Catholic College Presidents Confront Hamas Attack on Israel and Israeli Response

All Lament, Many Condemn

Dr. Jonathan J. Sanford poses for portraits two days after beginning his tenure as the tenth president of the University of Dallas, Wednesday, March 10, 2021 on the university’s campus in Irving, Texas.
Dr. Jonathan J. Sanford poses for portraits two days after beginning his tenure as the tenth president of the University of Dallas, Wednesday, March 10, 2021 on the university’s campus in Irving, Texas. (photo: Jeffrey McWhorter / University of Dallas)

Condemn Hamas? Mourn the loss of life? Draw attention to the suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis?

Stay silent?

College presidents across the country have entered a danger zone when venturing to comment on Hamas’ attack on Israel Oct. 7 — and even by not commenting on it.

The temperature isn’t as high on Catholic college campuses as at some secular schools — there aren’t widespread calls for resignations, as at the University of Pennsylvania, or the public withdrawal of multimillion-dollar grants, as at Harvard.

But like their secular counterparts, Catholic college presidents have drawn scrutiny over what they have said and what they haven’t said.

The Register recently contacted several prominent Catholic colleges in the United States, asking why they have said what they have said.

And also: Why say anything at all?

“We’re The Catholic University of America and we feel we have a responsibility to the Church, the nation and the world to make statements on important moral issues,” Peter Kilpatrick, the university’s president, told the Register.

‘Unimaginable Suffering’

Some Catholic colleges condemned Hamas’ attack on Israel quickly and in clear terms. Others’ public statements have evolved over time. In a statement issued Oct. 8, John DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, called it an “unprecedented terrorist act, on the Jewish Sabbath,” and said it “brought unimaginable suffering.” Eleven days later, on Oct. 19, he called it “the unconscionable terror committed by Hamas on October 7.”

Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, issued an initial statement Oct. 10 “abhorring the killing of non-combatants” and calling “for an end to the cycle of violence,” without mentioning Hamas.

On Oct. 19, however, Father Jenkins was the only Catholic college president listed as one of the “coalition founders” organized by Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, signing onto a statement of college presidents saying they “are horrified and sickened by the brutality and inhumanity of Hamas” and describing them as “the actions of hate and terrorism.”

CUA’s president Kilpatrick issued an initial statement saying the school “is saddened by the surge of violence in Israel” and echoing Pope Francis’ rejection of “terrorism and war.”

On Oct. 12, Kilpatrick issued a second statement, condemning Hamas by name, calling it “a terrorist organization” and saying its Oct. 7 “acts of terrorism against Israel merit the strongest condemnation.”

Kilpatrick told the Register each statement was based on the information he had at the time. “We were interested in making an immediate statement when we realized the tragedy of the situation,” Kilpatrick said in a telephone interview. “Once we knew the magnitude of the loss of life in Israel, once we knew the full motives, I felt the necessity to condemn that, to place the blame squarely where it belonged. There’s absolutely no justification for murdering innocent women and children, and there’s certainly no justification for kidnapping people.”

Of the dozens of email messages he has received since issuing the statements, Kilpatrick said, he has gotten only two negative responses.

One of those brought action. A Muslim student noted that an Israel flag had been flying in the student union in the aftermath of the Hamas attack. Previously, the student union had a Ukraine flag flying, expressing solidarity with that country because of Russia’s invasion and the continuing war there, but no other flags. The student questioned the fairness of flying the flag of Israel. Kilpatrick agreed and had both flags removed. Given the multinational makeup of Catholic University, he told the Register, the fair thing to do would be either to fly the flags of all the nations of the world or none.

‘Difficult to Comprehend’

The president of the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school, has issued statements lamenting the suffering and loss of life in Israel and Gaza, according to texts provided by a university spokesman by email. But neither mentions Hamas by name.

“The human suffering occurring right now in the greater Mideast is difficult to comprehend. The impact of these violent and tragic events have shaken us, and shaken the entire world,” Jesuit Father Paul Fitzgerald said in a written statement Oct. 9.

On Oct. 18, he issued a statement acknowledging the “scale and brutality” of the “tragic events that began on Oct. 7 and continue today.”

He called for respect in campus discussions and debates.

“At USF, we abhor and denounce racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and any other form of hate, discrimination, and violence. Every member of the USF community must model the conduct that we wish to see in the world,” Father Fitzgerald said, adding that the school is offering prayers, counseling and teach-ins from faculty experts.

Jonathan Sanford, president of the University of Dallas, issued a statement Oct. 19 criticizing university presidents for issuing frequent “position statements regarding current political and social affairs,” arguing, “The work of a university is fundamentally non-political.”

Even so, he described “the Jewish people” as “the victims, yet again, of genocide.”

“Women and children and other noncombatants have been murdered by terrorists both simply for the sake of doing harm and to prove that those threatening a larger genocide really mean it. Glee at these atrocities against the Jewish people has been expressed in pockets throughout the world,” Sanford said in the written statement. “We ought to feel solidarity with the citizens of Israel, with Palestinians, and with the Jewish people. We ought to encourage all who profess an Abrahamic faith, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, to embrace its highest ideals.”

Come Join Us

Some students have told reporters they feel unsafe on their college campus because of the bitterness, accusations and verbal abuse they have witnessed in the wake of the Hamas attack.

Franciscan University of Steubenville — which held a previously scheduled conference on Catholic-Jewish relations during the last week of October — responded to the ugliness on some college campuses by offering Jewish students an expedited transfer to Steubenville.

“Our hope is that other Catholic institutions will make a similar offer,” said Stephen Hildebrand, vice president of academic affairs, in a telephone interview.

He noted the difficult history of Catholics and Jews.

“For me personally, I’ve been reading a lot about the history of Catholic-Jewish relations. From our side, that’s not always a happy story. Certainly for me personally, those things have been on my mind and heart,” Hildebrand said.

“We just felt we needed to do something,” he said. “Certainly did not want to make the mistakes that Catholics have made in the past, to miss an opportunity to stand in solidarity.”

No Jewish students have applied for a transfer. But that doesn’t make the gesture without effect, he said.

“It’s just important for us to make the offer, even if we weren’t sure how many would take us up on it,” Hildebrand said. “Just for a place like Franciscan, we see this as an expression of our Christian identity.

“We know as a university that we kind of stand or fall on our expression of Catholic identity. And this seems like an expression of that. We’re happy to do it, but we see this as a fraternal obligation, for sure.”