IU President Pamela Whitten released a new statement Thursday addressing militant organization Hamas’s attack on Israel just two days after making an initial statement that was criticized for its ambiguity.
The initial statement did not mention specific names of groups or nations beyond a title that referred to “the Middle East.” It was released Oct. 10, three days after one of the largest attacks on Israeli territory and two days after Israeli forces declared war and retaliated with large-scale airstrike campaigns in Gaza. As of Thursday afternoon, Hamas’s attack had killed 1,200 people and wounded 2,800 others, while Israel’s retaliation has killed 1,537 people and wounded more than 6,000 in Gaza.
“IU is heartbroken over the horrific violence that has occurred over the past few days. With heartfelt empathy and compassion, we stand ready to provide comprehensive counseling and support services to assist our students, faculty and staff affected by these attacks, especially those who may have family or friends in the region. Let us continue IU’s long-held tradition as a caring community that supports one another through challenging times,” Whitten said in the statement.
The statement received backlash on X, formerly known as Twitter, with many criticizing the statement for its “fluff” and ambiguity. Vocal critics included an IU assistant professor and Indiana Israel Public Affairs Committee President Ethan Fine.
Kirk Freeman, a Lafayette-based lawyer, condemned the statement on X.
“Shame on you for aiding and abetting Nazis, Madam President,” he wrote in a post.
Just this morning, Bill Gray, an IU alumnus and 2002 student body president, condemned Whitten’s statement on LinkedIn. The post received 146 reactions, with several commenters agreeing.
“You have displayed cowardice, not leadership,” Gray wrote.
At 2 p.m. Thursday, Whitten released her second statement on Indiana University’s X account. The new statement specifically mentioned Hamas and Israel.
“Let there be no ambiguity, Israel has suffered grievous atrocities at the hands of Hamas terrorists,” a part of the statement read.
The statement also mentions the “pain and fear affecting the Jewish community on our campuses,” and urges people to come together.
The changed rhetoric was met with appreciative comments, although a few responses criticized the university’s silence regarding Palestinians killed by Israel’s retaliation and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
“I don't have a dog in the fight other than civilians. Hammas does not = Palestinians, who's suffering has gone unmentioned in this statement. What WAS done was horrible. The current response to that is ALSO horrible. Maybe the only time "both sides" has ever been relevant,” one comment read.
“While I do not want to erase the realities of grief many IU Jewish community members may be feeling, I am disgusted by the complete, utter lack of recognition for Palestinian dehumanization and death that also affects the Palestinian members of IU’s community,” another person wrote in response to the new statement.
The struggle over how to respond to the terrorist attack on Israel and the state’s subsequent retaliation is not contained to IU, as other universities have faced backlash over lukewarm statements on the violence.
At Harvard, the university faced national criticism for not publicly condemning a statement by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee that called Israel’s government “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Among the critics were former Harvard president and economist Lawrence Summers, New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
After facing backlash, Harvard released a second statement, but did not condemn the content of the Harvard PSC statement, writing only that student groups do not speak for the university.
The PSC has since released a statement that it “staunchly opposes” violence against civilians. The controversy is ongoing, with several students linked to clubs who signed on to the statement facing doxxing attacks, leading to some organizations withdrawing their signature.
Hillel International has also called for universities to speak out against Hamas.
“To those leaders who have not yet raised their voices or have issued vague statements, we urge you to step forward with clarity and conviction,” the group wrote on Instagram Tuesday.
IU has been criticized for vague statements in the past, including when IU Health doctor Caitlin Bernard faced attacks for performing an abortion on a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio and when IU student Hailey Toch threatened a Palestinian student in a TikTok earlier this year.
Rachel Applefield, an IU student and president of IU Hillel, said she was not a huge fan of Whitten’s initial statement and found her omission of the word “Israel” shocking. However, Applefield said she approved of the new statement.
“I know me, as well as the Jewish community, are very happy that she finally made a statement that seemed more like she was supporting us,” she said.
She said IU has been a scary place for Jewish students the past few days, but having the university president’s support helps students feel better.
“Lots of Jewish students have been terrified to go to classes and leave their homes,” she said.
Jewish organizations across the country have ramped up security in recent days following incidents of antisemitism in some cities.
But increased fear following the conflict is not contained to Jewish students. On Monday, when separate gatherings in support of Israel and Palestine clashed, Palestinian students told the IDS they could only speak with the condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety after receiving threats and hate speech.
She called the conflict between Israel and Palestine “delicate,” but condemned any attempt to justify the violence against Israeli civilians because of the conflict.
“I am terrified and so upset to know that I go to university where people can justify this,” she said.
Rabbi Sue Silberberg, who serves as the executive director of IU Hillel, said the IU administration has been very supportive of Jewish students on campus and applauded the new statement.
“I’m really grateful to President Whitten for releasing that,” she said.
She said the past week has been hard for Jewish students on campus because, in her estimation, fifty to seventy percent of them either know or are related to somebody who lives in Israel.
Last summer, Silberberg said she went to a kibbutz in Israel on the border with Gaza along with 25 students. Students from that trip, she said, have been particularly shaken up. Kibbutzim are small towns historically centered on collective farms and communal living. These areas have been hit especially hard by Hamas’s attacks.
“We met the people on that kibbutz, most of whom are no longer here,” she said.
Silberberg and Applefield both said they had heard from students who had experienced antisemitism from other students and faculty in the past week.
IU did not respond to a request for comment by publication. The IU Palestine Solidarity Committee also did not respond by publication.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to include additional responses to Whitten’s statement and more context about the Israel-Hamas war.