JTA – A Cornell University professor has apologized after saying at a rally that he was “exhilarated” by Hamas’ terror attack on Israel, in the latest example of American university faculty caught up in heated rhetoric over Israel and Gaza on college campuses.
The apology by Russell Rickford, a history professor, was published the same day as another apology from a different university professor in Chicago over her own anti-Israel social media comments.
Both appear to have been prompted by condemnations from their respective university presidents, which came as donors have pulled support from other elite universities over their perceived failure to sufficiently or promptly condemn the attacks.
During the two weeks since the massacre, several other professors have made comments perceived as anti-Israel or pro-Hamas, and some have faced public pressure campaigns as a result. Students at Harvard, New York University and Columbia University who signed onto anti-Israel statements in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks have also had job offers rescinded and in some cases, seen their names spread as part of doxxing campaigns led by pro-Israel groups.
“I apologize for the horrible choice of words that I used in a portion of a speech that was intended to stress grassroots African American, Jewish and Palestinian traditions of resistance to oppression,” Rickford wrote in a statement published in the campus newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun. “I recognize that some of the language I used was reprehensible and did not reflect my values.”
Rickford made his initial comments during an October 15 pro-Palestinian rally on the Ithaca, New York, campus. Standing in front of banners arguing that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, he announced, “Hamas has challenged the monopoly of violence” and “shifted the balance of power,” in reference to the terror group’s October 7 onslaught in which it killed 1,400 Israelis, wounded thousands and took some 200 hostages. The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — men, women, children and the elderly, with entire families executed in their homes and over 260 slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists.
“It was exhilarating. It was energizing,” Rickford said of the onslaught.
Claiming that even “Palestinians of conscience” were “able to breathe for the first time in years,” Rickford continued, “And if they weren’t exhilarated by this challenge to the monopoly of violence, by this shifting of the balance of power, then they would not be human. I was exhilarated.”
Initially, Rickford had defended his remarks from Jewish and Israeli students’ criticism, saying he was referring to “those first few hours” when the Hamas militants first breached the Gaza barrier and before the full scope of their attacks on Israelis had become known.
“In that context, this act of defiance, of boring across the wall, was a significant symbol,” he told the Daily Sun. “It really signaled that the Palestinian will to resist had not been broken. In subsequent days, we learned of some of the horrifying realities.”
But opposition was also mounting at the highest levels of Cornell’s administration. The university’s president and board of trustees harshly condemned Rickford’s comments in a pair of statements.
“This is a reprehensible comment that demonstrates no regard whatsoever for humanity,” president Martha Pollack and board chair Kraig Kayser said in a statement Tuesday that named Rickford specifically and hinted that the administration might look into disciplining him. That followed an earlier statement from Pollack that did not name Rickford but stated, “I am sickened by statements glorifying the evilness of Hamas terrorism. Any members of our community who have made such statements do not speak for Cornell; in fact, they speak in direct opposition to all we stand for at Cornell.”
Rickford’s apology did not specify what part of his speech he was apologizing for. According to the Daily Sun, the professor has a history of pro-Palestinian activism, including at rallies protesting racism and other issues.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Claudia Tenney both said Friday that they believed Cornell should fire Rickford. “As a person of authority at an educational institution, to celebrate murder, rape and abducting children and slaughtering children, I think he should be fired,” Gillibrand told CNY Central. Tenney made the request in a letter to Pollack that she also released publicly.
On the same day that Rickford apologized, Mika Tosca, a climate scientist and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, also apologized for an Instagram post that contained harsh anti-Israel sentiments.
“Israelis are pigs. Savages. Very very bad people. Irredeemable excrement,” Tosca had written Tuesday, nine days after the massacre and in the midst of Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza, according to a screenshot shared by The New York Post. “The propaganda has been downright evil. After the past week, if your eyes aren’t open to the crimes against humanity that Israel is committing and has committed for decades, and will continue to commit, then I suggest you open them.” She concluded, “May they all rot in hell.”
Her post, like Rickford’s, prompted a denunciation from her employer. “One member of our community expressed views on their personal social media account — views that are not reflective of the School or the values we as a community share — causing distress among those both within and beyond our campus,” SAIC president Elissa Tenny wrote in a statement Wednesday. “The School of the Art Institute of Chicago rejects such hateful views, and I want to clarify our values as an educational community.”
In a lengthy apology posted to Instagram that same day, Tosca said she was “deeply sorry for writing what I wrote.”
“I am especially sorry to Israeli people that I broadly placed at fault for the war,” she continued. “You did not — and do not — deserve that, and I was wrong to post what I posted; I know that my words perpetuated harmful stereotypes.”
Rickford and Tosca’s apologies come as university faculty around the country have posted inflammatory statements about Israel. Yale University American studies professor Zareen Grewal tweeted on the day of Hamas’ attacks that “Israel is a murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle, solidarity.” An online petition started by the family of a Jewish Yale student to pressure the university to remove her has racked up more than 53,000 signatures, but the university has not commented on her statements.
Another American studies professor, Jemma Decristo at the University of California, Davis, appeared to threaten “Zionist journalists” on social media. Decristo reportedly posted on October 10 on X, “One group of ppl we have easy access to in the US is all these zionist journalists who spread propaganda and misinformation,” adding, “They have houses, addresses, kids in school” and concluding with machete, ax and bloodrop emojis. “They can fear their bosses, but they should fear us more,” she wrote.
Decristo has made her social media accounts private since screenshots of the post began to spread on Thursday. UC Davis has yet to respond to the post, although Decristo’s staff page was no longer visible Thursday. The school’s president had posted a statement supporting “our Jewish and Muslim communities” on the same day as Decristo’s post.
And Columbia University is fiercely divided over how to respond to a tenured Middle East studies professor, Joseph Massad, who penned a piece for the anti-Zionist website Electronic Intifada the day after the Hamas attacks describing them as “innovative,” a “major achievement,” and a source of “jubilation and awe.”
A student-led petition to remove Massad had reportedly amassed 47,000 signatures this week, although it was not visible as of Thursday; in response, several hundred students, faculty, alumni and “affiliates” of the university signed an open letter backing Massad’s “academic freedom.”
Columbia was also one of a handful of universities where student organizations signed letters blaming Israel for the Hamas attacks, and last week the university was the site of an assault on an Israeli student.