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Among the HBCU community, support for Israelis and Palestinians has historical ties

As some HBCUs, including Howard, have remained silent on the conflict between Israel and Gaza, historians point out that there are complex relations between the institutions and both groups.

Thousands gather in Washington, D.C., for pro-Palestinian protests. (Photo courtesy of Amerah Laban) 

For the past two weeks, Amerah Laban’s eyes have rarely strayed from her phone. 

Following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel and airstrikes in Gaza, the Palestinian-American student shared that she receives updates and relief only from journalists reporting from the now war-torn territory. 

“We lost contact with our cousins in Gaza, one of them passed away on Sunday,” Laban said. “And most of their neighborhoods have been demolished.” 

As Laban fears for the safety of her extended family more than 5,000 miles away, the senior nursing student continues to attend classes at Howard University, where she waits for what she says may never come from the HBCU: a statement of support for Palestinians. 

At Howard, the response to the ongoing war in Gaza and Israel from the administration has been absent — despite decades of shared civil rights history from HBCUs between both Israel and Palestinians, historians say. 

Across the country, presidents at colleges and universities have released statements regarding the war in Israel and Gaza, such as Harvard University, Michigan State University and Georgetown University, capturing both media attention and criticism.

At this time, Howard University President Ben Vinson III has not made a statement for the university on the ongoing war. The Hilltop repeatedly contacted the university office of communications for comment, but no response was given at the time of publication. 

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“I am so disheartened that Howard has stayed silent,” Laban said. “This isn’t a fight about religion, it’s the fight between the oppressed versus the oppressor. There is a long history of Black and Palestinian solidarity … It makes me really upset that they don’t want to ever acknowledge anything like that.”

Michael Fischbach, a historian with a focus on Israel and Palestine, said the relationship between Howard student activists and Palestinians spans decades, beginning with Black revolutionaries in the late 60s and early 70s who embraced the Palestinian struggle for liberation. 

Since 1948, when the state of Israel was created, tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians have been killed, Fischbach said, leading Black civil rights organizers and student activists to advocate for the life and rights of Palestinians.

Protesters carry Palestinian flags on the National Mall. (Photo courtesy of Thandiwe Abdullah)

“People like the Black Panther Party, Stokely Carmichael, SNCC embraced the Palestinian cause, not just out of abstract revolutionary solidarity, but because they saw themselves as a kindred people of color fighting a global system of oppression that was backed by the United States,” Fischbach, author of “Black Power in Palestine,” told The Hilltop

Stokely Carmichael, a civil rights organizer and prominent Pan-African activist who later changed his name to Kwame Ture, was a student at Howard from 1960 to 1964 and frequented the university as a lecturer in the years following. In his speeches at Howard and the University of Maryland, Ture championed anti-Zionist teaching in support of Palestinians, according to archived reports in The Hilltop and The Diamondback. 

While the support for Palestinians among the student body and faculty has been documented, and was part of the Howard appeal for students like Laban, administrations at HBCUs have historically lent support to Jews and the state of Israel. 

According to researchers at Florida Atlantic University, private HBCUs like Howard and Hampton University became a refuge for Jewish professors and scholars seeking opportunities free of discrimination in the 1930s. 

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“While most of these pairings between Jewish refugees and Black colleges began as marriages of convenience, very often they blossomed into matches that lasted a lifetime,” Linda Medvin, director of the Center for Holocaust and Human Rights Education at Florida Atlantic University, wrote

In March 2007, Howard University professors in the College of Arts and Sciences called for the institution to divest from companies that offer “material support to Israeli Occupation” at a faculty meeting, according to The Jerusalem Post. The proposal was rejected by then-president Patrick Swygert, saying the resolution did not represent the position of the university. 

In a letter to the American Jewish Committee days later, Swygert wrote, “I hope that my complete and unqualified rejection of this resolution will serve to reaffirm our relationship with the American Jewish Committee and all our friends who are interested in promoting peace and reconciliation.”

On Oct. 11, Dr. Rochelle Ford, Dillard University’s president, called the Hamas attacks in Israel “unadulterated evil being unleashed on the world” and expressed sympathy for the Israeli and the Jewish community. 

In her statement, Ford also shared sentiments for Palestinians in Gaza, who she said are “blamed for the terrorist acts by the Hamas extremists, who also oppress Palestinians in Gaza, doing more harm to the struggle for freedom and autonomy.”   

In an interview with The Hilltop, Ford shared that she was not fearful of backlash for her statement on the Israel and Gaza war, as the private Louisiana HBCU is home to the National Center of Black-Jewish Relations. To Ford, a call to end hatred is most important.

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Ford believes that some HBCUs may be delayed in speaking out on the Israel-Gaza war due to the threat of terrorism on their own campuses. This month at Bowie State University, Jackson State University and Morgan State University, communities are left shaken after multiple people, including students, were shot at the universities’ homecomings.

“If I was in Morgan State, I would be focusing on the people who were shooting on the campus. If I was at Edward Waters, I would be focusing on those who tried to infiltrate their campus and shot up a store down the street,” Ford, who is a Howard alumna, said. “People speak on issues for different reasons. Dillard had to speak, we didn’t have a choice not to speak because that’s what we are here for.” 

On Oct. 16, Morehouse College President David Thomas and Dean Lawrence Carter Sr. wrote a joint statement similar to Ford’s, calling for peace in the Middle East region.

Dr. Greg Carr, a Howard University professor of Africana Studies, believes the conversation of allyship on the Israel and Gaza war may be difficult for some HBCUs to address out of fear of potential retaliation from donors to the universities. 

“When it comes to HBCUs, these [institutions] are not financially autonomous or independent or self-determining. So what you see is this perpetual attempt by HBCU administrators to shield the institution from this precarious position,” Carr said. “At the same time, try to assert some statement of our values. It can be less than satisfying.” 

As universities across the country debate the need for a statement, Thandiwe Abdullah, a senior Afro-American studies major, recently attended a protest organized by the American Jewish Coalition for the support of Palestinians with other Howard students of Jewish identity.

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“I’m frustrated because as someone who is Jewish, who no one would look at me and would see me as Jewish, my entire Jewish family raised me to be very firmly pro-Palestinian freedom, pro-Palestinian sovereignty,” Abdullah said.

Abdullah expressed that the statements for peace from HBCUs are unmoving, given the relationship between the institutions and militarism. In January, the Department of Defense awarded Howard with a $90 million research contract in partnership with eight other HBCUs to develop autonomous military technology.

“I don’t really expect any statement of solidarity to truly mean much in terms of advocating for peace when we make money off of war,” Abdullah said. “We produce war. We produce military.”

Copy edited by Alana Matthew


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