By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners
Taking a stand is not only a key leadership competency – it’s the single biggest development area of leaders I’ve worked with who were being coached to ascend directly into a C-suite role. They needed to have a clear opinion – to put a stake in the ground – not to straddle the fence or tip toe around things. Sure, diplomacy might come in handy on occasion, but their Boards, C-suite colleagues, and employees were counting on them to be direct. To tell it like it is. These leaders needed to possess – and express – a clear point of view on the matter at hand.
There have been some excellent examples of such moral clarity and courage – and willingness to take a stand by leaders at organizations like Microsoft, All Raise and Paramount Global, who openly took a stand against the heinous terrorist attacks in Israel, as evidenced by their statements. This was Next Step Partner’s statement.
Among several good elements, they:
And none of these statements exclude support for the Palestinian community. Two things can be held at the same time.
Wonderful statements were also made by community leaders, such as Mondaire Jones, NYC Mayor Eric Adams, Mitt Romney, and Ritchie Torres, and of course, President Biden, where they took a clear and firm stand against these terrorist attacks. To be clear, this is not about politics. This is about people. Innocent people. MY people.
Each of the above statements were bright spots in what was mostly a sea of silence or several diluted “half-statements” that did not clearly condemn terrorism. These came in the midst of appalling victim blaming and hate-filled marches that ensued, terrifying the global Jewish community in the week following the single worst attack on the Jewish people since The Holocaust.
This lack of moral clarity and courage was sadly most striking from Presidents of major universities across the US. In a time of increasing antisemitism globally – well before last week’s terrorist attacks – antisemitism has grown significantly on college campuses in particular, such that 65% of openly Jewish students feel unsafe on campus and 50% have actively hid their Jewish identity. In light of this “pre-existing condition,” the need for moral clarity and courage to stand up against raw, unabashed Jew-hatred – sadly and ironically, often masked as social justice – has never been higher.
As Dr. Martin Luther King (a vocal supporter of the State of Israel) said, “The time is always right to do what’s right.” Yet, several university Presidents have let down their Jewish students, faculty, and alumni, including Stanford (my alma mater) by either not wanting to comment on “world events” or making very limited mild statements, referring only vaguely to “devastating events” without specifically mentioning the victims or the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks.
The President of Cornell likened the terrorist attacks to a natural disaster, saying “Regrettably, there are so often horrific events around the world, and because it is impossible to respond to each of them, there is no way to acknowledge the pain that different members of our community feel when such events occur.” This was echoed yesterday by Stanford in a follow-up statement, which several university Presidents have had to issue. In fact, several universities who shared they would not comment on “world events” do indeed comment on world events and other tragedies (as they should), like 9/11, the murder of George Floyd, Asian hate, gun violence, supreme court rulings, and the war on Ukraine. Just not the slaughter of 1400 Jews and confirmed kidnapping of 199 in a single day.
Harvard’s President also made a weak initial statement, only after being prompted by former Harvard President, Larry Summers, calling her out for Harvard appearing “at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.” Deemed insufficient by many, she issued a follow-up statement to specifically denounce terrorism and then a video. While the follow up statement and video were good, she fell short by not condemning the hate speech and sickening victim blaming that occurred the very day of the terrorist attacks by over 30 student groups at Harvard, when the blood of so many innocent Jews had not even dried. She could have said, “The university does not endorse these views.” Or “We are sorry these messages are sullying our campus and making Jewish students feel unsafe.”
When free speech crosses over to hate speech, there are consequences. And by not showing moral clarity and courage in speaking up – by not standing for anything – a leader is not capable of truly leading and will lose the confidence of their stakeholders, as evidenced by CEO of Apollo Global, Marc Rowan, who is calling for the resignation of both Penn’s President and Chair of the Board of Trustees. He shared, “The inability of leadership to exercise any sort of moral clarity, with respect to saying ‘This is hatred. This is antisemitism. This is racism.’… That condemnation shouldn’t be so hard. Unfortunately, if you lack moral courage, it is hard.”
Jon Huntsman has joined Marc Rowan in halting his family donations to Penn, saying “Silence is antisemitism, and antisemitism is hate, the very thing higher ed was built to obviate.” Likewise, the Waxman Foundation has cut ties with Harvard.
Ritchie Torres said it best: “When the institutional leaders in our country cannot condemn the cold-blooded murder of Israeli civilians and children with moral clarity, one must ask: what kind of society are we becoming?” “What does the silence and indifference and cowardice—from these so-called leaders—tell us about the depth of antisemitism in America and the reckoning required?”
University of Florida President, Ben Sasse, was an exception amongst university Presidents, saying, “I will not tiptoe around this simple fact: What Hamas did is evil and there is no defense for terrorism. This shouldn’t be hard.” Indeed, it should not be hard.
Please know that not only are your Jewish friends and colleagues grieving tremendously, but on top of this, we are experiencing victim-blaming, gaslighting, and vitriolic antisemitic marches in every major city calling for Hamas to ‘finish the job’ and ‘gas the Jews.’ (Could you ever imagine this happening to any other minority group after being slaughtered so brutally?). These are not isolated incidents. Others have denied the savagery of the terrorist attacks that were gleefully captured on video by the terrorists – akin to Holocaust denial, and yet even more gaslighting.
Now more than ever. When people wonder how The Holocaust happened, this is how it happened. Jews around the world acutely understand now (if they didn’t before) that our very existence as a people is at stake. Again. As Edmund Burke famously said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph in the world is that good men do nothing.”
So, my friends, please keep in mind the following in exercising moral courage and taking a stand when it comes to the October 7th terrorist attacks:
My hope is that, in your own way, you will care enough to step up when it counts and exercise moral courage.
I am praying for the safe return of all the hostages, a swift resolution of this war, and a peaceful future for both Israelis and Palestinians, and Jews all over the world.
Am Yisrael Chai
(translation: the people of Israel live – this is also the name of a prayer, a longing for a united Jewish people living together in safety, security, and with unity and harmony).