IU faculty members and students are speaking out against IU President Pamela Whitten’s new statement on the Israel-Hamas war for not expressing empathy for Palestinian suffering as well as for the tragedies in Israel.
On Oct. 15, IU computer science professor Amr Sabry drafted a petition titled “Ask IU’s President Whitten to Not Discriminate in her Empathy” in response to Whitten’s second statement on the Israel-Hamas war. The petition was released publicly Oct. 16 and quickly gained steam, gathering 1,522 signatures from students, faculty and community members as of publication.
"Our letter is not asking you to ignore the suffering of Israelis or Jews and it in no way condones violence perpetrated on civilians by any side,” the petition read. “It does, however, ask you to acknowledge the equal humanity of Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians.”
While critics say Whitten’s first statement on Oct. 10 was vague, her Oct. 12 statement was far more specific. The new statement condemned Hamas, the militant group that has governed the Gaza Strip since it seized power in 2007, for its attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Though the statement explicitly expressed empathy for Jewish students and faculty, it did not mention the death and suffering of Palestinians and offered no mention of support for Palestinian students and faculty at IU.
IU did not respond to the IDS’ request for comment by publication.
As leaders grapple with how to speak about the violence, carnage is continuing in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Since Hamas launched a massive attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel retaliated with large-scale airstrikes, 3,785 Palestinians have been killed and 12,500 Palestinians have been wounded as of Thursday. In Israel, 1,400 people have been killed, mostly from Hamas’s initial attack.
In an email to the IDS, Sabry said the main reason he started the petition was because members of the IU community felt intimidated into silence. He wrote that students have told him they feel a lot of pressure at IU, including some students who are not even comfortable going to the IU Student Care and Resource Center for help with their trauma.
As for what he wishes IU would do, Sabry pointed toward a thorough email sent to students by Luoluo Hong, the vice president for student engagement and well-being at Georgia Tech, which briefly summarized the Israel-Hamas war, offered reflections, emphasized the school’s polices on anti-discrimination and provided a detailed list of resources for students who need emotional support.
Professor Abdulkader Sinno, an associate professor of political science and Middle Eastern studies at IU, said Whitten’s initial statement was responsible because it was purposely vague. Whitten’s second statement, however, only served to divide, Sinno said.
“It said that anyone in community who supports one side is on the right side, and anyone in our community who feels the pain of the other side is on the wrong side, and therefore they’re not part of us,” he said.
Sinno, who also serves as a faculty advisor for the Muslim Student Association, Middle Eastern Student Association and the Palestine Solidarity Committee, said he has heard concerns from students saying they feel isolated, depressed and like they don’t belong at IU, simply because of their identity.
Sinno said several students have told him they were called terrorists for wearing hijabs. He said he feels responsibility as a faculty member to protect the well-being of his students, particularly minority students.
“I care about them — they’re like my own children,” Sinno said.
There has been an increase in threats against both Muslim and Jewish communities across the U.S. since the war in Israel began, according to the FBI. On Oct. 14, a six-year-old Palestinian-American was stabbed 26 times by his family’s landlord in Chicago because he and his family were Muslim, according to the local sheriff department. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there have been 107 antisemitic incidents in the U.S. since Oct. 7.
Jewish and Palestinian students at IU have told the IDS they feel afraid because of the rise in hate crimes across the country.
The president of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, a sophomore at IU who requested anonymity for his safety, said the statement by Whitten has helped to create an unsafe environment for Palestinian students, particularly in the aftermath of Jewish student Hailey Toch’s threat toward a Palestinian student, to which IU responded with only a vague statement on their Instagram story about the university opposing any form of discrimination.
Toch’s words are not just a reflection of her beliefs, he said; instead, people tend to voice discriminatory feelings when they feel they are supported. In his view, Whitten’s lack of statements about Toch and the suffering of Palestinians only work to further such an environment and dehumanize Palestinians.
At the time of Whitten’s second statement, 1,537 Palestinians had been killed since Oct. 7.
“And nothing was mentioned of it,” he said. “Which is deeply affecting a lot of students on campus who already feel unsafe before these events.”
The issue is personal for him, he said. He is Palestinian, and his father suffered bombings in childhood and grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
Though the PSC at IU was somewhat dormant before, he referred to Toch’s threatening statement as a catalyst for the revival of the group.
“The tragedy of us is that we have to mourn our loved ones, we have to mourn the loss, we have to mourn the suffering. But also we have to defend ourselves and tell to the world that we’re worth mourning, that we’re people, that we deserve humanity,” he said.
His appearance makes him less of a target than women who wear hijabs, he said, but he still worries that at any moment, his humanity could be stripped from him simply because of the prejudices someone may hold. And beyond himself, he worries for others, not just at IU but across the country.
He emphasized the importance of equal rights for both Jewish people and Palestinians.
“We care about lives,” he said. “We mourn the death of all.”