Ming DeMers/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Students protest in defense of Rickford in front of a truck bearing his name and picture on Oct. 20, reflective of the dueling sentiments currently dividing campus.

October 23, 2023

Rickford’s Controversial Remarks Spark Divisions on Campus

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A Cornell professor’s speech at a pro-Palestinian off-campus rally on Oct. 15 sparked a nationwide debate over whether he should continue to hold a position at the University. But his remarks revealed a deeper divide within the Cornell community over the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

After calling Hamas’s initial invasion into Israel “exhilarating” and “energizing,” Prof. Russell Rickford, history, first defended his remarks to The Sun, stating that he was referring to “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.” 

He subsequently issued an apology in The Sun over his choice of words two days later.

Following Rickford’s remarks, President Martha Pollack and Chairman of the Cornell University Board of Trustees Kraig Kayser MBA ’84 said Rickford’s words were “a reprehensible comment that demonstrates no regard whatsoever for humanity” and that the University “is taking this incident seriously and is currently reviewing it consistent with our procedures,” in an Oct. 17 joint statement. Rickford subsequently requested and was granted a leave of absence from the University, a Cornell representative told The Sun.

Two petitions posted on Change.org call for the dismissal and removal of Rickford, each accumulating over 11,000 and 900 signatures, and an ipetitions.com petition calling for Rickford’s firing has also gathered over 5,000 online signatures. A Change.org petition with over 3,000 signatures calls for the University not to dismiss Rickford under the principles of freedom of speech.

Student organizations have also started distributing online petitions both supporting Rickford and asking the University to hold the professor accountable for his remarks. So far, a petition supporting Rickford has gathered over 1,200 signatures, according to the form. The petition to reprimand Rickford for his remarks has gathered 467 signatures, according to Zoe Bernstein ’24, the president of Cornellians for Israel.

The statement circulating among Cornell students in support of Rickford argues the words from his speech were taken out of context, and if reprimanded, the Administration would be acting directly against the freedom of expression values they have promoted this year. 

“As a Cornell community, we do not need to agree with Professor Rickford’s remarks in order to defend him from grotesque attacks on his character, his safety and the safety of his family,” the petition states. “Professor Rickford has devoted his entire professional life to peace and justice for those who have neither, and to slander him in this way is not only unjust, it undermines the very values that Cornell seeks to uphold.”

The petition to hold Rickford accountable for his words was co-written by Jewish student leaders and Hillel staff, according to Bernstein. It argues that the remarks from Rickford were harmful to students and are at odds with the values of “free and open inquiry and expression.” The petition expressed students were intimidated to share opposing views in the face of the remarks.

“We cannot stand idly by as students are traumatized by hateful speech from a professor, as this creates a culture of fear of presenting alternative perspectives, lest their academic standing suffer,” the petition states.

It continues: “We are all students at Cornell. Some of us are students in Professor Rickford’s courses this semester. We are outraged that our Professor has endorsed terrorism and is ‘exhilarated’ by a twenty-first century massacre of Jewish men, women, children and babies. As a result of his decision to publicly endorse violence against Jews, we feel silenced and unsafe in his classes.” 

A few days after Rickford’s speech, students hung flyers on campus with photographs of Rickford and text condemning his remarks.

“It was EXHILARATING. It was ENERGIZING,” one flyer said, quoting Rickford’s remarks at the Oct. 15 demonstration. The flyer then featured a photograph of Rickford, followed by the text “Cornell’s Russell Rickford on the SLAUGHTER and KIDNAPPING of civilians by Hamas.”

Black Students United — an umbrella organization that supports Black student organizations on campus — released an Instagram statement Thursday, Oct. 19 calling for the defense of Rickford. 

“A false witch hunt has been launched against a valued, peaceful, non-discriminatory member of Cornell’s history department,” the statement read. “This witch hunt includes, but is not limited to, a poster smear campaign, death threats, calls for his resignation and defamatory LED billboard trucks being driven around Cornell’s campus. BSU defends Professor Rickford and vehemently acknowledges that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.”

BSU leadership did not respond to a request for comment.

A truck with digital billboards displaying a picture of Rickford and a protester holding a swastika, alongside a picture of a bloody bed in the background, was seen driving throughout Cornell’s campus on Oct. 19. The truck displayed the words “President Pollack: Fire Antisemitic Professor Rickford Now” and “Murder. Rape. Kidnapping. Is Hamas terrorism ‘exhilarating’ to you? Fire Professor Rickford” overlaying the images. 

