Three days after the brazen attack by Hamas militants, the president of Johns Hopkins University, Ron Daniels, issued a response in the familiar, equivocal jargon of public statements.

The statement, similar to many released last month by colleges and numerous organizations, expressed the requisite horror, sympathy and anguish over the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, and offered help to faculty and students “in need of solace or aid.”

Within 10 days, as Israel launched devastating airstrikes in retaliation, the graduate student workers union at Hopkins called TRU (short for Teachers and Researchers United) drafted an open letter to Daniels and the Hopkins administration demanding the school’s leadership call for a ceasefire in Gaza. The letter decried the school’s “inadequate response” and expressed “uncompromising solidarity with the Palestinian people in their righteous struggle for self-determination.” The terms apartheid, colonialism, genocide and ethnic cleansing were used to refer to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

The letter appears to have been signed by about 300 people, many with just initials, over the past month, but has not yet been presented to Daniels’ office, the school confirmed. Messages between TRU members shared with The Banner show the letter led to angry dissent within its membership. An unsigned reply from the general email address of TRU indicated the letter had made the rounds among its members but no plan for formal delivery had been agreed upon.

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So began a war of narratives at Hopkins, a parallel conflict duplicated and amplified on college campuses across the country, where competing acts of protest each claimed the higher moral ground, stoked by insinuations and sometimes accusations of Islamophobia and antisemitism.

Hopkins and other colleges have walked a moral and intellectual tightrope since Oct. 7 — encouraging discourse but discouraging threatening rhetoric; encouraging thoughtful activism but discouraging mob behavior. Daniels and other leaders are being asked to make students feel seen and heard, but also safe.

“Institutions are trying to thread the needle to acknowledge the multiple narratives that are happening,” said Phil Hammack, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an expert in narrative psychology, which studies how ingrained stories shape our identities and experiences. He has spent a career researching the dynamics of social inequality, including years studying the cultural psychology of Israeli and Palestinian youths.

“Because the narrative landscape is so polarized, they’re not really responding to the groups that are most fired up. Institutions are in a very difficult position. Saying nothing isn’t an option. Whatever they say, if they want to acknowledge the legitimacy of all perspectives, then they’re going to fail.”

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At Hopkins, a faculty member of its School of Medicine was placed on leave two weeks ago after threatening, anti-Palestinian social-media posts were discovered. The University of Maryland publicly denounced “hateful, antisemitic sentiments expressed” at a demonstration on Nov. 9 by the Students for Justice in Palestine, during which the message “HOLOCAUST 2.0″ was found written in chalk on the ground.

Darryll Pines, president of the University of Maryland, announced on Nov. 27 the creation of a school task force on antisemitism and Islamophobia. In his open letter, Pines wrote of creating an “inclusive community,” designated an area of campus where chalking would be permitted and outlined increased policing on campus and the addition of 80 auxiliary police.

In recent events and those of long ago, both Palestinians and Israelis have been victims, and both have been perpetrators. But in the theater of activism, where complex narratives wither and simple ones thrive, there can be only one victim and one perpetrator. In this heated environment, colleges are struggling to play the roles of nonpartisans and moderators.

Daniels declined an interview request for this article, but school spokesman J.B. Bird provided examples of public discussions and virtual classes held by Hopkins in the aftermath of the war.

“The university has been focused on supporting our community through a difficult time,” Bird said, “and working together with our students to fulfill our educational mission as a place that welcomes and supports every member of our community and ensures that everybody’s voice is heard, especially when the topics we are discussing are challenging ones.”

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On Oct. 11, Hopkins convened a panel of foreign policy experts and Middle East scholars to discuss the conflict and provide a broad primer on what it means. The school’s Islamic Studies Department held two panels in November. The School of Advanced International Studies Europe in Bologna, Italy, held a master class. A few weeks ago, public health experts from Hopkins addressed the conflict’s health ramifications in a video briefing.

About two weeks ago, Loyola University Maryland hosted a lecture by a visiting professor called “Pathways to Peace in Israel-Palestine,” but does not have any other planned programming about the conflict. Towson University’s Office of Inclusion and Institutional Equity hosted a one-off event called “Navigating World Events,” which was attended by about 20 students.

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Silence is not an option

Even before Oct. 7, the Israel-Palestine conflict had become a part of campus activism across the country. The Palestinian cause was spliced into the broader social justice movement that advocated for AfricanAmericans, Indigenous Americans and LGBTQ rights.

“I’m happy to see Americans interested, engaged and mobilized, but it’s happening in a way that feels sometimes exploitative,” said Hammack.

The protest movement in the U.S., he said, “has much less to do with Israel and Palestine than it has to do with us, and our performance of an identity narrative. It’s a very simplistic, binary framing of this conflict. There’s been a polarization of the rhetoric.”

TRU’s open letter, for example, makes no mention of Hamas, which some students took as implicit endorsement of its deadly tactics, as shown by an exchange of messages (on Slack, a messaging platform used by TRU) between graduate students obtained by The Banner:

“The letter does not once mention the brutal murder of 1,300 plus innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas, who still has hundreds of civilian hostages. … Why is including one line to specify non-violence or condemn these terrorists somehow so hard?” one student wrote.

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The omission, another student wrote, “does not imply the deaths of Israeli civilians is excusable or warranted the same way that saying Black lives matter does not imply that white lives don’t matter.”

Another student wrote, “I am so f-ing sick of this bigoted all lives matter ass bullshit.”

“I would respect more if you just flat out said you think Gaza deserves this,” the message continues. “I know you want to paint this situation as Arab barbarism and justified revenge but a tragedy doesn’t warrant a tragedy in return this is not justice.”

Amidst this war of words, some college leaders have attempted silence, only to be compelled to respond. Maud Mandel, the president of Williams College in Massachusetts, wrote in a letter on Oct. 12: “I have heard from members of the community that the college’s silence in the face of these events is itself a statement, and an unacceptable one,” before she explained why she no longer issues institutional statements.

“I have become convinced that such communications do more harm than good. They support some members of our community in particular moments while intentionally or unintentionally leaving out others.”

The leadership at Stanford University released a pro forma statement shortly after the attack, saying, “we are deeply saddened and horrified by the death and human suffering,” but did not condemn directly the actions of Hamas. An open letter signed by dozens of faculty demanded the school declare a stronger position.

Stanford’s president and provost released a joint statement a few days later warning “you should not expect frequent commentary from us in the future,” but also condemned “all terrorism and mass atrocities.”

“Universities would do well to try to harness the energy of generation Z,” Hammack said. “This is a generation very passionate about changing the world. They grew up with social media and had access to narratives about everything.”

“We have an opportunity to do something different, to break the paradigm of performative statements.”

Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times. 

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