Ming DeMers/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Prof. Russell Rickford spoke at a rally in support of Palestine on Oct 15, where he stated he was "exhilarated" by Hamas's attack on Israel.

October 16, 2023

Cornell Professor “Exhilarated” by Hamas’s Attack Defends Remark

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Update, Oct. 17, 4:28 p.m.: This story has been updated to include a University statement released Tuesday afternoon.

Update, Oct. 18, 6:28 p.m.: Prof. Russell Rickford released a statement to The Sun apologizing for his choice of words on Wednesday, Oct. 18. The statement can be found here.

Prof. Russell Rickford, history, is no stranger to controversial remarks. In 2017, during a “kneel-in” event in support of students and professional athletes fighting against racism in America, he led a “Free Palestine” chant, which some students regarded as inappropriate as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not the topic of the demonstration.

Now, some students are expressing outrage over Rickford’s statement at a pro-Palestinian rally on Sunday, Oct. 15 at the Ithaca Commons. Rickford stated that he was initially “exhilarated” by Hamas’s attack on Israel, in which 1,400 Israelis were killed. The United States and the European Union classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.

“Hamas has challenged the monopoly of violence. And in those first few hours, even as horrific acts were being carried out, many of which we would not learn about until later, there are many Gazans of good will, many Palestinians of conscience, who abhor violence, as do you, as do I. Who abhor the targeting of civilians, as do you, as do I,” Rickford said during the rally. “Who were able to breathe, they were able to breathe for the first time in years. It was exhilarating. It was energizing. And if they weren’t exhilarated by this challenge to the monopoly of violence, by this shifting of the balance of power, then they would not be human. I was exhilarated.” 

He added: “What has Hamas done? Hamas has shifted the balance of power. Hamas has punctured the illusion of invincibility. That’s what they have done. You don’t have to be a Hamas supporter to recognize that,” Rickford said. “Hamas has changed the terms of the debate. Israeli officials are right — nothing will be the same again.”

In an interview with The Sun, Rickford clarified his remarks, but did not backpedal his choice of words.

“What I was referring to is in those first few hours, when they broke through the apartheid wall, that it seemed to be a symbol of resistance, and indeed a new phase of resistance in the Palestinian struggle,” Rickford said. “We are acutely aware of the devastation, the daily destruction and degradation caused by Israeli policies, caused by Israeli apartheid, caused by the occupation. So in that context, this act of defiance of boring across the wall was a significant symbol. It really signaled that the Palestinian will to resist had not been broken. In subsequent days, we learned of some of the horrifying realities. I want to make it clear that Hamas is a fundamentalist organization. It’s important to note that in some ways, the fundamentalism of Hamas mirrors that of Israeli leadership.”

Rickford referred to Gaza as an “open-air prison,” citing the lack of abundant food, clean water and healthcare in the region. According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, most Palestinians are prohibited from entering or leaving the area except in rare cases.

“As I said in that clip, I abhor the killing of civilians. If in fact we believe in the West in the rhetoric that we spout about equality, about human rights, then we must recognize the tremendous disproportionality, the tremendous unevenness, the injustice and the hypocrisy of Western support in celebration of Israeli war crimes, and the equation of any form of Palestinian resistance with terrorism,” Rickford told The Sun.

But several students told The Sun they felt the remarks were words of hate against Israeli citizens and Jewish people more broadly. Netanel Shapira ’25 was at the rally and identifies as Israeli, as most of his family was born in the country. He spent a gap year in Israel before starting at Cornell and currently has friends in the Israel Defense Forces whose safety he fears for.

“You can’t have a situation where you have a professor on this campus… make comments like it should feel exhilarating to massacre civilians and murder babies. And that he felt exhilarated by it,” Shapira said. “That’s the first step to the incitement of violence towards a group.”

Shapira ultimately ended up filming a portion of Rickford’s speech, which spread among the Jewish community at Cornell and resulted in national attention.

Ethan Glezer ’24, whose parents are both Israeli, also attended the rally. He said he attended the rally for Palestine in order to understand those with different viewpoints on the conflict, with the goal of creating open dialogue and discussion. But he felt Rickford’s comments were not productive and were instead inciting violence.

“His words were directly in support of violence. It was the next level to where things started to feel uncomfortable being there,” Glezer said. “There was no point before that… I never felt like my personal safety was at risk until we started hearing that the actions of Hamas exhilarate another person, because those actions are completely and entirely focused on one objective, which is causing as much suffering, as much terror and as much horror to Jewish civilians, Jewish people as possible.”

Hasham Khan ’26 attended the rally as part of Students for Justice in Palestine. He told The Sun that while he does not completely support Rickford’s statement, he understands the context behind his statement.

“The exhilaration that people feel is tied to Hamas. Hamas had essentially done what Palestinians wanted to be done in almost ideology. They wanted their shackles to be taken away,” Khan said. “Can your shackles be taken away by killing civilians? No. Can your shackles be taken away by engaging in terrorism? No. But the exhilaration and the liberation that is felt when you attack the oppressor is just a common theme in revolution.”

In a University statement sent around 4:30 p.m. on Monday, President Martha Pollack referred broadly to faculty who have spoken positively about Hamas, stating that she was “sickened by statements glorifying the evilness of Hamas terrorism.”

“Any members of our community who have made such statements do not speak for Cornell; in fact, they speak in direct opposition to all we stand for at Cornell,” Pollack said. “There is no justification for or moral equivalent to these violent and abhorrent acts.”

In a joint statement released Tuesday afternoon, Pollack and Board of Trustees Chair Kraig Kayser called out Rickford by name and reiterated that his stance does not reflect Cornell’s values.

“This is a reprehensible comment that demonstrates no regard whatsoever for humanity,” the statement read. “The University is taking this incident seriously and is currently reviewing it consistent with our procedures.”

Jonathan Mong ’25 contributed reporting.