Student Government passed a resolution on Oct. 24 calling on President Richard Benson to amend his Oct. 16 statement about the Israel-Hamas war and acknowledge the suffering of both Israeli and Palestinian students.
S.R. 2023-06 passed with overwhelming support; out of the 65 senators present, 62 were in favor and none opposed. Three senators abstained in addition to Vice President Leah Sullivan.
Benson responded with a letter sent to SG president Srivani Edupuganti on Oct. 25, addressing students with ties to Israel as well as those with ties to Palestine. The resolution also asked that future university statements about similarly sensitive topics be vetted by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion or its equivalent; UTD admin has not yet shared whether that’s a policy they will implement going forward.
“I have been listening closely to our community these past few weeks, and I want to recognize the grief of those whose Palestinian or Israeli family or friends have been affected by the latest eruption of war in the Middle East, those who are anxious about the conflict and those who are concerned about their own safety,” Benson said. “I join our community in mourning the tragic loss of life and ongoing suffering for both Israelis and Palestinians, especially the thousands of children who have become victims of this violence.”
The resolution stated that the Israel-Hamas war has worsened both Islamophobia and antisemitism around the world in addition to violence. It cited the recent murder of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy in an anti-Muslim hate crime in Chicago as well as the stabbing of a teacher in France by an Islamic extremist. Arguing that this culture of conflict found its way to UTD, the resolution illuminated a series of offensive anti-Palestinian posts left by students on the official UTD app in the weeks since Oct. 7.
“Screw Palestine, most of them are terrorists and a threat to humanity. More power to Israel … Israel has all the rights to protect itself from Palestinian terrorists. #IstandwithIsrael,” one student posted.
The resolution cited Hamas’s initial attack on Oct. 7, where the group killed over 1400 Israelis and took over 200 hostages, as well as Israel’s retaliation in the following weeks — including the evacuation of over 1 million Palestinians from the Gaza strip and bombings that have killed over six thousand Palestinians. Despite the large death toll in Israel and Gaza, Benson’s Oct. 16 statement exclusively mentioned the Oct. 7 attack and “the people of Israel” with no mention of Palestinian civilians or students.
“Words have power, and such words can and do endanger students at this university, as we have seen in the last week, as well as in the end of this resolution and the screenshots,” Zainab Olaniyan, public policy junior and SG senator, said. “I will say, if you have had the pleasure of not having to undergo such attacks, consider yourself lucky. But we as Student Government have the opportunity to represent our peers at university. That email did not represent all of us. It was heavily leaning towards one side.”
History senior and senator Daniel Yahalom said Benson’s original statement sent the wrong message to the student body because it was not supportive of all students. Following this disconnect, S.R. 2023-06 calls on UTD institutions to take a humanitarian approach to the conflict and prioritize “the safety and wellbeing” of civilians on both sides. Yahalom, who wrote the initial draft of the resolution, said that he was driven to write it due to his personal connection to the conflict as an Israeli.
“My last major memory of Israel before I moved to the United States was during 2014 when there was one of the previous major clashes, being scared of sleeping in my bedroom because what if there’s a rocket launch that I wouldn’t hear the alarm waking up? What Palestinians are going through right now in the Gaza Strip is a thousand times worse than that,” Yahalom said. “I want at the bare minimum to make sure that people in this university are reflecting that kind of sympathy to Palestinians as well.”
Alison Spadaro, a mathematics senior and SG secretary, said that some Jewish students did not have enough time to come to an agreement on how to contribute to the resolution and moved to postpone voting until the following SG session. Christopher Zhou, computer science senior and ECS senator, seconded the motion to postpone.
“If it is truly the intent of this body and of this resolution to consider both Israelis and Palestinians, then it would be sound for this body to adopt the resolution to postpone at least to a certain time, if not indefinitely, in order to consider the views and the thoughts of our Jewish students,” Zhou said.
Eight senators spoke against the motion to postpone — including finance and economics senior Isabella Spartz — reiterating the need to act promptly.
“We need to do something right now,” Spartz said. “This is about students that are currently hurting and currently being harassed.”
Four different UTD student groups were contacted for feedback on the resolution, including the Young Democratic Socialists of America, Students for Justice in Palestine, Hillel and Chabad Melissa Friedensohn, executive director of Hillels of North Texas, said that Hillel was committed providing a safe space for students in the face of antisemitism, and that they are in contact with UTD leadership, asking them to speak against hate speech.
“Our Jewish students are in pain, and not some distant pain, but fueled by hateful conduct on their very own campus,” Friedensohn said. “Resolutions that fail to acknowledge what Jewish students are experiencing right here and right now are deeply inadequate … We will continue to advocate for a safer, welcoming campus community for all.”
Benson officially responded to S.B. 2023-06 in an Oct. 25 letter shared with SG president Srivani Edupuganti, which can be read here.
“This is not going to be the last controversial political crisis, unfortunately,” cognitive science senior and senator Kruthi Kanduri said. “And I can tell you that there’s going to be a lot of different things happening in the world around us that affect a lot of members of our student body. We need to at least have some form of guarantee that the message that is being sent out from the uppermost level of our university is something that is vetted, something that takes into account all of the different students that go here, regardless of what the situation is.”