An open letter released by Cleveland State University officials on the recent violence in Israel and Palestine is facing criticism from Palestinian and non-Palestinian students alike due to the lack of acknowledgement of the mass killings of Palestinians by Israel, as well as systematic oppression dating back decades.
The open letter, signed by CSU President Laura Bloomberg and the Board of Trustees Chair, David Reynolds, was posted on the University’s website and emailed to students and staff on Friday, Oct. 13.
The letter addressed the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, the governing authority of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, the Gaza Strip. In the attack, over a thousand Israelis were killed and over 200 more kidnapped.
Members of the Cleveland Palestinian community noted in a Cleveland City Council meeting on Monday, Oct. 16 that the attack on Israel should be understood in the context of “the cruel and brutal oppression and illegal occupation that the Palestinians have been enduring for decades from the Israeli apartheid state.”
Since the attack, Israel has retaliated by launching a series of airstrikes on Gaza. These strikes have killed over 8,500 Palestinians, including over 3,500 children, as well as leaving an additional 21,543 injured and an estimated 1.4 million displaced. The airstrikes, in addition to the tightening of Israel’s blockade, have intensified the already-existing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
In the open letter’s first paragraph, attention is drawn to a joint statement written by the United States and allied nations in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. The letter urged people to read the joint statement “in its entirety,” adding, “we couldn’t have said it any better than [the U.S. and allied nations] did.”
The joint statement cited in the letter condemned Hamas for “its appalling acts of terrorism.” It also said that “our countries will support Israel in its efforts to defend itself and its people against such atrocities.”
The remainder of the letter noted CSU’s counseling resources, stating that Bloomberg has encouraged the University’s official leadership to connect personally with students impacted by the rising violence in Palestine and Israel and direct them towards available resources.
Response from Students for Justice in Palestine
The Cauldron reached out to CSU’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for a statement in response to CSU’s open letter to the university.
The group collectively wrote that, “the lack of emphasis on the mass casualties committed by Israeli air strikes to civilians in Gaza is what begins to upset almost all Palestinians when hearing these statements.”
“Of course; we condemn the lives of the innocent being taken away, but why hasn’t anyone spoken of the atrocious crimes of the Israeli government for the last 75 years?” questioned SJP. “Not one statement we have read has given us any reassurance that we are heard, we are seen, and we are also being considered.”
SJP members ended the statement by expressing the anger they, as well as fellow Palestinians, feel.
“Anger is a word that doesn’t even fully encapsulate how Palestinians in our community feel. We feel enraged that we have to lose our voices while shouting for the thousands of lives in Gaza.”
In a separate statement released publicly on the group’s Instagram page last week, SJP members reiterated their concerns about the lack of attention towards the violence and oppression faced by Palestinians.
“We were particularly concerned that [the open letter], while extensive at over 500 words, did not contain a single mention of the thousands of Palestinians who have lost their lives in this long-standing conflict, nor the humanitarian crises they face,” reads the statement.
The Instagram statement also criticized the University’s letter’s use of the term “terrorist,” stating that the term “reproduces harmful rhetoric that has proven dangerous for Arab and Muslim students.”
The statement also addressed several recent hate crimes against the Arab, Muslim and Palestinian communities, including the recent murder of a six-year-old Palestinian boy in Chicago and a 20-year-old Palestinian-American man being hit by a car while the attacker shouted, “Kill all Palestinians,” right here in Northeast Ohio—all of which SJP considers to be a result of such harmful language.
The statement also questioned “the amplification of government messaging that has facilitated this tragedy,” referencing the role the United States has taken in stoking the violence, which it has done through its long history of shielding Israel from facing international accountability for their treatment of Palestinians and providing Israel with regular military aid despite its systemic human rights violations.
“The omission of [the Palestinian] perspective in your [open letter] has left us feeling unacknowledged and unsafe,” continued the statement. “We urge you to consider being an ally to Palestinians seeking the same dignity and solidarity so readily given to their occupiers.”
The statement was co-signed by 34 organizations and small businesses, including four CSU student organizations.
The Cauldron questioned CSU on whether the open letter’s description of the joint statement amounted to an endorsement by the University.
Instead of answering the question, a University spokesperson instead responded by summarizing the joint statement, which they said “[condemns] Hamas and terrorism, as well as [acknowledges] Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism (as any sovereign nation has the right to do).”
They also said that the joint statement “recognizes and supports the aspirations of the Palestinian people, and that the terrorist organization Hamas does not offer the opportunity to fulfill those aspirations.”
