(Bloomberg) -- Hours after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, US college leaders thousands of miles away struggled to craft messages to their campus communities.
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For Judea Pearl, a longtime professor of computer science at the University of California at Los Angeles, the leaders’ eventual response lacked the moral clarity shown after his son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.
“Evidently, University Administrators prefer to please, rather than lead — condemning evil is ‘taking sides,’” Pearl, who joined UCLA in 1970, wrote in an email days after the attack to faculty colleagues and the head of the campus Hillel group for Jewish students. “On the positive side, our students have taken a stand, and will be on Bruin Walk on Wednesday, October 11th in support of Israel.”
Pearl’s email and more than 100 pages of other correspondence between officials at UCLA, which has more than 46,000 students, and a dozen pages of emails from the University of California at Berkeley, were obtained by Bloomberg News in response to a public records request. The documents show the internal deliberations at both the public universities about how to respond in the first few days after the attack. A spokesman for UCLA declined to comment on the emails.
The correspondence illustrates the complexity of a fast-moving situation and how officials prepared carefully worded statements amid the backlash among some students and faculty who believed those messages fell short.
Since then, the tenor on some of the most elite campuses all over the US has deteriorated as calls for free speech collide with charges of antisemitism, issues over student safety, demands to denounce terrorism and anger over Israel’s retaliatory response in Gaza.
Donors have said they will withhold funding from Harvard and Columbia universities and other schools because of safety concerns for Jewish students and leadership’s failure, at least initially, to denounce the attacks in the same way they responded against other issues. Prominent alumni including Senator Mitt Romney have criticized Harvard leaders, while Stanford has faced similar condemnation.
Read More: UPenn to Harvard Reel From Backlash Over Israel-Hamas War
Pearl’s emails were included because they were forwarded to the leadership team about an impending meeting held in support of Israel. In one of the emails, he referenced suggestions made by an associate vice chancellor, Amir Naiberg, on Oct. 8 that UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, UC Chair of the Board of Regents Richard Leib and others provide safe zones for gathering and mourning and to “publicly prohibit all activities designed to support Hamas.”
Block’s Oct. 9 letter to the community about the “horrific and heart-wrenching terrorist attacks” stopped short of adopting several of Naiberg’s suggestions, prompting Pearl’s assertion that UCLA leadership failed to adequately condemn the attack.
Pearl, 87, said Sunday in a phone interview that he found the response disappointing and he’s worried for the safety of Jewish students.
In a subsequent email to the provost, Block addressed several of Naiberg’s recommendations, such as the condemnation of Hamas, and why they weren’t all feasible.
“As a public institution, we are barred by the Constitution from prohibiting expression based on the viewpoint of the speaker or content of the speech,” wrote Block, who has led the school since 2007 and is retiring next June. “If the university did this, we would be sued — and we would lose.”
Block, in an email, also defended his initial communications as “forceful in its condemnation of the violent actions” by Hamas and noted the university leaders have been “loud” in their condemnation of antisemitism.
Meanwhile, a flurry of emails between UC Berkeley officials and educators at other UC schools in the immediate aftermath of the attack in Israel captured the growing divide and anger among some students and faculty.
Dan Mogulof, a Berkeley spokesman, said in an email to Bloomberg that the period after the attacks was “extraordinarily complex.”
“We have a campus community that is highly diverse in terms of both identity and perspective,” Mogulof said. “We continue to prioritize student safety and wellbeing, and we continue to emphasize in our written communications, as well as meeting with students, our condemnation of terror and grief over the loss of civilian lives, as well as the importance of respecting the university’s essential Principles of Community.”
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