Chen Shmilo

The moral leadership test facing Fulbright

Photo by Kristina Flour on
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

The Fulbright Foundation has long been a bastion of international academic exchange and mutual understanding between the United States and scholars worldwide. But the US government-sponsored organization now faces a profound moral test in the wake of the deadly Hamas massacre on October 7th that murdered over 1,200 people, brutally raped women and men, and kidnapped 240 individuals among them babies, women and elderly people.

As proud alumni of the prestigious Fulbright’s Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, which brings accomplished mid-career professionals from countries around the world to the United States every year for a yearlong leadership training and collaboration with US counterparts, we believe that it reflects the ideological legacy of Hubert H. Humphrey, the late vice president, who was known for his rare ability to serve as a bridge between people and opinions, thereby promoting policies for the common good. Therefore, we would not expect less than a public condemnation of the atrocities and a genuine expression of empathy for Israeli fellows who were reeling after the attack just as the US administration did over and over again.

Yet, Humphrey program’s representatives have remained silent. We searched their weekly newsletter in vain for words of sympathy or condemnation of Hamas’s antisemitic violence targeting innocents just for being Israeli. We reached out to them asking for public condemnation of the atrocities but found only indifference and silence. Unfortunately, the only substantial response received from the program’s representative was that the program’s silence “does not reflect a lack of empathy.”

We are certain that no one affiliated with the program intends to stay neutral regarding the rape of women and girls. Nor do we believe that the program would prefer to remain neutral regarding the kidnapping and torture of small children or elderly people.

Perhaps Fulbright believes that silence best affirms neutrality, similar to the pseudo-neutral balancing act that many institutions in the US have embraced since the October 7th atrocities. We are calling this pseudo-neutral, because there can be no neutrality in the face of the attack of a terrorist organization.

More to the point, Fulbright’s Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program is a government-funded entity that aims to enhance leadership among international professionals who collaborate to address local and global challenges and foster change for our collective good. Thus, the silence of the program, given their immense international influence, resonates even beyond the borders of the United States.

Moreover, it creates an environment that enables current and former fellows to fearlessly post horrifying pro-Hamas and antisemitic content on their social media accounts, even while enjoying the full funding of the program. Do these views meet the legitimate minimal expectations of the American taxpayer for funding this program?

This silence also contradicts the moral clarity the program presented after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, publicly and justly acknowledging in its newsletter the suffering of our Ukrainian fellows. What has happened to this clarity while our own homes are targeted by the rockets of Hamas?

Finally, and perhaps most ironically, the silence of the Fulbright’s Humphrey program contradicts the moral clarity that was the hallmark of the life and work of Hubert Humphrey, from his landmark civil rights speech to the 1948 Democratic Convention to his concern for and support of Israel’s security and his condemnation of the obscene United Nations General Assembly anti-Zionism resolution in 1975. Known for his civil rights advocacy and support of Israel, Humphrey surely would have spoken out were he still alive today.

Upon his death, Humphrey was remembered as a “friend of Israel and the Jewish People” in his obituary by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. One cannot imagine a more hypocritical way to commemorate his legacy by allowing pro-Hamas fellows to carry his name while inciting against Israelis and Jews.

We are aware that our request for condemnation comes against the backdrop of a painful war for many uninvolved Gazan citizens. The October 7th massacre forced the State of Israel to go to war for its existence. Israel must now fight against a murderous terrorist organization that tunneled under hospitals and schools and kindergartens. We feel the pain of the citizens of Gaza, some of whom we met during the Humphrey program, and are angry that Hamas forced our country into a war that has caused suffering for so many citizens on both sides.

Condemnation of the barbaric murders and the horrific sexual assaults, and the expression of empathy for Israeli fellows of the program do not contradict the pain on the Gazan side. As we pointed out to the Fulbright’s representatives, publicly addressing the Hamas horror does not mean endorsing any political position – it means displaying basic humanity.

“In the end,” as Martin Luther King Jr. stated eloquently, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” If Fulbright fails this moral test, it calls into question the organization’s professed values of furthering international understanding through professional exchange. Will it demonstrate the courage to speak out? Or will it fail by remaining silent in the face of antisemitic violence against innocents? Its next steps will tell.

*Written by Chen Shmilo and Inbar Ben-Menda, Fulbright’s Humphrey alumni fellows.

About the Author
Chen Shmilo is the CEO of the 8200 Alumni Association and Co-Founder of the 8200HUB. Chen worked in the public and the NGO sector as a lawyer and a public policy advisor focusing on public health and the healthcare system until he pivoted to the world of technological entrepreneurship. Chen is an 8200 unit alumnus who holds an LL.B. degree (Cum Laude) from Haifa University and an LL.M. degree in Public Law from Tel Aviv University and Northwestern University in Chicago. He is also a graduate of Fulbright's Humphrey Fellowship in public health policy and management.
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