On Oct. 8, 2023, Israel declared war on Hamas — a Palestinian resistance group — after it launched an unexpected set of attacks against the US-backed occupier. Days after the attack, after threats from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Gaza Strip was cut off from water, food and electricity. In the weeks since, white phosphorus bombs have been used in civilian-heavy areas, over 10,000 Palestinians have been murdered — with over 35% of the casualties being children — and the repeated bombings of residential areas, escape routes and hospitals can only be characterized as genocide. War crimes galore, Israel has pulled no punches in being bigger and badder terrorists than those they claim to be fighting against.
However, this is not how Israel is portrayed in some Western mainstream media outlets. Using sly rhetoric, many publications avoid condemning Israel for its atrocities, instead using Hamas as a scapegoat and strawman against pro-Palestinians and anti-Zionists. Now, this biased and misconstrued representation does not come as a surprise to anybody who has followed the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine over the years, with news outlets often turning a blind eye to the atrocities faced by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank on a daily basis. But what has been shocking to me, as a first-year Arab Muslim student here at Wellesley, is President Paula Johnson’s response to this issue.
While many folks may avoid speaking about this polarizing conflict (i.e. genocide) entirely, the fact of the matter is that silence can be wrong. Being passive to injustice is nurturing and perpetuating it. But it comes as no surprise that an even greater wrong is explicitly validating and propagating injustice, which is why I say that President Johnson was better off staying silent about Palestine-Israel than sending out the shameful messages she did on Oct. 11 and 20.
She begins her initial statement on Oct. 11 with, “This weekend Hamas launched deadly terrorist assaults on Israel and its citizens that are appalling in their magnitude and manner, including the brutal execution of innocent families and the taking of approximately 150 hostages. This attack has led Israel to declare war against Hamas. As president and a member of the Wellesley community, I condemn the taking of hostages and the indiscriminate murdering and terrorizing of civilians.”
All I can say is this: where were you, President Johnson, for the past fifty-plus years — six of which you’ve been Wellesley president — while the terrorist state of Israel has been occupying Palestinian land, expelling its people, and bombing and brutalizing the whole region? What are your comments about the fact that 106 years ago, some white European man promised a region in Asia to a group of other Europeans for the taking — with no say from the indigenous people involved? What do you have to say about the fact that right now, Palestinian deaths are vastly exceeding Israeli deaths — and have been by a large margin for the past several decades? What about the fact that Israel is actively committing various war crimes, including bombing hospitals? It’s not Palestine, President Johnson, that has an army and is backed by international superpowers.
Right now, as I write this article, war crimes are being committed against Palestinians by Israelis — war crimes that the West validates — that you validate — by choosing to provide a one-sided narrative on this subject. No, not just one-sided — a racist narrative.
I do not use that term lightly. But first, let me clarify one thing: it is certainly worth condemning the murder of innocent people. But Israel has been committing crimes since before Hamas existed. So if you condemn Hamas without first condemning the occupying state that led to its construction — if you use Hamas to say that the Palestinians have no right to fight against their colonizers — if you continue to focus on Hamas and not the state that is committing greater crimes that have the greater injustice of being validated by dozens of other countries, the foremost of which is the United States — if you have the audacity to call Hamas a terrorist group and do not call Israel that — then you are somebody who cannot condemn or criticize any act of colonialism beginning with what European settlers did to the Native Americans centuries ago. Your right to a moral high ground has been revoked.
So, if you propel the lives of the Israelis over the Palestinians — if you propel the narrative that the white man creates over the one that the brown one lives every single day — that is racist. And Wellesley students should have no qualms about pointing this out.
This, in particular, is what makes President Johnson’s message so shocking: she is the president of Wellesley College — a school that prides itself on prioritizing diversity and inclusion. In my first-year Geosciences class, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Land Acknowledgement written by the Native American and Indigenous Students Association in the syllabus, stating, “In this course, we will often use Massachusetts and North American geology as case studies, and it is important to grapple with the complicity of this field in colonialism, exploitation, and scientific racism.”
This is the level of social and historical awareness in a Geosciences class — not an English or History class — at Wellesley. This same Wellesley College has a president who just validated colonialism and exploitation.
Some may argue that she said, “I condemn the taking of hostages and the indiscriminate murdering and terrorizing of civilians,” without specifically saying “Israeli” hostages and civilians. Her previous sentence, however, makes it clear who she’s referring to — and as I said, this is the subtle rhetoric that many are using to demean Palestinian lives while avoiding getting called out for doing so.
President Johnson’s final paragraph does more of that: “As the situation in the Middle East evolves, I know members of our community will view the events differently … We live and learn together, recognizing our common humanity, in the hopes that we can contribute to the making of a better world.” This is fluff. Again, there is no such thing as “common humanity” when you choose to send out an email to the entire school decrying Hamas’s violence and yet are silent about Israeli violence. You stripped Palestinians of their humanity.
President Johnson’s disastrous message ended on the worst note possible — with a quote from President Joe Biden. Joe Biden, the man who is an accomplice to Israel’s crimes and publicly supports them wholeheartedly. Why not just quote Alfred Balfour or Benjamin Netanyahu?
I am embarrassed as a Wellesley student by the fact that the president of my school could send such an inadequate statement. I am embarrassed on behalf of Wellesley College — a school that proclaims to be sensitive to issues of injustice and colonialism, but fails to apply these ideals when faced with a real-world, modern-day example of it. What good are our “decolonial” history and science classes if we can’t do anything when the time comes to stand up? What good is learning about history — especially the history of Africa and the Middle East — if we so willfully and passively let it repeat?
On Oct. 20, President Johnson sent out a second message, this time regarding the email sent out by the residential life team in Munger Hall that condemned Zionism. Instead of forcing the Munger team to issue an apology, President Johnson should have humbly asked them to teach her how to compose an appropriate, ethical statement condemning injustice. While some Wellesley students, like those in Munger, admirably and bravely stand against injustice and oppression, President Johnson can do nothing better than discipline them and reiterate her “strong [condemnation] of the terrorist attack by Hamas.”
At some point, these acts of blatant racism and bias become an issue of “If you don’t know, you don’t know.” I don’t know if President Johnson is being deceitful or ignorant, but either way, it is shameful. I speak on behalf of every pro-Palestinian student when I say that her messages have been hurtful, to say the least. But we are tenacious and intelligent enough to see through the lies. #FreePalestine. #CondemnIsrael.