The canon of apology statements from Hamas supporters keeps growing richer and more diverse.

First came statements from college students and young adults caught tearing down hostage photos in the weeks after October 7. Hostage supporters filmed the vandals, who were easily identified. In other cases, celebrants outed themselves via social media with posts praising Hamas. Poleaxed by job losses and massive public disgust, they released statements apologizing and rationalizing their actions as the result of stress, poor word choices, misguided support for Palestinians, and riffs on the ever-popular “This is not who I am” theme.

Professors, dentists, and celebrities alike did the walk of shame. They are creating a burgeoning range of apology formats that includes these examples:

The genre leaped into hyperdrive after the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, and Harvard were hauled before the House Education and Workforce Committee on December 5, 2023, to answer for the state of anti-Semitism on their campuses. Unlike Hamas supporters who often spit out their bile in the heat of the moment, with no wiser voices to tell them to chill, the presidents, all savvy bureaucratic knife-fighters, had time and high-paid counsel (Harvard and Penn both used the law firm of WilmerHale) to redline their testimony and prepare for a contentious hearing. No spontaneous thought would escape the lips of Penn’s Elizabeth Magill, Harvard’s Claudine Gay, and MIT’s Sally Kornbluth.

And that’s the problem. Opening statements featured soothingly pablum talking points: anti-Semitism is bad; support for free speech is good; we’re marshaling resources to combat anti-Semitism. Magill said Penn’s response builds on our anti-hate efforts to date and it is anchored firmly in the United States national strategy to counter anti-Semitism. The plan centers on three key areas and has many elements. Those areas are safety and security, engagement and education.

The fireworks started once questioning from Rep. Elise Stefanik (herself a Harvard grad) and others began. The New York Times captured Stefanik’s most damaging queries of the three and their widely shared answers, as lawyered as Bill Clinton’s infamous 1998 grand jury testimony: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

“Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment?” she demanded of Claudine Gay, the new president of Harvard University.

“It can be, depending on the context,” Dr. Gay responded.

“What’s the context?” Ms. Stefanik shot back.

“Targeted at an individual,” Dr. Gay said.

Kornbluth and Magill responded in similar terms. The complete transcript of the hearing can be found at the site Rev.com. Read it for yourself.

The merits and problems with the presidents’ statements have been parsed from every possible direction. The intriguing matter is what they said after the testimony. After alumni, megadonors, analysts, and media groundlings phoned in their reviews of the performances, Gay and Magill did damage control. MIT’s Kornbluth sat tight and enjoyed a statement of support from the MIT Corporation’s Board of Governors.

Via interviews, videos, and statements, Gay and Magill joined a growing list of people called to account for their actions following the Shabbat Pogrom. As a literary genre, the statements strike common themes: 

Let’s interrogate, as the academic cliché goes, highlights from the apology genre.

Those are the themes; what qualifies as an effective apology? Does the literary quality count, the emotional honesty, the recognition of the depth of transgression, a heartfelt desire to perform what in Judaism is called teshuvah, or making amends and taking a different path? In the case of Magill and Gay, did their apologies calm criticism and steer public opinion in a more favorable direction?

As sportscaster Warner Wolf used to say, “Let’s go to the videotape.”

Gay and Magill: All talk, no action

Soon after their widely panned testimony, Harvard’s Gay and Penn’s Magill immediately called the rewrite department. Harvard issued this one-paragraph statement from Gay: 

There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students. Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.

That didn’t work, so she explained further to the Harvard Crimson:

“I got caught up in what had become at that point, an extended, combative exchange about policies and procedures,” Gay said in the interview. “What I should have had the presence of mind to do in that moment was return to my guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community—threats to our Jewish students—have no place at Harvard, and will never go unchallenged.”

“Substantively, I failed to convey what is my truth,” Gay added.

Magill responded with a video statement the day after the hearing released through Penn. Similar to Gay, Magill said she missed the forest for the trees:

There was a moment during yesterday’s congressional hearing on antisemitism when I was asked if a call for the genocide of Jewish people on our campus would violate our policies. In that moment, I was focused on our University’s longstanding policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable. I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It’s evil—plain and simple.

On December 9, Magill resigned, as did the board chair, although Magill remained a tenured professor at the Penn Carey Law School.

MIT’s Kornbluth didn’t respond and the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation had her back, “She has done excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate, all of which we reject utterly at MIT. She has our full and unreserved support.”

With Kornbluth staying quiet, Gay and Magill both said calls for violence against Jews are very bad. Magill stopped there, which left her with a mealy-mouthed statement sounding insincere, a static position lacking an action agenda. Her resignation made her statement moot, anyway. At best, Gay barely tiptoed beyond denouncing anti-Semitism. She said that those who threaten violence will be held to account and such calls “would not go unchallenged.”

