On October 26, the Biden administration expressed horror about the “extremely disturbing pattern of anti-Semitic messages being conveyed on college campuses.” According to a White House spokesperson, “delegitimizing the State of Israel while praising the Hamas terrorist murderers who burned innocent people alive, or targeting Jewish students, is the definition of unacceptable—and the definition of anti-Semitism.”
The October 7 Hamas massacre of more than 1,400 in Israel horrified most of the country and the democratic world. But the administration’s critique offered a glimpse at a far different reaction at colleges and universities—especially at elite institutions, increasingly dominated by an enforced orthodoxy in key corners of campus life; and at blue-state public universities, which draw from more left-of-center student populations who in recent years have grown sharply critical of Israel.
At these schools, the mass murder and kidnapping of Israeli civilians aroused great passion—but not for the victims. The passion came, instead, from critics of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and in many cases of Israel’s existence itself. Large student protests indifferent (at most) to the Hamas massacre have accompanied statements from faculty, particularly in the humanities and related fields, excusing, whitewashing, or even celebrating Hamas’s actions. And university leaders, so accustomed to addressing political crises with ideologically charged statements reflecting the majority viewpoints on campus, often retreated to nebulous remarks or simply remained silent.
Harvard set the tone. Almost immediately after the Hamas attacks, a coalition of 34 student groups issued a joint statement holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible” for “all the unfolding violence.” Formulated as the IDF desperately sought to save Israeli civilians within Israeli territory, the statement didn’t condemn Hamas’s targeting of civilians. It didn’t mention the mass slaughter of many college-age Israelis at a rave. It didn’t call for the release of hostages. It did demand “a firm stand against colonial retaliation.”
Earlier in the decade, senior Harvard officials had forcefully condemned the killing of George Floyd and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Two days after the Hamas massacre, by contrast, Harvard president Claudine Gay joined 17 other senior administrators who said they were “heartbroken” about “the death and destruction unleashed” by Hamas and “the war in Israel and Gaza now under way.” This failure to distinguish between the morality of Hamas murdering civilians and the casualties of the war Hamas incepted did generate some dissent from prominent faculty members and partly inspired a faculty letter criticizing the administration’s “false equivalency between attacks on noncombatants and self-defense against those atrocities.” The next day, Gay (this time alone) issued a second statement “on the war in the Middle East,” leaving “no doubt” that she condemned Hamas’s terrorism and distancing her administration from the student groups’ missive.
By this point, even some of the student groups had changed their minds. The first public recission came from the Undergraduate Nepali Student Association, which acknowledged that Hamas had murdered 10 Nepali students along with Israelis. The group wrote, “We are deeply saddened by this news and mourn the lives that we have lost in the Nepali community”; but it did not comment specifically on the Israeli deaths. Off-campus websites identified the names of the student signatories among the 34 student groups that drafted the original letter, and a mobile billboard showed their names and faces in Harvard Square.
These developments prompted Gay to offer her third, and most passionate, statement—not about the mass murder, but rather in defense of the student groups’ ability to articulate their position. Harvard, she remarked, “rejects the harassment or intimidation of individuals based on their beliefs” and “embraces a commitment to free expression.” This sentiment might have seemed more credible if—just one month earlier—Harvard had not been ranked as the worst university in the country for free speech (with a score of zero on a 100-point scale) by the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
Gay’s updated remarks did not suffice for three government professors who were worried not about the kidnapped children in Gaza but rather about those who had signed the letter whitewashing the kidnapping. Those professors penned a Harvard Crimson op-ed demanding that Harvard “protect” the student groups, because “powerful individuals” had harshly criticized them merely for seeking to stimulate “a deeper discussion of the roots of Israeli-Palestinian violence.” Thirty full-time (mostly humanities) professors likewise complained that Harvard had refused “to actively protect the free speech of Palestinian, Arab, Black, and Muslim students,” while accusing Gay of ignoring “systemic Israeli state violence.”
Anti-Israel student speech did not seem particularly chilled. Weeks later, Harvard students marched through campus buildings disrupting classes with chants of “let Gaza live” and held a “die-in” criticizing the nonexistent Israeli missile strike on a Gaza hospital. A group of protesters claiming to be “safety marshals” (including a Harvard Law Review editor) surrounded an Israeli student attempting to record the “die-in” event, obstructing his path and bumping him as they shouted “Shame! Shame!” into his face.
