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A Message from the Director on the Israel-Hamas War, Campus Protests, and the Mission of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies


On October 7th, 2023, Israel suffered its worst ever terrorist attack when some 3,000 members of Hamas’s military wing (and some Gazans not formally affiliated with Hamas) infiltrated Israel through the border fence, as well as by air and sea. As is now well known, they proceeded to massacre young people at a music festival, and capture many civilian communities, where they went into people’s homes, murdering entire families, raping women, torturing and decapitating people. In total, around 1,200 people were killed, mostly civilians, and more than 3,300 wounded. Around 242 people, including babies, young children and elderly people, were abducted and taken to the Gaza Strip as hostages.

The scale and savagery of Hamas’s attack was unprecedented. Not only were more Israelis killed in a single day than in any of Israel’s wars or in the many previous terrorist attacks, but the horrific and sadistic manner in which many were killed and their bodies mutilated and desecrated was deeply shocking. The indescribable atrocities that were committed on that dark day should never be forgotten, let alone ignored or denied. Those evil acts and the mass murder of civilians must be unequivocally condemned by everyone, regardless of your political views or where you stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies immediately issued such a condemnation and I have reiterated it in my public remarks as director of the Center on numerous occasions.

As a center for the study of modern Israel, some people expect the Nazarian Center, and me personally, to also publicly declare that we stand with Israel during the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas and to denounce the demonstrations and protests that some UCLA students have engaged in since October 7th and the outbreak of the war. I can understand why. These demonstrations and protests have sometimes featured slogans and chants that are offensive, disturbing and even threatening to many people, particularly to many Jewish students, staff and faculty at UCLA. To many, it appears that students protesting against Israel are supporting Hamas and condoning its terrorism. While that may be true for a few students, I think that most students are, in fact, expressing their support for and solidarity with Palestinians, and are protesting because of the mounting civilian casualties and humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, not celebrating mass murder or calling for genocide against Jews. Of course, we condemn expressions of support for terrorism, though protected speech, and threats of violence, which are never acceptable and should not be tolerated.

Unfortunately, in the zero-sum mindset that prevails when it comes to the contentious issue of Israel-Palestine, many people on both sides seem unwilling to acknowledge or lament the other sides’ victims, or they believe that there are only innocent people on one side, but not the other. Expressions of compassion and empathy for all the innocent victims on both sides have been depressingly rare. I strongly believe that we can and should mourn all the lives lost and recognize the suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians, and that failing to do this is morally indefensible. I also believe that just as it is wrong to equate all Israelis and supporters of Israel with the positions and actions of the Israeli government, it is also wrong to equate all Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinians with the positions and actions of Hamas. Just as students who support Israel should not be branded as racists or colonizers, so too, students who support the Palestinians should not be branded as antisemites or terrorists. Such invective poisons the climate on college campuses and deepens divisions and discord among students.

In such a polarized climate, and when emotions are running high, the work of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies is especially important. Our role is not to engage in pro-Israel advocacy—for which there are plenty of organizations on and off-campus—but to provide education about the current war and about Israel in general, and that is exactly what we have been doing. There is an urgent need and great demand for accurate information, relatively objective analysis, and a nuanced understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In my role as Center director and Professor of Israel Studies, I have been trying to provide this in my many interviews to the media and public talks, and the Nazarian Center has organized numerous events about the October 7th attack and the Israel-Hamas war for UCLA students, for the broader UCLA community, and for our audience around the world. For example, on November 7—exactly one month after the attack—the Center co-hosted a major online program with Haaretz journalists. We have also posted educational resources on our website for those who wish to learn more about Hamas, the Gaza Strip, and the current war. And we have provided a space on campus for students to come to discuss the war and ask questions about it.

Like many, I have been dismayed by the reactions of some UCLA students, albeit a small minority, to the October 7th terrorist attack, and by some of the extreme rhetoric that some have voiced in demonstrations and protests against Israel. The best response to this is not to try to censor such rhetoric, which UCLA, as a public university, is legally prohibited from doing. Rather, the most appropriate and most effective response is to increase our efforts to educate as many students as possible about Israel. By studying about Israel and about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, students become more informed and less likely to view the country and its citizens in a simplistic, crude or one-dimensional manner. To be sure, Israel Studies is not a panacea, but it can help students develop a more sophisticated and more nuanced understanding of Israel, of Zionism, and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Education can combat ignorance about Israel, Hamas, the West Bank, and Gaza, and counter harmful stereotypes of Israelis and Palestinians.

As the primary source of education and scholarship about modern Israel on UCLA’s campus, the role of the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies is more critical than ever. To perform this vital role, the Center must maintain its status as an academic center that is committed to education, not advocacy. We must be perceived by students, staff and faculty alike as a place that is open to everyone on campus, and where everyone is welcome, irrespective of their political views, or their religious or ethnic identity. All UCLA students must feel welcome because our mission is to educate all students, not only students who identify with Israel. We fulfill this mission by sponsoring a wide range of courses about Israel that reach hundreds of undergraduate students. These courses cover Israeli history, politics, society and culture, and many of our courses situate Israel in the context of broad global issues, such as immigration, national security, minority rights, and gender equality.

If the Nazarian Center were to lose its hard-earned reputation as a center for rigorous scholarship and education, it would jeopardize our mission and our ability to attract diverse students to take courses that we sponsor or attend events that we organize. For this reason, the director must  always be careful to refrain from taking sides in campus politics, and strive to ensure that the Nazarian Center does not engage in advocacy, on campus or off—a position that has been particularly challenging in the current climate.

I am determined to ensure that the Nazarian Center can continue to perform our mission of education and scholarship for many years to come, and continue to be an internationally-known source of expertise about Israel and an intellectually vibrant home for Israel Studies at UCLA.