Wealthy Jewish financiers and national politicians have attacked university presidents for not restricting supposed antisemitic speech on campus. Yet, previously, these attackers have condemned college leaders for indulging restrictions on campus free speech.
Bill Ackman wants Harvard’s Claudine Gay fired. Marc Rowan has succeeded in ousting UPenn President Elizabeth Magill. U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik has gloated “one down [Magill], two [Gay and MIT President Kornbluth] to go.”
Antisemitism has a uniquely horrific history, and Hamas’ October 7th attack was barbaric. Yet, Ackman and Stefanik, both Harvard grads, have overreacted in their condemnations of perceived antisemitism of pro-Palestinian students and in their demands for Gay’s ouster. Their overzealousness may backfire.
In an ironic example, Ackman’s extreme actions – demanding Gay’s ouster and doxing and trying to blacklist pro-Palestinian students – seem to have resurrected a key element of free speech and academic freedom at Harvard, namely that the institution should not cave to the demands of outsiders, no matter how wealthy or powerful.
Ackman and Stefanik seem to have forced reactionary and defensive responses by the governing Harvard Corporation to protect Gay, at least so far. Rightfully, Gay should be removed for indulging, if not encouraging, the predominantly left-wing cancel culture on campus in recent years, for apparently committing the most fundamental violation in academia, plagiarism, and for her incompetent and inarticulate testimony before Congress. More recently, her administration allowed a student demonstration inside the main university library, where demonstrations for any cause should forbidden absolutely. Outdoors, fine.
Yet, the overriding irony of Ackman’s actions is that they constitute the same effort to restrict on-campus speech that many alumni have criticized in recent years. Doxing and blacklisting are surely efforts to punish and silence speech.
Campus leaders should resist Stefanik’s political intervention too. She oversimplified and distorted the allegedly unacceptable speech in question.
In Congressional hearings, Stefanik grilled Harvard’s Gay asking “you understand that this call for intifada is to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally, correct?” No, “intifada” does not mean genocide. Merriam Webster defines it as “uprising, rebellion.”
College students have every right to call for intifada, i.e. resistance, a point that Gay should have had the presence of mind to point out. And Palestinians have every right to resist occupation; right-wing Israeli premier Ariel Sharon acknowledged the occupation for what it is two decades ago.
Aside from definitional liberties taken by Stefanik, the problem is that the definition of antisemitism itself is in general dispute. Does antisemitism include anti-Zionism, opposition to the Jewish state? Indeed, does anti-Zionism mean opposition to the State of Israel today or to any Jewish state? There’s no agreement. So, how can legitimate charges of antisemitism be leveled against pro-Palestinian students for opposing Israel today and its policies?
There’s been concern that pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus have made Jewish students feel unsafe on campus. Maybe so, but not from actual harassment or violence, at least at Harvard, where there have been no reported cases rising to a prosecutable level. Any that do, should be addressed both by campus discipline and with prosecution to the full extent of the law.
Jewish students may feel unsafe, but are they actually unsafe or are their political beliefs unsafe? In the later case, they have the right to respond with their own speech, but not to have “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings” created for them.
This may be a tough policy to adopt after so many recent years of coddling of other identity groups, especially since Jews have been persecuted through the ages, but the nonsense has to end somewhere sometime.
So far, alleged campus antisemitism has been limited mostly to speech, at least at Harvard. Indeed, the entire current uproar about antisemitism was kicked off by a statement posted online by a coalition of 33 Harvard student organizations. By definition, it was speech – comprised of words on paper and online. There was no mention of genocide, nor any call to eliminate the State of Israel. And it was posted before Hamas’ barbarity became apparent.
Subsequently, the coalition has stated unequivocally that it does not advocate genocide of Jews or any group. In fact, it has accused Israel of genocide for what President Biden has called “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza. Most countries consider the bombing grossly disproportionate at the least.
Speech should be protected. It used to be that this principle was observed with the quote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Free speech is a bedrock American principle enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It would be an ironic tragedy if the hot-headed attacks of Ackman and Stefanik and others were to undermine efforts to dismantle the left-wing cancel culture that has prevailed on too many college campuses for too many years. Speech should be as open and unrestricted as possible.