A Cornell University professor who called the Hamas terror attacks ‘exhilarating and energizing’ has taken a leave of absence and will not return to class for the remainder of the year.
Russell Rickford told an October 15 rally at Ithaca Commons, the downtown shopping district in the upstate New York city, that he was thrilled by Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, in which 1,400 Israelis were killed.
His words were met by anger, and Rickford, a history professor, attempted to explain – and doubled down of his outrageous views.
He said he condemned the killing of any civilians, but said he was angered by ‘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 later apologized, saying on October 18 that he was sorry ‘for the horrible choice of words that I used’, and calling his language ‘reprehensible’.
On Tuesday it emerged Rickford had pulled out of teaching his history class for the rest of the semester.
A Cornell professor with a history of radical left-wing views called the Hamas terror attacks in Israel ‘exhilarating’ and ‘energizing’ at a pro-Palestine rally on October 15. He apologized on October 18, but on October 20 announced he was taking a leave of absence
Tamika Nunley, an associate professor of history, will fill in for him.
‘Professor Rickford will be taking a leave of absence and I will assume teaching responsibilities for this course for the remainder of the semester,’ she wrote on October 20, in an email obtained by The Cornell Review.
The university confirmed he would not be teaching for the remainder of the semester.
‘Professor Russell Rickford has requested and received approval to take a leave of absence from the university,’ the university’s spokesperson said.
Claudia Tenney, a Republican congresswoman whose district borders that of Cornell, said Rickford’s leave of absence was insufficient, and he needed to resign.
‘Since I sent a letter to Cornell President Martha Pollack demanding that Professor Russell Rickford resign for his anti-Semitic comments, he has taken a leave of absence,’ she wrote on X.
‘Cornell must take this a step further and fire him for his pro-Hamas comments!’
Tamika Nunley, an associate professor of history, will fill in for Rickford during his absence
But others have rallied to Rickford’s support.
Five members of the Cornell University chapter of the AAUP – American Association of University Professors – wrote a letter to The Cornell Daily Sun defending him.
‘Professor Rickford’s extramural speech at the Oct. 15 rally falls squarely within the protections of academic freedom to comment on political matters,’ they wrote.
‘That his speech offended or shocked does not lessen its protection, as academic freedom is most needed for speech that others find offensive.’
They pointed out that Rickford’s words were spoken off campus, and he apologized.
On October 18, Rickford sent a letter to The Cornell Daily Sun and said he was deeply sorry for his words.
‘I apologize for the horrible choice of words that I used in a portion of a speech that was intended to stress grassroots African American, Jewish and Palestinian traditions of resistance to oppression,’ Rickford noted.
‘I recognize that some of the language I used was reprehensible and did not reflect my values.’
He apologized for ‘the pain that my reckless remarks have caused my family, my students, my colleagues and many others in this time of suffering.’
Rickford concluded that he ‘unequivocally oppose and denounce racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, militarism, fundamentalism and all systems that dehumanize, divide and oppress people.’
The five academics concluded: ‘Academic freedom applies regardless of viewpoint. Faculty from across the political spectrum can express strong views in their teaching, research, extramural speech, and university governance activities.
‘The University administration must fully carry out its obligation to respect and protect faculty academic freedom at all times, and perhaps especially when faculty face backlash and threats.’
Rickford is known for his pro-Palestine activism, and described by the local newspaper as ‘no stranger to controversial remarks’.
He told the Ithaca Commons rally: ‘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.
‘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.’
Rickford is an associate professor of history and, according to his Twitter bio, a ‘Historian of the Black radical tradition’
An aerial view shows the bodies of victims of the Hamas attack on the Kfar Aza kibbutz
Hamas left a trail of devastation at a series of kibbutzes near the border with Gaza, including children’s beds soaked in blood
An Israeli soldier breaks down in tears at the sight of a family dining table on which there is still Challah bread from Friday’s Kiddush at the Kfar Aza kibbutz
Palestinians wave their national flag and celebrate by a destroyed Israeli tank at the Gaza Strip fence on October 7
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.
‘Hamas has changed the terms of the debate. Israeli officials are right — nothing will be the same again.’
University president Martha Pollack, asked about his comments the next day, said she was ‘sickened by statements glorifying the evilness of Hamas terrorism.’
She added: ‘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.
‘There is no justification for or moral equivalent to these violent and abhorrent acts.’
The following day, October 17, a second statement was sent out, condemning Rickford by name.
‘We learned yesterday of comments that Professor Russell Rickford made over the weekend at an off-campus rally where he described the Hamas terrorist attacks as ‘exhilarating’,’ wrote Pollack and the chair of the board of trustees, Kraig H. Kayser.
‘This is a reprehensible comment that demonstrates no regard whatsoever for humanity.’
Pollack and Kayser added: ‘The university is taking this incident seriously and is currently reviewing it consistent with our procedures.’
Universities and campuses across the country have become hotbeds of anger following the October 7 attack.
Supporters of Palestine gather at Harvard University to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza at a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14
Supporters of Palestine gather in Harvard Yard to show their support on October 14
The letter caused a massive backlash after 34 student societies backed the statement written by the PSC at Harvard ‘holding the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence’
Academics have waded in: a geneticist at Washington University in Missouri sparked outrage by claiming that Israel was carrying out a ‘much needed cleansing’ in Gaza, while a law professor at Berkeley called on law firms not to hire ‘my anti-Semitic students’.
On Wednesday, a climate scientist teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago issued a groveling apology after calling Israelis ‘pigs’, ‘savages’ and ‘irredeemable excrement.’
‘Israelis are pigs. Savages,’ she wrote. ‘Very bad people. Irredeemable excrement.’
She apologized on Wednesday, saying the rejected her own words, and wanted to retract them.
‘Yesterday I wrote some things on my Instagram Story that I unequivocally reject and do not stand behind,’ she wrote.
‘I am deeply sorry for writing what I wrote, and for hurting many people with my words, and I am especially sorry to Israeli people that I broadly placed at fault for the war.
‘You did not – and do not – deserve that, and I was wrong to post what I posted: I know that my words perpetuated harmful stereotypes.’
At Harvard University, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee has been condemned for issuing a letter on October 7, co-signed by 33 other Harvard student organizations, stating: ‘We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.’
Some of the signatories have been named and shamed, and billionaire financier Bill Ackman is demanding that companies refuse to hire them.
Harvard’s president has apologized for the statement, and said it does not represent the views of the university.
Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania are both scrambling to limit the fallout: The schools could lose $487 million in funding, based on current and prior donations by those now speaking out against the students for defending Hamas’ attacks.