In 1967, the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report embraced institutional neutrality, since “the university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” Some institutions, such as Stanford and Williams College, revived this tradition in response to these events—a welcome development, although it’s hard to miss how the sudden rediscovery of neutrality’s virtues came as the alternative to expressing sympathy for Israelis. (The president of Williams, for example, wrote a lengthy statement last year against the Supreme Court decision on abortion.) Other universities, such as Princeton and the University of Florida, issued statements unequivocally condemning Hamas’s intentional targeting of civilians.
It was nonetheless striking to see how many elite institutions—Penn, Cornell, NYU Law School, Columbia Law School, the University of Virginia—joined Harvard in releasing follow-up statements only after a backlash from alumni, donors, and politicians to their initial remarks. It was almost as if, in the intersectional university, academic leaders could not process a situation in which the victims were perceived (however inaccurately) as powerful and white, or in which anti-Semitism didn’t come from the far right.
The contrast with the Russian invasion of Ukraine was bracing. In March 2022, University of Virginia President Jim Ryan affirmed support for “members of our community who are affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” having “watched these difficult events with concern for the people of Ukraine and admiration for their resolve.” He expressed no concern with the loss of Russian lives, nor did any subsequent UVA statement do so. Regarding the October 7 massacre, on the other hand, the university initially indicated that “UVA is focused on the crisis in Israel and Gaza,” after noting, “The Palestinian militant group, Hamas, had attacked Israel from the Gaza Strip by air, land and sea.… More than 1,000 have been killed on both sides.” Only in its follow-up statement did the university, in Ryan’s name, condemn Hamas terrorism.
The visuals also dramatically differed. The Ukraine post included a photo of a large wall on campus that was painted in the Ukrainian flag’s blue and yellow; the Russian flag did not appear. The Israel post featured both the Israeli and Palestinian flags, in equal size.
In defense of their missteps, perhaps university leaders could not have predicted that the mass murder of Israeli civilians by the Palestinian regime in Gaza would quickly generate pro-Palestinian protests and campus commentary. Five days after the massacre, Students for Justice in Palestine called for resistance rallies at universities around the country. The organization’s messaging toolkit stressed that “settlers are not ‘civilians’ in the sense of international law, because they are military assets used to ensure continued control over stolen Palestinian land.” One of the two suggested promotional posters included a Hamas-like paraglider, which at least one chapter, at Long Beach State, used.
Apart from the odd timing—bodies of the murder victims were still being discovered—the resulting protests were notable for their silence on the events of five days before. While many rallies disclaimed support for Hamas, the vision of a “free Palestine” never included freedom for Gazan citizens from the Hamas dictatorship. The non-criticism of Hamas even extended to the terrorists’ attacks on Israeli Arabs who risked or gave their lives to save their Jewish fellow citizens. (This omission was especially curious, as highlighting the heroism of Israeli Arabs in the face of Hamas murderers was an obvious tactic to challenge Islamophobia, a key theme of the rallies.) The SJP events mostly played out as if the events of October 7 hadn’t occurred, except perhaps as a pretext for Israel to attack Palestinians. Columbia and George Mason rallies championed a Palestine “from the river to the sea.” At UCLA, protesters envisioned a renewed intifada.
A second round of organized student protests, on October 25, theoretically had a more discernible justification: opposing ongoing Israeli military strikes on Gaza. But the rallies’ focus ranged far beyond that issue. It “appalled” Emory President Gregory Fenves to see that “anti-Semitic phrases and slogans were repeatedly used by speakers and chanted by the crowd” during the event on his campus. Cooper Union protesters chanting “Free Palestine” banged on locked library doors and a transparent library window behind which some Jewish students sheltered. (Police led the students safely out of the library; an NYPD spokesperson denied any “direct threats” occurred or that the students were in danger.) More than 100 Brown students toured the campus advocating not an end to the occupation or a cessation of bombing, but Israel’s replacement by a Palestine “from the river to the sea”; Northwestern protesters made the same call. Yale students maintained that Palestinian “resistance is justified,” while Cal-Berkeley and NYU protesters demanded “all of” the pre-state mandate for an independent Palestine; the NYU protest featured two students with signs reading “Keep the world clean,” alongside a drawing of a Star of David in a trash can. More than 100 University of North Carolina students demanded the university boycott all Israeli companies, as well as “companies that have showed support for Israel.” A speaker at the University of Washington proclaimed, “We don’t want Israel to exist. We don’t want these Zionist counter protesters to exist.”
These rallies, like their predecessors, featured few if any calls for the release of hostages and no discernible criticisms of Hamas, including for having murdered Israeli Arabs. Though the protests all involved protected speech, however unsettling the message, at least three campuses have seen arrests. At Cornell, a mentally imbalanced student was charged with threatening to kill Jewish students in the Kosher dining hall; at Columbia, an Israeli student allegedly was assaulted while putting up posters of his kidnapped fellow citizens; and at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 57 students illegally occupied a campus building to express their disgust with Israel.
