Harvard University (Flickr)

As a brief ceasefire ended in Gaza and Israeli forces escalated attacks that have killed nearly twenty thousand Palestinians—most of them civilians—the war has increasingly become the backdrop for political and cultural disputes here in the United States. In a baleful recent example, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were called before Congress to testify about how they were countering antisemitic hate speech and intimidation on their campuses.

As those presidents tried to emphasize (not always effectively), they must balance concerns over student well-being with the protection of free expression. Even though private universities are not legally bound to protect the First Amendment on their campuses, they generally do, at least in theory.

But recent trends at elite universities put these presidents in an awkward position. The social-justice rhetoric of creating “learning spaces” where all students “feel safe” has far too frequently justified the cancellation of controversial visiting speakers and even the intimidation of professors. To some, it looks as though university administrators have only rediscovered free-speech principles now that Jewish students’ feelings of safety are at issue—an appearance Republican politicians are taking advantage of.

These Republicans, however, make even less credible advocates of free speech. They posture as “classical liberals” against “woke” college administrators, only to insist, in almost the same breath, that Jewish students’ feelings of safety come before protestors’ rights of free expression. The hypocrisy would be breathtaking if it weren’t so predictable. The congressional hearing, it quickly became clear, was an opportunity for Republicans to weaponize concerns about antisemitism in an ongoing political attack on higher education.

Amid a U.S.-supported Israeli military campaign that has killed a higher proportion of civilians than any other in the twenty-first century, just 11 percent of congresspeople have called for a ceasefire.

There have been real incidents of antisemitic harassment and violence on college campuses since the beginning of the war; and when speech crosses the line into violent or harassing conduct, as Harvard president Claudine Gay rightly emphasized, it must be punished. But much of the speech that Republicans, and some Democrats, want curtailed is and should be protected, including chants like “globalize the intifada” (the Arabic term for “uprising” which has been used to characterize both nonviolent and violent resistance to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories). During the hearing, Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik characterized this language as a call for genocide. Gay bizarrely accepted this bad-faith representation, allowing Stefanik to construe Gay’s lawyerly—but correct—insistence on the line between expression and conduct as a lack of “moral clarity.”

Disconcertingly, many Democrats followed Republicans’ willful misunderstanding of academic freedom. In the aftermath of the hearing, Penn President Liz Magill resigned under pressure from donors and intense criticism from Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor Josh Shapiro. And the House of Representatives, with the support of eighty-four Democrats, passed a symbolic resolution condemning the presidents’ testimony. Meanwhile, amid a U.S.-supported Israeli military campaign that has killed a higher proportion of civilians than any other in the twenty-first century, just 11 percent of congresspeople have called for a ceasefire—despite the fact that 61 percent of Americans, and 76 percent of Democrats, support one.

The further politicization of higher education and demonization of those standing up, however tepidly, for academic freedom is collateral damage from the U.S. government’s unqualified support for an unjustly prosecuted war. If, in their resistance to that war, American college students exhibit an allergy to sober debate, a preference for thoughtless sloganeering and grandstanding, and a willingness to overlook suffering, it may be that they are following the pitiful example of role models at the top of both the political and academic establishment. 

Alexander Stern is Commonweal’s features editor.

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Published in the January 2024 issue: View Contents
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