Union for KU graduate teaching assistants condemns Israel in letter of solidarity for Palestine

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Special to the Journal-World

The University of Kansas campus is pictured in this aerial photo from September 2023 with the Campanile in the foreground.

The executive board of the labor union for graduate teaching assistants at the University of Kansas has issued a statement condemning the state of Israel as part of a broader letter of solidarity for Palestine.

“We condemn the ongoing settler colonial project, known as the nation-state of Israel, which does not represent all Jewish people and is not synonymous with biblical Israel,” a statement posted to the Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition’s website reads.

Neill Esquibel-Kennedy, secretary for the local labor union, said the executive board unanimously agreed to issue the solidarity statement and specifically condemn the existence of Israel.

“We are condemning the existence of a state that is based on apartheid,” Esquibel-Kennedy told the Journal-World in an interview.

KU Hillel, a Jewish student organization, said in a statement that the GTAs’ letter caused deep pain.

“Hillel is deeply pained that any Jewish student would encounter further hatred, antisemitism, or delegitimization of Israel on their own campus in the days following the bloodiest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust,” Hillel said in a written statement sent to the Journal-World by interim executive director Bailey London Nakelsky. “Instead, we expect our campus communities to offer solace and support as we grieve over the vicious and cruel attack on Israeli civilians and process the unbearable pain of the heinous murders, rapes, and kidnapping of Israeli men, women, and children.”

The GTAs’ letter of solidarity comes as violence has erupted in the Middle East. More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed and more than 4,100 Palestinians have been killed since war erupted on Oct. 7, the Associated Press reports. On Oct. 7, Hamas militants stormed into Israel, and Israel vowed to destroy the militant group, which is embedded in the Gaza region.

As airstrikes have increased and Israeli troops mass for a presumed ground invasion of Gaza, tensions have grown around the world. The highest levels of American government have issued full support for actions taken by Israel to defend itself and eradicate Hamas from power in Gaza.

Humanitarian leaders and many in the Muslim world have urged Israel to show restraint in military operations, as fears of additional civilian casualties in Gaza grow.

Esquibel-Kennedy said the GTA union is taking a stand that the blame for the violence rests with Israel and its decades of “ethnic genocide and sexual violence against and the expulsion and maiming of the Palestinian people.”

The GTAs’ statement does not specifically condemn Hamas for any of its actions, which the Associated Press and other media outlets have reported included beheadings, the dumping of burnt bodies in trash bins, the kidnapping of civilians and other similar acts.

“We are saying violence begets violence,” Esquibel-Kennedy said in explaining why the GTAs did not condemn the violent acts of Hamas in addition to Israeli actions. “If your existence is violent from the get-go and you are born into an open-air prison, that situation is going to result in violence.”

Gaza often has been referred to as an open-air prison due to a blockade by Israel and Egypt that dates back to 2007 when Hamas seized control of the territory. Even before the latest violence there were frequent reports of shortages of clean water, medicine and other necessities.

In its statement, Hillel did not respond to many of the specific statements made by the GTA union. But the Hillel statement said the Oct. 7 attacks were taking a toll on KU’s Jewish community. “Jewish students feel a strong need to come together in this moment to support Israel and denounce hate, and Hillel provides them a much-needed network of peer and professional support,” Hillel said in its statement. “They are feeling shock and grief, and they are feeling love and care for Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. Almost every Jewish American student is connected to someone in Israel, and almost every person in Israel is directly impacted by the loss or injury of someone they know. This is intensely personal, and it hits home for our students in a deeply emotional way.”

Esquibel-Kennedy, a doctoral candidate in KU’s American Studies department, said the executive committee of the union did not attempt to poll all 900-plus graduate teaching assistants about issuing the letter of solidarity. However, she said several members of the union had reached out asking whether the union was going to issue a statement of support for Palestine. She said reaction to the statement, which is dated Oct. 18, has been largely positive, but she said the group has received one anonymous death threat. The executive committee of eight people unanimously voted to issue the statement, and she said the group included a member of the Jewish faith.

Esquibel-Kennedy said the union’s leadership felt comfortable that it could make the statement of solidarity and still maintain workable classroom relationships with students of Jewish faith or others who strongly disagree with the union’s position. Esquibel-Kennedy emphasized that not all Jewish people support Israel or its actions. She also said that she frequently has difficult classroom conversations about colonialism and other emotional topics with students all the time.

“To say that Jewish students are not capable of having those conversations, I think is racist,” she said.

Nakelsky, in a brief interview with the Journal-World, did not specifically address what impact she thought the GTA statement might have on classroom relations and interactions with students of Jewish faith. In its statement, though, Hillel said it would continue to focus on providing Jewish students the support they need.

“As the war between Israel and Hamas intensifies, we will continue to focus on how we can provide safe spaces for Jewish students to mourn the losses of October 7, and to express their Jewish identities and authentic relationships with Israel without fear of harassment or marginalization,” Hillel said in the statement. “We pray for the return of the captives, the health of all those injured, and for peace and stability.”

The Journal-World reached out to a spokeswoman with KU for comment on the union’s statement, and specifically about whether KU had any concerns related to classroom interactions going forward, but did not immediately receive a response. Attempts to reach Rabbi Moti Rieber with Kansas Interfaith Action also weren’t successful on Friday.


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