The truck was sponsored by Alums for Campus Fairness — a nationwide organization that describes itself as “the alumni voice combating antisemitism.” On Oct. 20, while the truck circulated campus for a second day, pro-Palestinian protesters followed the truck in an effort to defend Rickford. 

One student protester of Syrian ancestry, who requested anonymity out of privacy concerns, told The Sun the lack of physical demonstrations on campus calling for Rickford’s termination shows that students do not feel strongly in opposition to his statements.

“It says a lot that there have been no physical protests calling for Prof. Rickford’s termination. The outrage, in my view, has been totally manufactured by donors, conservative media and trustee members, most of whom are either profiting off of the conflict or have capital ties to Israel,” the student said. “That’s why they have to resort to buying billboard trucks instead of mobilizing grass-roots. I see his apology in the same lens — he clearly implied that his family has been receiving threats and hate following the national media attention on his speech.” 

Approximately 75 students, members of faculty and local residents gathered in support of Rickford in front of the Statler Hotel on Saturday, Oct. 21, where events for the Cornell Board of Trustees were being held throughout the weekend. The group held two large banners that read “Anti-Zionism ≠ Antisemitism” and “Stand With Russell, Stand With Gaza.” The group chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” “Martha, Martha, can’t you see, you’re silent on genocide” and “Viva, viva, Palestina.” Attendees, including Common Council Alderperson Jorge DeFendini ’22 (D-Fourth Ward), also waved Palestinian flags and wore face masks to protect their identities for privacy, citing concerns of doxxing.

Once gathered in front of the Statler Hotel, attendees shared words of support for Rickford and their personal testimonies about taking Rickford’s classes, working alongside him, collaborating with him in local organizing and interacting with him as a member of the Cornell and Ithaca community. 

Many speakers at the rally expressed frustration over Rickford’s leave of absence and urged attendees to email the Administration in support of Rickford. 

Sadeen Musa ’25 is a Palestinian student who also serves as the outreach chair of Students for Justice in Palestine. In a statement to The Sun, she expressed her disappointment in the University for not supporting Rickford during the year of free speech.

“I think it is Cornell’s responsibility to protect its faculty and students against malignity and smear campaigns, as well as encourage free expression and academic freedom. Now, it seems like Cornell is not providing this freedom for faculty and students to express themselves; the bus was Zionists’ attempts of trying to silence pro-Palestinian discourse,” Musa said. “It is unsettling that these Israel supporters are more upset about a Professor’s progressive speech than the ongoing ethnic cleansing and genocide in Palestine.”

The anonymous student protestor echoed the sentiments of feeling unsupported and silenced by the University’s response to Rickford’s remarks. 

“The idea that Prof. Rickford should face any consequences for freely speaking about the history of a major conflict at an off-campus event completely flies in the face of Cornell’s supposed “Freedom of Expression” theme year,” the student said. “The outrage against him has clearly been colored by anti-Black racism — he is an easy target for undeserved scrutiny because he is a Black radical professor. But hearing his words, I know he is not a violent person, he’s just someone who is passionate about justice for Palestinians, as we all should be.”

However, Bernstein viewed Rickford’s remarks differently, as someone who lived in Israel for a year, in addition to spending multiple summers living and working in the country. Many of her family members and friends still live in Israel.

“As a Jewish student on campus, Professor Rickford’s words not only angered me tremendously, but threatened me. To call the atrocities Hamas has committed against my people ‘exhilarating’ and ‘energizing’ is woefully unacceptable and has genuinely petrified Jewish students,” Bernstein wrote in a statement to The Sun. “By endorsing Hamas’ heinous slaughter of Jews in Israel as resistance, Rickford arguably made Jewish students legitimate targets at Cornell.”

Bernstein said she believes an investigation should be launched into Rickford’s behavior. She said that professors’ expression of their personal beliefs should not disrupt students’ academic progress at an institution with the motto “Any person, any study.”

“I believe action must be taken against him in order to set an example for future professors that while they are absolutely entitled to free speech, like any other American, as someone in a position of power, as someone who is meant to be a role model for their students, they need to use discretion when exercising this right,” Bernstein wrote. “It simply cannot be the case that students on this campus feel nervous to go to class out of fear that their professors ideologically oppose them and their beliefs.”

Simone Shteingart ’24, who serves as the executive vice president of Cornell Hillel and whose family fled to Israel to escape the religious persecution perpetrated by the Soviet Union, also believes that Rickford’s words have produced “a hostile environment for learning.” She said Rickford was wrong to call Hamas “rife with contradictions” instead of labeling Hamas “for what it is” as a terrorist organization. Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

“Regarding Professor Rickford’s comments at the pro-Palestine rally, I’m feeling outraged, angry, upset, sad and extremely scared. I am scared for myself, my peers, the faculty and for all Jews on campus,” Shteingart wrote in a statement to The Sun. “Professors, who are in a position of power, set the discourse on campus. To have a professor endorse violence and terrorism as a means of resistance — equivocations aside — means that others will find it acceptable. His comments incite Jew hatred and violence.”