Other individual episodes likely violated campus disciplinary codes. Students at George Washington University projected messages of “Glory To Our Martyrs” and “Free Palestine From The River To The Sea” onto the walls of the university library. (The university’s initial statement acknowledged the “pain” of the act but didn’t condemn the messages.) At Columbia, a student group scheduled a movie night with an accompanying message from its president: “Zionists aren’t invited” and “THE HOLOCAUST WASN’T SPECIAL.” (Columbia forbid the event for violating its antidiscrimination policies.)
A University of Michigan student methodically ripped down posters of 12 kidnapped Israelis, because, he said, “the settlers are not innocent civilians.” A George Mason student, after learning that the hostage whose flyer she had just torn up was Thai, not Israeli, cheerily responded, “That’s great!” Similar acts of almost banal cruelty occurred at Baruch, Penn, Boston University, VCU, USC, and NYU (twice). One of the NYU students—a former intern for the ADL, incredibly—explained her actions by falling back on the language of campus identity politics: “I have found it increasingly difficult to know my place as a biracial brown woman.” Commentator Josh Barro offered a more persuasive interpretation for the vandalism: “The posters cause cognitive dissonance; thus, they must be removed from view.”
Extremism has hardly been confined to students. A few days after the massacre, Professor Jemma Decristo, a University of California-Davis specialist in “the interplay between sound, race, gender, and embodiment,” tweeted a message to “zionist journalists” in the United States: “They can fear their bosses, but they should fear us more.” She punctuated her tweet with a knife, a machete, and three drops of blood.
The UC-Davis president distanced the school from Decristo’s call to violence, but he was the exception among university leaders encountering Hamas apologists among their ranks. Columbia professor Joseph Massad, a specialist in Arab politics whose troubling treatment of Jewish students almost derailed his tenure bid in the 2000s, celebrated as “awesome” the “Palestinian resistance’s takeover of several Israeli settler-colonies near the Gaza boundary.” Yale professor Zareena Grewal, whose research focuses on race, gender, religion, and nationalism among American Muslims, asserted that “Israel is a murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle.” When a journalist pointed out that she was talking about the deaths of innocent civilians, Grewal was dismissive: “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.” George Washington professor Lara Sheehi, whose scholarship focuses on “decolonial and anti-oppressive approaches to psychoanalysis,” deemed the massacre a justified response to “Israel’s genocidal intent.” Columbia, Yale, and George Washington each declined to condemn their faculty members’ remarks.
Perhaps the likes of Massad or Grewal could be dismissed as unrepresentative—except their perspective appeared in an array of joint statements from faculty members at elite institutions and blue-state public universities alike. These statements shared a common template. Each purported to defend the speech of anti-Zionist students but actually envisioned shielding them from intense public criticism. Each came primarily from the humanities and allied scholars in law, education, or softer social sciences; few faculty from math or the sciences joined. Each portrayed Israel as a state of settler-colonialists and was bathed in a decolonization theory that author Simon Sebag Montefiore recently termed a “historically nonsensical mix of Marxist theory, Soviet propaganda, and traditional anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages and the 19th century.”
At their core, the statements used—or, more accurately, abused—historical context to minimize the horror of the October 7 massacre. The letters suggested that Hamas’s actions might have been justified, either in whole or in part. They also positioned the worst mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust on a spectrum of 75 years of events in which Israel’s moral record was either worse than that of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorists or at least as deserving of no sympathy from outsiders.
According to a statement by 122 current Columbia professors, 37 of whom hold endowed chairs at the institution, “one could regard the events of October 7th… as an occupied people exercising a right to resist violent and illegal occupation.” The signatories included BDS activist and gender and sexuality scholar Katherine Franke as well as Rashid Khalidi, who holds the school’s Edward Said Chair and is known for his close ties to a previous generation of Palestinian leaders; they endorsed arguments from Columbia students that October 7 “represented a military response by a people who had endured crushing and unrelenting state violence from an occupying power over many years.”
At City University of New York, 120 full-time faculty members similarly minimized the massacre, which they euphemistically termed “the October 7 military operation by Hamas.” The CUNY signatories denied any “equivalence” between Hamas’s actions “and the subsequent military attack by the Israeli state, and certainly no equivalence to the systemic [sic] and the violence of Israeli settler colonialism. Israeli state violence has defined Palestinian life in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip since 1948.”