The University also did not respond to questions regarding whether it plans to encourage students and staff to read statements condemning or acknowledging the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians that have been killed by Israeli airstrikes since Oct. 7, like it did when Israelis were killed by Hamas.
The University also did not respond to a question asking whether the open letters’ support for the joint statement meant that the University supports Israel’s siege on Gaza and sees it as Israel’s defending itself.
A second set of questions, including questions on whether CSU plans to meet with SJP or do anything in response to SJP’s criticisms of the open letter, was sent to the University shortly before publishing.
The Cauldron received no response prior to publishing.
CSU’s refusal to condemn anti-Palestinian harassment on campus
CSU’s Palestinian students and alumni question why the open letter was released in the first place, particularly due to the administration’s persistent hesitance on releasing statements relating to the harassment of Palestinian and Arab students on campus by Zionist activist and former Cleveland Heights City Council Candidate Alec Popivker last year.
In late 2022 and early 2023, Popivker’s regular presence in CSU’s courtyard provoked massive student concern over his anti-Palestinian demonstrations and hate speech. His speech included comparing Palestinians to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, which made Palestinian and Muslim students, as well as students outside of those communities, feel unsafe.
In January 2023, Popivker was removed from the courtyard by CSU Police for violating a protection order filed against him by a student on grounds of stalking. He later admitted to stealing the banner of CSU’s Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) student organization, which has since changed its name to SJP, from the Student Center.
He was found guilty of unauthorized use of property in relation to this crime over the summer and sentenced to a year and a half of probation, anger management classes and a community orientation program, avoiding any jail time. Popivker was also banned from CSU property, but has recently returned to harassing CSU students on the public sidewalk in front of the Student Center.
CSU alumna Summer, former secretary of SJP, said that the group repeatedly asked the administration last year if they could respond to Popivker’s harassment by releasing a statement “in support of their Arab and Muslim community [so that they would] know that CSU was here for them.”
“Numerous administrators repeatedly told us that they could not release a statement,” shared Summer.
She added that administrators responded to their requests by saying things like, “We can’t pick a side, that’s not what a college is here to do.”
Another CSU alumna and former SJP President, Haneen Hamideh, shared that when asked if they could make statements in support of CSU’s Arab community amid the harassment, CSU administration “straight up told us ‘we can’t make a statement about everything.’”
“When I first saw [the open letter],” Hamideh continued, “My first question was, what happened to you saying you’re not able to post about everything?”
In a video provided to The Cauldron by a former member of SJP, CSU’s former Vice President for Campus Engagement, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Phillip Cockrell, can be heard pushing back against an SJP member’s request that CSU administration release a statement regarding the harassment of Arab and Muslim students in a meeting that took place in January 2023.
The video continued to show the SJP member pushing Cockrell on whether he, or someone else from CSU administration, would release a statement saying that they are against the harassment and attacks of their students and stand with the communities being targeted.
Cockrell can be heard responding by saying that he is “not comfortable” making a statement because it would “set a precedent.”
“I’ve been cautioning people about making statements,” Cockrell says in the recording. “If you make one statement, you’ll be making a statement everyday just because there’s so much stuff that happens everyday in the world.”
When the SJP member brought up the theft of the organization’s banner from the Student Organization, Cockrell responded, “My pushback is that we have thefts everyday.”
CSU did not respond to questions, sent shortly before publishing, asking why the University was able to release a statement on the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, but not able to release a statement on the harassment of Arab and Muslim students on campus.
Law College Dean Fisher’s statement on Israel and Palestine
CSU College of Law Dean, Lee Fisher, released a separate statement in a Monday Morning Message to the college on Oct. 16, also condemning Hamas’ attack and saying that while “[Israel] should continue to take every possible precaution to avoid harming innocent civilians, Israel has the right and obligation to defend itself.”
The dean added at the conclusion that the letter is reflective of his own views and not representative of the University.
The Cauldron reached out to Fisher asking whether he condemns Israel’s killings of Palestinian civilians similarly to how he condemns Hamas’ killings of Israeli civilians, whether he considers Israel’s siege on Gaza to be Israel defending itself, and whether he believes Palestine has a right and obligation to defend itself against Israeli attacks.
The Cauldron also asked Fisher how he would respond to Palestinian students that may take offense to his statement’s lack of acknowledgement of the oppression and killings of Palestinians by Israel.
He did not respond before publishing.