KU leadership says it strongly disagrees with graduate teaching assistants union’s denunciation of Israel

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

The University of Kansas campus is pictured in this September 2023 aerial photo.

The University of Kansas is officially at odds with its graduate teaching assistants union and its stance that Israel is to blame for the war that is now spreading in the Middle East.

The executive board of the GTA union last week, as the Journal-World reported, issued a Palestine solidarity letter that condemned the existence of Israel, while declining to condemn Hamas and the Oct. 7 attacks that left more than 1,400 Israelis dead.

On Friday evening, the chancellor’s office at KU issued its first response to the GTA statement.

“We strongly disagree with it,” the written statement provided to the Journal-World read in part.

The GTA statement, which was dated Oct. 18, said “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.”

In a Friday interview with the Journal-World, Neill Esquibel-Kennedy, secretary for the Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition, said the group was condemning the existence of Israel because the nation’s founding was “based on apartheid.”

Esquibel-Kennedy also said the GTA union chose not to condemn the recent actions of Hamas — the militant group based in Gaza that has reportedly conducted beheadings, civilian kidnappings and other such acts as part of its Oct. 7 attacks — because “we are saying violence begets violence. 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.”

KU leadership in its written statement said it does not support the GTA’s views.

“As is true for any member of our community or our nation, this group is afforded the right to express its opinions by the First Amendment to the Constitution,” KU said via the statement. “GTAC’s views are their own and in no way represent the University. Any suggestion of violence by any party is antithetical to our values, as is terrorism, and all forms of hate.”

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.

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 Biden administration and other top U.S. leaders have issued full support for actions taken by Israel to defend itself and eradicate Hamas from power in Gaza. U.S. leaders, though, also have urged Israel to use restraint in any reaction and to be mindful of ways to reduce civilian casualties. There also have been U.S. protests related to Israel’s delay in shipping food, water, medicine and other necessities to the battered Gaza region.

In its statement, KU did not specifically address a question from the Journal-World about whether the university is concerned the GTA’s statement will produce disruptions in university classrooms where Jewish students would be taught by instructors who have denounced Israel. However, KU provided general information about how it is approaching the emotional toll the war is taking on students, faculty and staff.

“Since Oct. 7, some members of our KU community have been heartbroken, angry and anxious,” KU said via the statement. “Our administrative leadership has taken an educational and community-based approach in our outreach, offering our support and providing resources for our faculty, staff and students. We will continue to support all members of our campus community.”

As the Journal-World reported on Friday, KU Hillel — the university’s largest Jewish student organization — issued a statement rejecting the GTA’s statement and calling for the university community to offer support to the Jewish community.

“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.”

Esquibel-Kennedy, a doctoral candidate in KU’s American Studies department, said the GTA union issued the statement after a unanimous vote by the union’s executive committee, members of which are elected by union membership. Esquibel-Kennedy said the executive committee did not seek a full vote of the union membership on the statement itself, but issued the letter after receiving several inquiries from members about whether the union would be making a statement of solidarity with Palestine.


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