Dear Campus Community: The last few weeks have been hard for many members of our community, as the war between Israel and Hamas has raised a wide range of questions and views across campus. Over the last few days, I have been listening and learning from our community and want to share some of my thoughts on how we navigate this moment together.
During challenging times, a residential liberal arts college should be a place that can support and educate members of its community. The liberal arts give us the intellectual tools to be: critical thinkers who can use reason, rationality, and data to understand problems and issues in their complexity; creative problem solvers who can move beyond critique to develop paths forward; effective communicators who can weave words together in ways that can help people with different views engage and learn from each other; and lifelong learners with the intellectual humility to understand that we might not be entirely right and should always seek out alternative views that challenge orthodoxy, starting with our own.
As we each try to understand the war between Israel and Hamas, I would encourage us to work together to lean into our liberal arts roots in at least five ways.
First, every member of our community has the capacity to hold multiple truths and concerns. Denisonians can be outraged by both the torture of Jews and unthinkable violence perpetrated by Hamas on innocent people on Oct. 7 and the innocent Palestinian civilians who have died in the Israeli government’s military response against Hamas in Gaza. We are also capable of believing that the Jewish and other hostages being held by Hamas should be freed and that Palestinians should not have to live under impossible conditions and desperately need food, water, shelter, and medical care. We can be gravely alarmed by the rise in antisemitism sweeping college campuses and cities across the world. And we can be gravely alarmed by the rise in Islamophobia. All of this can be true, and we can care about it all.
Second, there is no place on our campus for antisemitism, Islamophobia, or any other form of hate. Hate is the antithesis of the liberal arts, Denison values, and the aspirations of a free country that respects the dignity of human life. We all need to work hard to support members of our community who feel vulnerable, unsafe, or attacked. As you may know, The Ohio State University Hillel was vandalized a few days ago, and two students were assaulted a few blocks from the center. As Denisonians, we need to make sure our campus remains an inclusive place for all students, faculty, and staff; and we need to be reflective and vigilant about why higher education has become such a host for antisemitism. We need to do the same for Muslim students, faculty, and staff who also feel vulnerable and have been victims of similar kinds of attacks on college campuses.
One way we can ensure that there is no place for any form of hate on our campus is to lean in, be sensitive, and be curious about each other, our views, our lived experiences, and our different ways of life. We are a diverse campus. If we lean in and listen to each other, we can learn from each other.
Third, the liberal arts give us the tools to understand complex issues and to avoid the dangerous tendency to reduce multi-dimensional issues to simple political slogans. Understanding the Israel-Hamas war requires a deep understanding of the history of the region. Why do so many different people believe they have a right to the same land? What roles have different governments played in both brokering and shattering peace? Why do Jews feel so vulnerable, and why have Palestinians been so mistreated by so many different governments? The list of important questions is long and requires the expertise of a wide range of scholars. Anybody who believes any part of this conflict is simple, is missing essential information.
An understanding of this war also must be situated in larger geopolitical contexts. This war is part of a growing battle between Iran and Russia against the United States and Western Europe. This dimension should be important to our students because it will shape your lives. You should use this moment to learn about the complex history of Iran and its conflicts with nearby Arab states. And you should be learning about the unfolding relationship between Russia, Iran, and other geopolitical actors that bear on this conflict.
Fourth, we are a college that embraces free speech while recognizing the obligations that come along with it. Words matter, and they carry meaning — often multiple meanings. In this moment, I am asking every member of our community to commit to choosing words carefully. Make sure the words you are using are accurate. Understand that many members of our community, especially Jewish and Muslim members, are feeling vulnerable and attacked. Choose words others can hear and are meant to educate, not inflame.
Over the last few days, a number of students, faculty, and staff have expressed to me the fear and pain they experience when they hear the chant “from the river to the sea,” especially when it is being chanted on our public square. Their fear arises from calls by Hamas to eradicate the state of Israel and the Jews who live there. For many Jewish people, the chant is not heard as a call for greater rights for Palestinians but rather as a call to violence against Jews.
Fifth, we have great faculty and need to rely on their expertise and other scholars. We are at our best when we create spaces for our faculty to educate us on issues. I encourage students to work with our faculty. Draw from their knowledge and differing views to help inform the rest of us. Our faculty also have networks of other scholars we can bring to campus to fill in any gaps in our on-campus expertise.
The dynamics of social media and polarizing politics make this difficult historical moment even worse. They make it harder to understand issues and to find paths forward. The liberal arts can be a tool to avoid the traps of social media and an antidote to toxic politics that seek to divide and demonize people, often along lines of race, ethnicity, and religion.
I am proud to be a Denisonian. I am grateful for the work of many on our campus to lean into a difficult time and to educate and support each other as we grapple with a historical moment that is challenging — and requires all of us to pull from our liberal arts education to find our best selves.