ITHACA, N.Y.—Cornell University students and members of the Ithaca community protested Saturday in support of Russell Rickford, a Cornell professor whose name has become associated with a slew of national headlines after he said he found Hamas’ attack on Israel “exhilarating.”

Cornell has faced mounting calls to fire Rickford — including from U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. 

Rickford’s supporters Saturday, numbering around 100, gathered outside of Cornell’s Board of Trustees meeting at the Statler Hotel. They contend that his words have largely been taken out of context, and that the university has abandoned him in the face of what they called a “smear campaign.” 

Rickford was not among the crowd. He has taken a leave of absence from Cornell as recently as Saturday, according to The Cornell Review, an independent conservative student newspaper at the university. 

Cornell University Professor Russell Rickford speaks to a crowd in 2019. Credit: Jacob Mroczek / The Ithaca Voice

The controversial speech comes from an Oct. 15 rally in support of the Palestinian people organized by the Ithaca chapter of Jewish Voices for Peace. 

Rickford, a scholar of Black radical traditions, opened his speech connecting what he called the shared “traditions of resistance” that exist between African American, Jewish, and Palestinian cultures.

In the speech Rickford said he“abhor[s] the killing of civilians” but said the “systematic” oppression of Palestinians would drive even him to turn to take up arms. 

“[I]f you tried to destroy my culture, if you destroyed my olive groves, if you penned me in checkpoints, if you segregated me, 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,” Rickford said. 

Rickford did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but after his Oct. 15 speech he clarified his statements in an interview with The Cornell Daily Sun, the university’s independent student newspaper. Rickford said when he used the word “exhilarating”, he was referring to the initial hours of Hamas’ attack when they “broke through the apartheid wall, that it seemed to be a symbol of resistance” to the “destruction and devastation caused by Israeli policies[.]”

But Rickford’s words, particularly his use of the word “exhilarating,” have spread like wildfire in national media, appearing in reporting from conservative outlets such as Fox News and the New York Post, as well as digital media outlets like Insider and The Daily Beast

Rickford has been lambasted for antisemitism following the incident, including by Republican Congressman Marc Molinaro (NY-19), whose district encompasses the Ithaca-area. Molinaro called Rickford’s statements “beyond shameful and disgusting,” on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

Since his speech, a mobile billboard truck paneled with screens drove through Cornell’s campus with the message to fire Rickford over his comments. 

One online petition calling for his resignation has gathered over 5,800 signatures, and another with over 11,300. An online petition in support of Rickford has garnered just over 2,800 signatures.

Rickford’s supporters Saturday expressed that if the public would listen to his entire speech, which has been made available online by one of his students, the full context would reveal a more nuanced message.

Eli Friedman, a Cornell professor at the university’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, defended Rickford at the protest Saturday, saying that “Russell is not an antisemite.”

“Russell has taken a principled stand for many years against an extremist, right-wing form of [Zionism] that wants the genocides of Palestinian people,” Friedman said. “That’s what it is. That’s what Russell is against. And that’s why people are mad about it.”

Rickford has already apologized for what he called a “horrible choice of words” in a letter to the editor published  Oct. 18 in The Cornell Daily Sun. He walked his comments back following Cornell leadership coming out against his choice of words. 

Cornell University President Martha Pollack and Board of Trustees Chairman Kraig Kayser said in a joint statement Oct. 17 that Rickford’s statements “do not speak for Cornell; in fact, they speak in direct opposition to all we stand for at Cornell.” They added that the university is taking the incident “seriously and is currently reviewing it consistent with our procedures.”

Rickford’s apology did little to quell the umbrage taken by some protesters Saturday, several of whom repeatedly called the coverage he’s received from national media a “public lynching.”

Wealthy donors to several Ivy League colleges have in the days since Hamas’ attacks withdrawn support in response to student activism in support of the Palestinian people. Cornell shares many of these donors, but has not seen the same blowback. 

Israel has received an outpouring of support from the Biden administration since Hamas, an Islamist militant group which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union, launched a surprise attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7. Hamas’ initial attacks claimed the lives of about 1,400 people, and Hamas  also took at least 200 hostages — actions that Human Rights Watch are calling war crimes. 

In retaliation, Israel has cut off water, food, and fuel, to the Gaza Strip, an area of about 140 square miles where close to 2.2 million Palestinians live. Israel has maintained a complete militarized blockade of the Gaza Strip since 2007, when Hamas gained governmental control of Gaza. Hamas and Israel have traded blows for decades

Israel has pounded Gaza with airstrikes since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, killing almost 4,000 Palestinains and injuring an estimated 12,500, according to figures from the Palestinian Ministry of Health published by Amnesty International.

On Oct. 12, the Israeli government ordered over a million Palestinians to evacuate from northern Gaza to the south, where an estimated 700,000 have already fled, as it prepared to escalate its war with Hamas. There is evidence of war crimes committed both by Hamas and the highly resourced and US-backed Israeli military, according to the United Nations. 

Growing calls for a ceasefire have emerged from the international community, including one United Nations human rights expert who warned that Palestinians are in grave danger of a “mass ethnic cleansing” if Israeli forces escalate their counteroffensive. 

Israeli forces are preparing a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip — an event looming in the sights of humanitarian organizations and the United Nations as calls for a ceasefire are increasing.

Correction: A previous version of this article quoted Eli Friedman saying that Russell Rickford stands against a “right-wing form of anti-Zionism.” Friedman misspoke at the rally Saturday. He meant to say “Zionism,” not “anti-Zionism.

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn