Not only does UTD president Richard Benson’s latest message about the Israel-Hamas war disrespect grieving students, it successfully alienates students with ties to Palestine at a time where Palestinian civilians are suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in the Middle East, tensions between local groups are heightening and violent hate crimes are on the rise.
On Oct. 16, Benson released a statement commemorating the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and condemning the group that “targeted, killed and kidnapped innocent Israeli civilians, including children.” Releasing this message nine full days after the attack reeks of insincerity, and the delay injures Benson’s attempt to save face. Its blatant one-sidedness makes it all the more egregious.
It is true that the Hamas attack was unconscionable, killing 1,400 people on Shemini Atzeret, a sacred holiday in Judaism. However, it is unignorable that since the Oct. 7 attack, nearly 3,000 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more wounded from Israeli retaliation — according to Palestinian officials — with zero acknowledgement from UTD or Benson. Let us be clear: the editorial board of The Mercury unequivocally condemns violence against civilians. And yet, the response from the university has only acknowledged the suffering of citizens of Israel, while in Gaza, over a million innocent civilians are subject to evacuations and airstrikes, hospitals are at capacity and being bombed — with a recent explosion killing hundreds at al-Ahli hospital — and electricity in the region has been cut off. Where is the comfort for these victims?
Student sentiment shows that the UTD community found Benson’s message just as one-sided as we do. On Oct. 18, Students for Justice in Palestine made an Instagram post urging Benson to publicly apologize and issue a new statement; it has since gathered over 3,500 likes from students and community members. Almost a hundred Comets have taken to Twitter and LinkedIn to criticize Benson’s statement, with comments from students and professionals.
Multiple comments echoed a student who said, “I am extremely disappointed to be a UTD student after receiving this message.” If students are regretting their decision to be a part of UTD because of the university’s tone-deaf address, then something is seriously amiss.
The university itself said last year in a message about the Russia-Ukraine war that they remain “committed to democratic principles both at home and abroad” and “hold in contempt those who would subjugate a free people through military force.” Where is that commitment to humanitarianism when people in Gaza are being deprived of basic resources?
UTD prides itself on being one of Texas’s most diverse campuses, sporting a nearly 1:1 White to Asian student ratio and a sizable Muslim population, but its claims of celebrating diversity wither in the face of Benson’s address. Hundreds of students on campus may have personal ties to Gaza and are hurting. And yet Benson speaks as if he hasn’t read a single news report from the past nine days. The ignorance is flagrant.
“It is incredibly disheartening to see UTD fail to acknowledge and empathize with the current situation in Gaza despite having a large population of Middle Eastern and Muslim students,” one UTD alumnus said on LinkedIn.
In the middle of his statement, Benson praised UTD students for “gathering donations and peacefully protesting,” rightfully so. The mobilization of the last few days has proven that student-led organizing can make an impact and that Comets can engage civilly with each other despite holding different beliefs. But it is disheartening and hypocritical to see this sentiment in a biased message, considering that the peaceful protest and charity Benson is referring to mainly comes from students supporting Palestinian civilians. The Mercury has been documenting the campus response to the war over the past week and a half; we observed that the largest form of public demonstration since the start of the war was SJP’s Oct. 12 poetry night fundraiser, where students across campus pitched in over $2,000 for children in Palestine. The context makes the message’s exclusion of Palestinian civilians all the more hypocritical and alienating to students. With Benson praising student efforts to support Palestinians without offering a word of sympathy himself, it seems he’s more interested in the idyllic image of civil protest and charity over actually helping those suffering.
If Benson wants to release a message on a topic as controversial and grief-stricken as the Israel-Palestine conflict, then he needs to do it right. Even Southern Methodist University, a private Christian institution, released a more inclusive message that acknowledged suffering on both sides and extending impartial support to all students affected by the war.
Benson is the face of UTD, and the words of such a powerful person have a major impact on school culture and particularly how respected students feel. It is incredibly tone-deaf for him to release a one-sided statement in the wake of recent violent crimes against Palestinians: a Palestinian American boy was recently killed in a hate crime in Chicago and a Michigan man was arrested for issuing a terroristic threat to kill Palestinians. Silence like this dehumanizes, and dehumanization only legitimizes hate speech and violence. The only way to stop that reactionary hatred is by recognizing the personhood and real suffering not just of Israelis, as Benson has done, but also of Palestinians.
The president of our university has the power to influence people’s perceptions and the responsibility to make all students feel secure, safe and respected. His words have ripple effects throughout the entire community. We are glad if Benson’s words can bring comfort to Comets who have ties to Israel. But he needs to support those grieving for Israel and Palestine alike — everyone who has been personally affected by the violence of the past week — or else his words ring hollow.
Benson needs to do better. It’s clear that the message from the university has deeply disturbed large populations on our campus, so the time to apologize is now while the damage is still fresh. The university should release an apology and a new statement acknowledging not just the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, but also the current bombings and deaths in Gaza, and extend support to all parties as soon as possible.