My response to Gay: prove it. Walk the walk as well as talk the talk the next time Jews are assaulted or threatened at Harvard. Then Gay’s statements will be more than rhetoric to placate the critics who want her to follow Magill into history. When Jew-hating students face serious consequences, then I’ll take notice. 

Bottom line: both follow-up statements stated truisms without daring to suggest substantive responses. They could have been written with ChatGPT for all the emotion they expressed.

“A taste of what it feels like”

Before the presidents, the highest profile apology came actress Susan Sarandon. On November 17, she told a crowd at New York’s Union Square:

There are a lot of people who are afraid, afraid of being Jewish at this time and are getting a taste of what it feels like to be a Muslim in this country, so often subjected to violence.

Dumped by her talent agency and perhaps wondering if she’d driven her career over a cliff, Sarandon took a semantic approach to explain:

This phrasing was a terrible mistake, as it implies that until recently Jews have been strangers to persecution, when the opposite is true.… It was my intent to show solidarity in the struggle against bigotry of all kinds and I am sorry I failed to do so.

Sarandon closed with the even-handed theme, 

I will continue my commitment to peace, truth, justice, and compassion for all people. I hope that we can meet with love and willingness to engage in dialogue, especially with those whom we disagree.

Others will also make the solidarity argument, rarely convincingly. The hammer always comes down on Jews and Israel. I look forward to Sarandon’s dialogue with the families of Israeli women raped and mutilated by Hamas terrorists. And if she watches the Hamas slaughter mixtape to prepare for the dialogue, all the better.

“We are ashamed of our actions and words.”

One apology succeeds with a unique authorial voice and a real sense of contrition. New Yorkers Kurush Mistry and Shailja Gupta, husband and wife, were filmed covering hostage fliers with signs saying “occupiers face consequences” and “Israel is an apartheid state and commits genocide.” They told the Jewish videographer to “go back to your own country.” Mistry lost his job as an oil analyst at a commodities firm. On November 17, the couple posted, through the PR firm of Reputation Doctor, LLC, a four-paragraph Facebook statement that is remarkable as a written document and its awareness of transgressions. While the rationale for action is common—they wanted to support the Palestinians—the regret is palpable. I’m especially struck by the ethnic angle, not claiming victimhood privilege but apologizing for causing pain to “our fellow Indians.” It also touched me with its hope to win back trust. If any apology shows a true spirit of teshuvah, this is it:

After taking time to contemplate and reflect on our recent actions, we want to send our sincerest apologies to the Jewish gentleman we yelled at, gestured to, and said unkind things to, as well as apologize to the global Jewish community for our recent actions in NYC. Our behavior was simply unacceptable and we are ashamed of our actions and words. We hope to have the opportunity in the near future to speak to the gentleman personally and apologize directly to him. 

We have never supported Hamas and have always believed it is a terrorist organization. This was our first time engaging in civic protest and our goal was to emphasize the plight of Palestinian men, women and children, who are also dying and suffering in Gaza. Our way of doing so was misguided and thoughtless. For example, our badly-worded poster was construed to support violence, and we apologize profusely for that. We fully acknowledge the pain of the Jewish people in the U.S., in Israel and globally, and we regret that our actions added to that pain. 

Since the incident, we have both received many threats of violence. We share this knowledge not for sympathy, but to factually tell the whole truth. We have learned a valuable lesson about the need to love all as brothers and sisters instead of highlighting disagreements and causing more pain. We unequivocally denounce antisemitism, violence, and terrorism in every form.  

Again, we apologize from the bottom of our hearts to all those we have offended and caused pain to, especially the global Jewish community, our fellow Americans, and our fellow Indians. We hope that by our future actions and words we will slowly earn back your trust in our good intentions for all humanity, and that you can hopefully see that we are more than our worst actions and mistakes.

Mistry and Gupta didn’t dodge their responsibility and are making amends. In Jewish terms, they are performing teshuvah—described on the site My Jewish Learning as “the process of repentance, as laid out by Maimonides, includes three stages: confession, regret and a vow not to repeat the misdeed.” I can hear their voices on the page and hope they earn back trust.

Exhilarated and energized

The history of responses to the Shabbat Pogrom will surely mention what Cornell associate professor of history Russell Rickford told an off-campus rally:

It was exhilarating. It was exhilarating, it was energizing. And if they weren’t exhilarated by this challenge to the monopoly of violence, the shifting of the violence of power, then they would not be human. I was exhilarated.

This declaration is one part of a 19-minute speech. A writer for the Spectator magazine found a transcript, which opens with language far removed from the snippet:

There are deep traditions of resistance in the African American culture, in the culture of African peoples in the diaspora.