Shteingart also told The Sun she was “really disappointed” with how Rickford’s apology did not condemn Hamas or terrorism, label Hamas as a terrorist organization or “acknowledge the harm of his statement — supporting the murder of Jews.”

Jeremy Zarge ’25, president of the Center for Jewish Living, said that he was “truly horrified” by Rickford’s comments. Zarge took a gap year in Israel before college and spent the last two summers interning and conducting research in Tel Aviv. Several of his family members and friends live in Tel Aviv, with some of his friends currently or recently serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Zarge said that he believes there is “no place at Cornell for a professor who celebrates terrorism” and that “the only course of action is for Cornell to sever ties with Professor Rickford.”

“Just as there is no political context that can justify terrorism, there is no conceivable context in which Professor Rickford’s speech can justify expressing excitement over such horrific actions,” Zarge said. “I’ve always felt a huge sense of pride being a Cornell student, but this incident has made me seriously question Cornell’s commitment to ensuring the safety of its Jewish students and its moral compass as a whole. Over the past few weeks, I’ve received numerous phone calls and emails from deeply concerned parents and alumni, both scared for their kids on campus and grossly disappointed in the University’s actions.”

Matthew Small ’25 is a Jewish student who spent his previous summer in Israel through Big Red Onward Israel, an eight-week program in which Jewish Cornell students live in Tel Aviv and pursue internships. In Fall 2021, Small took History 1595: African American History From 1865, a class taught by Rickford.

“[History 1595] was actually a really great class,” Small said in an interview with The Sun. “[Rickford’s] teaching style was super interesting. I learned a ton.”

Small said that learning about the historical reproduction of power through the class felt especially valuable with the Black Lives Matter movement spreading throughout the nation at the time and that he found Rickford’s lectures to be “inspiring.”

Still, Small was disappointed with Rickford’s choice of words in his speech, stating that they “stung.”

“If I ever had a chance to talk to [Rickford], I think I would ask him, what exactly he was ‘exhilarated’ by, because, to me, and I think a lot of people, they interpreted it as he was inspired by an act of terrorism,” Small said. “Thinking about [all the] close friends that I made over the summer, there was a concert that the terrorist group [entered]… And that could have very well been us. It was young kids that were there.”

The Tribe of Nova music festival celebrated the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on the festival killed over 260 people, while other civilians were taken hostage.

Small was particularly disappointed when noticing similarities in Rickford’s language in the speech at the pro-Palestine rally to how he talked in lectures, telling The Sun this event is making him “rethink all those lectures I found to be inspiring as a young student.”

A student in the class of 2026 who is currently taking Rickford’s course, who requested anonymity out of privacy concerns, said that the professor has profoundly impacted her education at Cornell.

“[Rickford’s] profound knowledge of African-American history shines through in his lectures,” the student wrote in a statement to The Sun. “His passion for teaching is evident in his ability to engage students, bridging historical events to the present day, offering insights that are both enlightening and educational. This impact has left an indelible mark not only on me but also on numerous other students.”

The student was surprised by the negative media portrayal of Rickford due to her positive experience in his lectures. After looking more into the situation, the student said that while she thinks Rickford could have improved his wording, she found that the majority of his message had been misconstrued and taken out of context.

“I firmly believe that, as a member and educator in academia, Professor Rickford bears responsibility for the messages he conveys. The articulation of his remarks needed to be improved. However, they were undeniably distorted by the media,” the student wrote. “While I acknowledge that recent events have painted Professor Rickford in a negative light, I firmly maintain that his remarks were taken out of context… It was clear to me that a brief three-second video could not encapsulate the full breadth of his message or character as an educator.”

The student decided to sign the petition labeled “Save Professor Russell Rickford: A Stand for Academic Freedom and Free Speech,” which was sent to her by a fellow classmate.

“I felt it was important to convey my support for my professor as I believe his career should not be jeopardized based on this situation,” the student wrote.

When asked about the appropriate course of action in response to Rickford’s comments, the student said Rickford’s decision to take a leave of absence was appropriate.

“I feel that [Rickford taking a leave of absence] is the best course of action for this situation as it is important to note the sensitivity of the issue regarding students and the school, along with the professor’s personal safety and family,” the student wrote.

Rickford did not respond to a request for comment.