This is my 38th year as a Professor of Physiology at the largest Catholic and Jesuit medical school in the United States, Georgetown University. I also happen to be an Orthodox Jew and an eighth generation Israeli who is proud of working at an institution whose leaders value diverse perspectives and are respectful of the traditions of my fellow Jewish faculty, students and staff. However, never in all those years has our campus been as challenged to maintain a safe environment for members of our Jewish community.
Within days of the horrific events of Oct. 7, as we all grappled with the reality of the barbaric events that took place in Israel on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, I began receiving multiple emails from medical students and physician residents horrified at comments being made to them by peers praising the actions of Hamas and blaming Israel for the atrocities.
I found it hard to comprehend how future (and current) physicians could celebrate the willful slaughter of young concertgoers and the killing of babies, parents and the elderly, much less their abduction to Gaza. Jewish students rightly worried about coming to class and having to sit next to and work with classmates who could say such vile things.
The leadership of the University and the Medical Center issued tepid statements that attempted to walk a careful line of shared grief for all impacted by the war. Under the title “Standing in Solidarity/Shared Grief,” the message from medical center leaders on Oct. 9 was swift, but disappointing.
While stating that “the violence in Israel on Saturday was abhorrent and unacceptable,” it went on to lament “about the loss of innocent lives across the region.” No statement was provided about how murdering Jews intentionally, and especially civilians, is antithetical to the Jesuit values of ‘Cura Personalis’, or care for the whole person; or how hate speech and images constituted antisemitism and violated the policies at Georgetown on harassment. Unlike the statements from other institutions, ours lacked moral clarity and courage.
I wrote to the leaders that while their statement was well-intentioned, it missed addressing the seismic shifts that are happening at Georgetown, around the nation and globally regarding antisemitism.
The barbaric attacks by Hamas were not directed at Israelis, but a deliberate act to kill Jews. That goal is explicit in the Hamas charter and that is what they did. Furthermore, I stated that Hamas does not further the goals and aspirations of Palestinians, but cynically uses them as cannon fodder. This is a time, I urged, for moral leadership without equivocation.
To fill this void, I began sending messages to Jewish students and residents telling them that they are not alone and to stand firm and not be afraid to be openly Jewish at Georgetown. A number of faculty members encouraged the leaders of the Maimonides Society, the Jewish group of students and faculty on campus, to be visible and proactive.
Several deans and the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the medical school met with Jewish students, listened carefully to their concerns and pledged full support and a zero tolerance for antisemitic acts. After receiving a series of complaints, a clinical department chair felt the need to send a letter explicitly denouncing any form of antisemitism within his department or at the hospital. He sent a second letter stating the same regarding Islamophobia. Better two letters, in my view, than conflating the issues in one.
During the past two weeks, I attended two national conferences where I had been invited to give keynote addresses. I decided to first begin with a somber reflection that never in my lifetime did I think I would be witnessing a targeted war against the Jews. My feeling is the way to deal with all these events against Jews, the attacks on Israel and the rise in antisemitism is to call it out clearly and unambiguously. We cannot and must not be afraid to do so.
For those who are worried about the welfare of Jews at Georgetown University, thank you for your concern. We have challenges, but we also have friends and colleagues who are not Jewish and committed to maintaining a safe and supportive environment for Jews. As for me, you can easily find me on campus. I will be the one with the kippah on my head and the flag of Israel on my lapel.
Aviad “Adi” Haramati, Ph.D., is an award-winning Professor of Physiology and Medicine, and Director of the Center for Innovation and Leadership in Education (CENTILE) at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.