage open debate on campus about the war. Student groups like Hillel and Students for Justice in Palestine have been vocal at UF and elsewhere as well.

“I am glad Sasse supports free speech,” UF English professor Malini Johar Schueller said. “But denouncing anyone who has criticisms of the government of Israel and calling them ‘abject idiots’ has a chilling effect on faculty and students’ right to expression.”

The “chilling effect” is a phrase first coined in 1952 by former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. It refers to the idea that when an official makes a statement and takes a strong stance on one side of an issue, it may discourage the public from debating.

“Criticism of the policies of the government of Israel should not be equated with criticisms of the citizens of Israel, whether they be Jewish, Islamic or Christian," Schueller said.

Sasse made his remarks the day after UF Jewish student organizations Hillel and Chabad partnered to hold a vigil for Israel at Turlington Hall. It ended in panic after an attendee fainted and led to the crowd dispersing from Turlington in a stampede.

Two days after Sasse’s email, UF’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine held a teach-in at Turlington, which SJP’s national branch deemed a “National Day of Resistance.” The event had a visible police presence and transpired safely.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, is a national organization of Philadelphia that aims to promote freedom of expression on college campuses. FIRE has encouraged universities nationwide to remain neutral in communications related to the conflict as described by the Kalven Report. The report, which originated at the University of Chicago in 1967, states that a university "is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic."

FIRE program officer Graham Piro said universities taking official positions on controversial issues keeps campuses from being an environment that promotes healthy debate.

“This does not mean that colleges and universities ignore the most important issues of the day,” Piro said in a prepared statement to WUFT. “Rather, it means they commit themselves to remaining neutral on those issues to keep themselves open to the widest range of views and scholarship possible.”

Meera Sitharam is a UF professor in the College of Engineering and serves as the chapter president of the United Faculty of Florida. She argues it is the university’s responsibility to provide context and consider those being affected on both sides of the issue.

“We would not be doing our job if we did not raise nuanced awareness of a complex, sad and intertwined history of two ancient peoples caught up in cycles of oppression, violence, occupation and apartheid,” Sitharam said.

In his interview with Fox News, Sasse discounted the complexity of the issue and the need for context in his statement.

“You got so many universities around the country [who] speak about every topic under the sun – Halloween costumes and microaggressions,” he said. “But somehow in a moment of the most grave, grotesque attacks on Jewish people since the Holocaust, they all of a sudden say there’s too much complexity to say anything.”

Harvard expressed support for all students but discouraged inflammatory responses from them.

“We will all be well served in such a difficult moment by rhetoric that aims to illuminate and not inflame,” Harvard President Claudine Gay said in a statement. “And I appeal to all of us in this community of learning to keep this in mind as our conversations continue.”

Stanford took a similar stance, expressing support but refraining from commenting on the geopolitical events taking place.

“Stanford University is a community of scholars,” President Richard Saller wrote in a statement on Oct. 11. “We believe it is important that the university, as an institution, generally refrain from taking institutional positions on complex political or global matters that extend beyond our immediate purview, which is the operations of the university itself.”

Other Florida universities, including Florida State University, Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University, released statements of support for Jewish and Israeli students on campus.

“Today, it is the solemn responsibility of the entire FSU community to use our collective voice to unequivocally condemn the violent and antisemitic attacks on the citizens of Israel at the hands of terrorists,” FSU President Richard McCullough wrote in a statement on Oct. 10

FAU also released a statement, saying it opposed the violence in the region and supported Israel taking defensive measures.

“We condemn the terrorist attacks that were carried out against civilian communities and we support Israel’s right to defend itself,” it wrote on Oct. 9.

“FIU stands with U.S. leaders, leaders from around the world and the people of Israel in condemning the Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel that have claimed hundreds of innocent lives, including children,” wrote FIU President Kenneth Jessell.

Institutions such as the University of Miami and the University of Central Florida took more neutral approaches to their statements.

“Our hearts break for Israelis and for the Jewish state, as well as for the innocent Palestinians, Druze, Bedouins, and others who live within its borders and the region,” Miami President Julio Frenk wrote.

UCF President Alexander Cartwright wrote in a statement about the need for consideration between students.

“We recognize that events happening around the world can deeply impact members of our community, and it is essential that we approach each other with empathy,” he wrote

Joseph Little, a professor emeritus at UF’s Levin College of Law and the parliamentarian of UF’s faculty senate, said he agrees with Sasse’s condemnation of Hamas’ actions.

“I certainly agree with his decision to join the many other people in the world who have condemned it publicly,” he said.

Little added he thinks the statement lacks context.

“I have a little concern about its omission to say anything about the Palestinian students,” he said. “Because I think if anybody is at risk of retaliation here, it’s the Palestinian students, not the Jewish students.”

As the conflict in Israel and Gaza continues, students continue to work to raise their voices on campus despite fear of retaliation or persecution.

“The trite assurance that the Constitution and UF campus police would protect such public actions by ‘academic elites… weakened by moral confusion… making abject idiots of themselves,’ barely covers up its chilling effect on students who are already being doxxed for just asking questions and trying to understand,” Sitharam said.

Jackson is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.