For pro-Israel students at Brandeis University, the two weeks since Hamas attacked Israel had been, at least in part, a period of relief: Their campus hadn’t been convulsed by the kind of anti-Israel sentiment that was roiling so many others.
That changed on Sunday, when Brandeis’ student government voted down a resolution condemning Hamas and calling on the terror group to release all of its hostages.
Only six members of the university’s Student Union Senate voted in favor of the resolution, while 10 voted against and five abstained, according to a representative who was present at the vote.
“It’s absolutely infuriating,” said Stephen Gaughan, a Jewish sophomore who resigned from his position in the student government over the vote. “The word that comes to mind most is outrage.”
Located just west of Boston, Brandeis was founded in 1948 by the Jewish community and is named after Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Jewish students make up about a third of undergraduates, giving Brandeis one of the highest concentrations of Jewish students at any college in the country.
Ella Messler, a junior at the school and the social media manager of the online antisemitism advocacy group Jewish on Campus, said that she was disheartened by the student government vote in large part because of Brandeis’ history.
“The biggest thing that I’m feeling right now and what I think likely a lot of other Brandeis students are feeling right now is disappointment,” said Messler. “Especially with the values that our university was founded with, of inclusion, of social justice, and also specifically that Brandeis is a secular university, but it’s a university with intense ties to the American Jewish community… it’s frustrating to see my university that was founded in these values and was founded in the values of the American Jewish community be ignoring those struggles.”
The university’s president, Ronald Liebowitz, issued a statement the day of Hamas’ attack against Israel expressing concern for students and staff with Israeli friends and relatives and, unlike some other college leaders, offering full-throated support for the country.
“We condemn in the strongest way terrorism such as we have seen today perpetrated against innocent civilians; we support Israel’s right to defend itself,” he wrote.
Two weeks later, the student government was ready to make its own statement during its meeting on Sunday. Senior Yoni Kahn introduced a resolution condemning Hamas, telling Brandeis’ student newspaper, The Justice, that the measure was aimed at “supporting Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, and Muslim students.”
In addition to condemning Hamas, the resolution also said the student government “calls on Hamas to immediately release all hostages back to their families unharmed” and urged campus groups to engage with the conflict and promote “empathy, tolerance, and informed discussion.” It did not weigh in on the Israeli government or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly, Kahn said at the student government meeting, according to the newspaper report.
“I stand with the Palestinian cause,” he reportedly said. “But this is about condemning an extremist organization.”
The motion failed, by a wide margin, with a plurality of the student senators who voted rejecting it.
Allison Weiner, a member of the senate, told The Justice that it was “ridiculous to call on an internationally recognized terrorist organization to do anything.”
Eamonn Golden, the senator who had motioned to add the resolution to this week’s agenda, told The Justice that its goal was not necessarily to sway Hamas but rather to “show students that we’re in solidarity with them in their time of need.”
Gaughan, 18, said that he had read the resolution prior to the vote on Sunday night and that the measure had received more than 160 signatures of support from other students.
“I feel personally, and I know there are others who agree with me, that this vote was something of a complete evisceration of the Student Union’s legitimacy as our representative body because the people on campus are very angry about this, the people on campus are generally united on this,” he said.
Brandeis enrolls a large number of international students, including Palestinians. It has also been home to ongoing activism by a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which dozens of Jewish groups have asked colleges to defund since Oct. 7 because chapters of the group have celebrated or defended the Hamas attack. In February, after an Israeli military raid in the West Bank city of Jenin, an SJP rally at Brandeis drew national attention.
Messler, 20, said the Student Union vote is the latest in a pattern of dismaying responses to the Hamas attack that she has seen across college campuses since Oct. 7. In one notable example that both Messler and Gaughan referenced, a number of student groups at Harvard University signed a letter saying that they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”
“I think it really is representative of what we’ve seen from other campuses around the country,” Messler said. “We’ve seen protests, we’ve seen harassment of students, we’ve seen Jewish students being targeted for their real or perceived connections to Israel. And so I think my reaction as a Brandeis student is obviously disappointment. I would hope that my school would be better.”
Liebowitz issued a second statement about Israel on Sunday, reiterating the school’s support for Israel and its right to defend itself. He also said Brandeis’ “thoughts and sympathies remain with all innocent civilians living in Israel and in Gaza.” And he indicated that he recognized that the temperature on campus was rising.
“Here on campus, I urge all of us to exercise compassion and civility in engaging with this issue in the classroom, in the dining hall, dorms, and across campus,” he wrote. “Know that Brandeis is committed to free speech and encourages respectful dialogue, and we also prohibit threats to, or harassment of, any members of our community.”
Gaughan lauded his university’s administration for its response, which he said held even more weight in light of the student senate vote.
“Among all of us who are so angry, it’s a big comfort that even if our student leadership won’t stand up for us, won’t represent us, our administration, our president, Ron Liebowitz, was willing to get to the point, be curt in his statements and say very clearly that our school condemns Hamas, our school stands with Israel and all those affected,” he said.