Both the Columbia and CUNY missives embedded their views on the massacre within pretextual demands for protecting student speech. The Columbia letter complained about the unfairness of criticism—admittedly harsh and public—of a student letter demanding the university dissociate from Israel. The CUNY faculty unconvincingly portrayed administrators’ announcement of increased security at the Students for Justice in Palestine protest, which they encouraged student leaders to move roughly 100 feet from in front of a classroom building to a position adjacent to campus, as an effort to “censor dissent.”
Academic units rarely if ever should adopt official positions on contentious political issues, lest they create political litmus tests excluding dissenting students or faculty. Yet since October 7, at least six academic departments—four at public institutions where the First Amendment would seem to frown on the imposition of an official orthodoxy—have publicly endorsed the Palestinian cause.
The University of Washington’s American Ethnic Studies Department accused Israel of “genocidal retaliation” before oddly singling out “thousands of Jewish Americans” who had expressed “solidarity with Palestinians to call for an end to apartheid.” UC San Diego’s Ethnic Studies Department, citing Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib as a guidepost on the conflict, replaced a day of classes with pro-Palestinian content. The Asian-American Studies Department at UC-Davis supplemented its pro-Palestinian position with “resources on the situation in Palestine and Israel.” As if to prove an intent to propagandize rather than educate students, its reading list, which included the likes of Edward Said, Steven Salaita, Judith Butler, Omar Barghouti, and Ilan Pappe, did not include any book or article that even took a neutral, much less a pro-Israel, stance. Syracuse’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department, Northwestern’s Asian American Studies Program, and Colorado’s Ethnic Studies Department each explicitly linked a pro-Palestinian position to their academic missions—implying that pro-Israel faculty would be screened out of the department on purportedly academic grounds.
None of these departments appears to have been rebuked by campus administrators. As passionately as they condemned Israel, the officially pro-Palestine departments avoided any criticism of Hamas. Despite their purported concern with Arab lives, they expressed no opinion on the Israeli Arabs killed by Hamas. Instead, the massacre was described matter-of-factly, if at all. The Northwestern program stated: “On October 7, 2023, Hamas, the political group that has controlled Gaza since 2006, attacked Israel.”
Disciplines or disciplinary bodies—again, from the humanities and allied fields—also joined the fray. An open letter from more than 200 philosophy faculty members condemned “the oppressor,” the “ethno-supremacist state” of Israel, while avoiding any reference to the events of October 7. An open letter from several hundred tenured or tenure-track sociology professors failed to mention Hamas murders of civilians. It did, however, accuse Israel of having “targeted hospitals,” citing an Al Jazeera article for the discredited Hamas claim that an Israeli missile struck a Gaza hospital killing 500 Palestinians. The University of California system’s ethnic-studies faculty council—representing more than 300 professors—criticized university statements condemning Hamas for “terrorism” and “unprovoked” aggression, because “to hold the oppressed accountable for ‘terrorism’ reinscribes a colonial narrative.”
If we can no longer ignore campus attitudes on Israel, it’s easier to identify what won’t work to address the problem. For legal, moral, and tactical reasons, suppressing pro-Palestinian speech is wrong. Students have a right to speak, and efforts to prevent them from doing so—seen most prominently when Florida officials moved to decertify Students for Justice in Palestine campus branches—have no merit. That doesn’t mean, of course, that extreme statements by students can’t be analyzed or criticized, as many of the Harvard faculty or the Ivy League student protesters seem to envision.
Universities can and should come under heavy criticism from outside stakeholders for a willingness to foster anti-Israel extremism. The nation’s leading law schools are now on notice, after a bombshell letter from 27 top law firms expressed alarm “at reports of anti-Semitic harassment, vandalism and assaults on college campuses, including rallies calling for the death of Jews and the elimination of the State of Israel.” The letter made clear that “such anti-Semitic activities would not be tolerated at any of our firms.” Pro-Israel major donors can and should reconsider their relationship with elite institutions—as has already occurred at Harvard, Columbia, and Penn.
Donors, however, looking to work through the system to create a more balanced environment on Israel are likely to be disappointed. A troubling lesson came a few years ago from the University of Washington, where a $5 million donation to endow a chair in Israel Studies wound up yielding a figure whose perspective on matters related to Israel seemed indistinguishable from that of her colleagues in Middle East Studies. The most effective response will have to come from within the academy—especially from faculty in less politicized fields such as STEM, business, or medicine. Professors from these disciplines have taken the lead in the rare joint faculty letters critical of the post-October 7 campus environment.
