Letter to the Editor: on Amherst College and Gaza

Rachel and Michael Deutch Professor of Philosophy Alexander George calls attention to the consequences of the administration’s consistent failure to express the culpability of the Israeli government for the ongoing loss of civilian life in Gaza.

Jan. 21, 2024

Open Letter to the Amherst College Community:

On Dec. 4, approximately 30 percent of the members of Amherst College’s faculty wrote to the President and the Trustees requesting the college’s divestment from corporations profiting from Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza. The issue for the signatories was not Israel’s right to defend its citizens, but rather its obligation to conduct any such defense within the bounds of morality — and Israel’s failure to meet that obligation. The college, the letter insisted, should not be making money from gross immorality. The President and Trustees subsequently declined the Faculty’s request and chose not to explore whether the college is invested in companies that are profiting from the large-scale killing and immiseration of Palestinians in Gaza (letter, Dec. 20).

An important consideration, the President and Trustees wrote, is the “deep — and deeply held — differences of opinion” about the carnage in Gaza. I shall not address this here, beyond suggesting reflection on the predictable consequences of this concern. I write, rather, to take issue with a phrase in their letter. I might have let it go had I not snagged on similar formulations cropping up in other messages from the administration.  

To provide some background, President Michael Elliott first wrote to the Amherst community on Oct. 11 “to express my outrage and grief at Saturday’s brutal attack by Hamas on Israel and its people.” Although he has subsequently lamented “the continuing violence and profound suffering in the Middle East” (letter, Nov. 20), he has thus far not expressed, in comparably explicit terms, his outrage and grief at the continuing attack by Israel on Gaza and its people.  Indeed, the very existence of an attack by Israel against a civilian population — let alone any outrage it might elicit — is passed over in silence. This omission is part of a pattern.

At a meeting of the Faculty Executive Committee on Oct. 16, the President discussed the college’s efforts “to support students in the aftermath of Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel, the resultant loss of life of Israelis, and now the acute humanitarian crisis in Gaza and loss of Palestinian lives.” The last phrase might seem better suited to describe the effects on Gaza of an earthquake or a severe drought. In the quoted formulation, the identity — even the existence — of an agent of destruction has been artfully elided. And thus so too the immediate moral issues the crisis raises, namely the college’s financial ties to corporations that are supplying the means for the destruction of Gaza.  

On Dec. 19, a letter from the college’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion concluded with the usual pained acknowledgment of the unfolding cataclysm: “The devastating Oct. 7 attack in the Middle East has resulted in thousands of Israeli and Palestinian lives lost.” Here again, Israel’s role as perpetrator has been erased. It is as if one were to claim that the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor “resulted in” hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — an erasure of United States responsibility that one does not find in even the most revisionist of histories. Imagine the (legitimate) uproar if it were suggested that Israel’s lengthy illegal occupation of Gaza “resulted in” Israeli lives lost on Oct. 7, with nary a mention of the fact that that heinous act was the work of Hamas. And yet here, the telescoping of the causal chain passes without comment.

And now to return to the President and Trustees’ letter of Dec. 20. Its authors find that “The tremendous human cost of this conflict, beginning with the brutal Hamas attack on Oct. 7 and continuing with the ongoing loss of civilian life in Gaza, is undeniably horrific.” Just who is taking those civilian lives in Gaza at a ferocious pace appears unworthy of mention. Or perhaps not unworthy, but just too difficult. It seems the voice goes mute and the pen is stilled when it comes to expressing the thought that this “ongoing loss” is actually the consequence of deliberate human actions, of the Israeli government’s attack in particular.  

President Elliott urged (letter, Nov. 20) that it “is the responsibility of each of us” to “articulate our beliefs with [...] consideration of the implications of that expression.” Agreed. And let us add that we should also be mindful of the implications of our omissions.


Alexander George
Rachel and Michael Deutch Professor of Philosophy
Amherst College