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For professors in the Northeast, Israel-Hamas war is a challenging teachable moment

A Palestinian militant of Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, military wing of Hamas, holds his rifle during a celebration of the victory rally at the debris of destroyed houses in Shijaiyah, neighborhood of Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. An open-ended cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip was holding Wednesday. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Hatem Ali/AP
Palestinians look at the destruction by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Rafah, Monday, Dec. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

College campuses have seen some of the nation’s most vociferous protests since the start of the Hamas-Israel war two months ago. But how is the war changing things inside the classroom?

SUNY Chancellor Dr. John King recently spoke on WAMC’s Capitol Connection, saying the system is doing everything it can to protect students.

“We, for example, made sure in the immediate aftermath of the attack, to provide additional campus security at Shabbat services, we want students to feel safe,” King said.

King says the SUNY system is keeping eyes open for ways to support those impacted, and says, to that end, $10 million was dedicated systemwide to support expanded mental health services.

Dr. Victor Asal of the University at Albany’s Political Science Department says a peaceful solution is likely a two-state one — a prospect that the new war has dampened.

“Until we have the right leaders, in order to solidify the creation of a Palestinian state, in the West Bank and Gaza, and a peace agreement that really lasts we're going to be in this problematic situation. So I think we're going to we're going to stay in this kind of situation, until we either have a full scale war of destruction. Or we have a final agreement where the country is the region is divided up into two separate states,” Asal said.

That doesn’t mean that there can’t be peace, but Asal says there needs to be the right leadership in place.

“I don't think Netanyahu is the right leader for Israel for that agreement to happen. And Hamas, given its stated goal, is definitely not the right leadership for the Palestinians,” Asal said.

Asal teaches a class on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“I first explain to the students the history of the conflict, I present them the Israeli perspective, the Palestinian perspective, and then I divided them up into different factions within Israel and different factions within Palestine. And they have to try and negotiate a peace agreement,” Asal said.

Asal says that often doesn’t happen, but when it does, “-the kind of negotiation agreements they come to, are usually related to the Palestinians getting all the West Bank, or 98% of the West Bank, and also all of Gaza,” Asal said.

But when it comes to the city of Jerusalem, Asal says students are divided. Asal says the conflict is spurned by competing religious claims to the land.

Dr. Len Cutler of Siena College’s Political Science Department and other professors recently held a teach-in on the conflict.

“In my capstone course- I teach International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. And I cover the laws of war. I'm Pre-Law advisor at Siena College too. So [I] have the opportunity to in fact engage and interact with the students, providing specific case studies which focus on this very issue. And quite obviously, Israel would be- Israel and Hamas situation would be part of that discussion,” Cutler said.

Dr. Carter Carter, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, is currently on parental leave, but normally teaches on psychological disorders and trauma counseling, among others.

“Single incident trauma would be something like, if you were in a car accident, right, or if you were otherwise living an ordinary life, and then there was a distinct, bounded episode, where something disturbing happened to you. That differs from what we call complex trauma, which is situations where the baseline circumstances are traumatic and disturbing. So that's things like living in an abusive marriage. But that also extends to living under conditions of pervasive war and conflict,” Carter said.

Carter says even as a person of Jewish heritage, he sees Israel’s actions in Gaza as tantamount to genocide.

“But, you know, the nature of the conversation we're having as a country in the United States seems to be markedly different,” Carter said.

Carter returned for MCLA’s recent symposium entitled “How to Speak About Peace.”

“We've been offering a series of events trying to help students, and really community members who want to join us, contextualize and think through, and mostly ask questions about these events. It can sometimes feel for people like the, the barrier to entry in terms of prior knowledge is really high can feel like, you're not entitled to have an opinion, if you don't know, you know, every single fact that some other person imagines you should know,” Carter said.

Carter says peaceful resolution requires people to understand their opponents’ perspective.

“In many cases, Palestinians are being placed outside of the sphere of people who deserve to be treated with empathic understanding,” Carter said.

Carter says Israel is treating civilian Palestinians they way Jews were treated in World War II.

“People do tend to reproduce their own traumas, they do tend to do what we call identification with the aggressor, right, which basically means when you have been the abused party, right, you're liable to defend yourself psychologically and interpersonally in the future, by making yourself into an invulnerable aggressor,” Carter said.

Asal says both sides in the war have acted badly.

“And there needs to be a much stronger effort by the United States and other countries, to push towards something where you can get both parties to agree to an agreement that both of them can exist,” Asal said.

A 2022 Siena College graduate, Alexander began his journalism career as a sports writer for Siena College's student paper The Promethean, and as a host for Siena's school radio station, WVCR-FM "The Saint." A Cubs fan, Alexander hosts the morning Sports Report in addition to producing Morning Edition. You can hear the sports reports over-the-air at 6:19 and 7:19 AM, and online on He also speaks Spanish as a second language. To reach him, email, or call (518)-465-5233 x 190. You can also find him on Twitter/X: @ABabbieWAMC.