The most promising approach might be to revive the Louis Brandeis maxim: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” In the aftermath of October 7, three issues deserve a particular dose of light.
In recent years, as diversity, equity, and inclusion offices have proliferated, critics have dismissed them as little more than structures to enforce orthodoxy. But DEI defenders deem them necessary steps to ensure that marginalized groups can fully participate in campus life. As Armin Rosen discovered in a recent exposé for Tablet, DEI offices were all but inert as the Hamas massacre affected Jewish students. Pro-Palestinian faculty at the University of Michigan understood how the game is played. They framed their demand for a university statement criticizing Israeli military actions as necessary to fulfill the university’s “diversity and its DEI mission.” The signatories did imagine one way that DEI officials could assist Jews—for the “students, many of whom are Jewish, who are critical of the violence against Gaza but can only feel isolated and unseen.” Based on their performance in this crisis, it’s hard to see why, at public universities, taxpayers should continue to fund the DEI apparatus.
Second, even the best of university statements on the Hamas massacre displayed no interest in exploring why a mass murder produced such a counterintuitive campus reaction. There’s nothing new here. Last year, a New York City Council hearing investigating anti-Semitism at CUNY featured this otherworldly exchange with the chancellor’s designee, Vice Chancellor Glenda Grace:
Q: Are you aware of any campaign on any CUNY campus to boycott, divest, and sanction any of these countries for their human rights violations: Russia?
Grace: Not aware, no.
Grace: I’m not aware.
Grace: I’m not aware.
Q: Saudi Arabia?
Grace: I am not aware, no.
Q: North Korea?
Grace: Not aware.
Q: How about the State of Israel?
Grace: We’ve talked about the BDS resolutions that were passed at the Law School, and we’ve condemned them. So, yes. There have been about …For Israel, yes.
Grace shouldn’t be singled out: A lack of curiosity for why only Israel has generated such negative passion on campus could have been expressed by the leader of any major college or university in recent years. Absent outside pressure—from donors, legislators, potential employers, the media—universities are never going to explore this question. New York’s Governor Kathy Hochul stepped in to order an outside review of anti-Semitism at CUNY. Heavy pressure from alumni and a large protest by Jewish students seem to have triggered Columbia to appoint a task force to explore anti-Semitism on its campus.
If these inquiries are conducted thoroughly, they almost certainly will implicate powerful faculty and bureaucratic constituencies. Institutions will not easily commit to a new hiring strategy prioritizing the restoration of intellectual or pedagogical diversity among the faculty. As Boston University professor David Decosimo recently noted, “years of faculty searches that have been explicitly ideological and partisan, prizing and hiring for the illiberal radicalism [are] on display in the… Hamas-praise.”
Finally, and most important, sunlight can illuminate the chasm between the campus reaction to the mass murders and reactions virtually everywhere else in the United States. That a massacre of almost unspeakable barbarity against Israeli citizens set the stage for widespread anti-Israel protests remains the single most remarkable aspect of higher education’s response to October 7.
It clearly distinguishes the academy from the rest of society. Hundreds of University of California professors recalled their shock, on October 8 and 9, “to realize that literally while Hamas terrorists were going house-to-house seeking to murder as many Jews as they could, some pro-Palestinian organizations on our own campus were gathering petition signatures for statements that celebrated these Hamas terrorists as freedom fighters and rejected any critique of their actions.” From the opposite perspective, the New Yorker summarized the hours after the massacre for an author of the Harvard student statement: “As Harvard’s campus awoke to news of the Hamas attack on Israel, a Palestinian-American student… rushed to her friend’s apartment, still in pajamas, to compose ‘an emergency statement’ on behalf of Palestinian allies on campus.”
Who responds to a horrific act of violence, one that recalled memories of the Einsatzgruppen, with an impetus to immediately protest against the country whose citizens had just experienced the mass murder? And what type of environment then sustains this sentiment? Apart from left-wing groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America, no other corner of U.S. society—even those with growing skepticism of Israel, such as congressional Democrats, the New York Times or Washington Post, or liberal churches—responded in this way, or had any difficulty recognizing the Hamas atrocities for what they were.
In a viral clip, a Cornell professor spoke of his personal exhilaration upon learning of the Hamas attacks (he later apologized). Behind him stood two students holding a giant banner: “Anti-Zionism ≠ Anti-Semitism!” This sentiment now seems at best willfully naive and at worst an Orwellian abuse of language. Academics think of themselves as positioned on the right side of history; the protections of tenure and academic freedom provide an ability to retain principled dissent when the broader public abandons basic morality. That vision of the academy now lies in tatters.
Photo: AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura
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