There are deep, deep traditions of resistance in Jewish culture, in Jewish history. There are times in the Pogrom when it came to massacre the Jews, and they were Jewish folks [sic] who said, “you can kill us, you can decimate us, you can massacre us, but you will not eliminate us. We survive. We survive.” [Cheers/Applause]

So far so good on Jewish resistance, and he even asserts, “I think I understand, to some degree, some of the premises of Zionism.” The transcript bears reading because it sets the exhilaration in a longer analysis connecting the history of the civil rights movement and Palestinian actions, as well as his declaration that he’s a peaceful man who hates guns and violence. Rickford is intensely quotable in his Southern preacher cadences, albeit not in a convincing way:

Once the video hit, Rickford sent a statement to the Cornell Daily Sun. His apology only makes sense if you’ve read the transcript. He wrote,

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. I recognize that some of the language I used was reprehensible and did not reflect my values. As I said in the speech, I abhor violence and the violent targeting of civilians. I am sorry for the pain that my reckless remarks have caused my family, my students, my colleagues and many others in this time of suffering. As a scholar, a teacher, an activist and a father, I strive to uphold the values of human dignity, peace and justice. I want to make it clear that I unequivocally oppose and denounce racism, anti-semitism [sic], Islamophobia, militarism, fundamentalism and all systems that dehumanize, divide and oppress people.

The transcript helps readers understand from where Rickford is coming, which includes slagging of Western imperialist powers, “settler-colonialism,” and Zionist “apartheid.” Nothing convinces me that these were “reckless remarks.” The point about using language that “did not reflect my values” fails because he’s plainly a highly skilled orator who justified Hamas: “if you degraded me, if you humiliated me, if you threatened my family, if you threatened my daughter, I who hate violence would take up arms.”

Like MIT’s statement of support for Kornbluth, Rickford covers all the bases of his “isms,” but, overall, Zionism was his focus, right down to the closing chant of “Up, up liberation. Down, down occupation.” He gets high marks for rhetorical impact, as a speaker and writer, but any time a writer says “I want to make it clear,” I sense more desperation to counteract bad PR than contrition. His words were very clear in their initial statements. I hope Rickford’s leave of absence includes watching the Hamas slaughter video and reflecting on whether that’s what he meant by “take up arms.”

Jews feeling the heat

What happens when a pro-Israel figure roils the waters? One of my favorite actresses, Julianna Margulies, found out when she mused on a podcast that Democrats and blacks hadn’t been very supportive of Israel. According to NBC News, she said,

Where’s the history lesson in that? Who’s teaching these kids? Because the fact that the entire Black community isn’t standing with us, to me, says either they just don’t know, or they’ve been brainwashed to hate Jews. But when you’ve been marginalized so much as a community, the way I feel we have, isn’t that when you step up?

Even more than Sarandon, Margulies talked freely and voiced opinions that were bound to double back on her. In response, she released this statement, which sounds somewhat like Rickford’s:

I am horrified by the fact that statements I made on a recent podcast offended the Black and LGBTQIA+ communities, communities I truly love and respect. I want to be 100% clear: Racism, homophobia, sexism, or any prejudice against anyone’s personal beliefs or identity are abhorrent to me, full stop. Throughout my career I have worked tirelessly to combat hate of all kind, end antisemitism, speak out against terrorist groups like Hamas, and forge a united front against discrimination. I did not intend for my words to sow further division, for which I am sincerely apologetic.

The backpedaling doesn’t persuade me; “I did not intend for my words to sow further divisions”? What did Margulies think would happen? Calling a population “brainwashed” isn’t a way to win (back) friends and influence people. I like that she speaks out against Hamas, but the tone of her response sounded inauthentic and, like Rickford, Magill, and Gay, at odds with the nature of what she initially said. Will her agency drop the hammer on her the way Sarandon’s did? Whatever she did in the past to combat hate may count for little when weighed against her comments. 

The canon’s metamorphosis

For all their furor, the apologies so far deal with torn posters and incendiary statements. The actions are enraging but, to date, mostly bloodless. The formats and content keep morphing into subgenres: students, white collar professionals, celebrities, academics, coffeeshop owners, parents cleaning up for their impulsive kids, and the defiant non-apologies. However, the trendline of offense is moving beyond actions that require a mere apology. Israel’s relentless offensive will drive protesters to new levels of frenzy and rage. As the pro-Hamas contingent pushes unimpeded beyond the limits of peaceful protest to mob violence, property destruction and (so far) one killing in Thousand Oaks, California, the next phase of the apology canon won’t play out on Instagram, but rather in courtrooms. Then the canon will expand to statements of those guilty of violent crimes—if they even feel they have anything to apologize for. They may declare their devotion to globalizing the intifada and a rousing cheer of death to the Jews. Justice, if not teshuvah, will be measured in years behind bars, not a contrite spirit. The statements worth considering will be those of their victims and their victims’ families.