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Campus Affairs

The Campus Gaza Controversies Are Another Right-Wing Distraction

Conservatives are fomenting hysteria over free speech and antisemitism at colleges to smother attention to the Palestinians’ plight.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images
Demonstrators march in solidarity with two Columbia University student groups which were recently banned from campus for their support of Palestine.

The weeks since October 7 have exacted an extraordinary and terrible toll. Anguished voices and pleas for mercy ring out around the landscape. Buildings shake. Youths tremble. Chaos reigns. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The streets are wet with tears shed in terror. Nothing will be the same again.

I am speaking here, of course, not about the ongoing war in Gaza and the 20,000 Palestinians it’s killed but the ongoing tumults over it on our college campuses, which, if the volume of coverage in the American press and the interest of our lawmakers these last few weeks serve as any indication, may well be the most critical front in Israel’s offensive against Hamas.

Much has been made of militants hopping into tunnels under hospitals and apartment buildings to evade Israeli bombs; one might be forgiven for assuming, given the now-roiling discourses about “support for Hamas” at elite universities, that those militants might emerge from beneath Yale’s dining halls any day now. And ever since the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT testified before the House in a hearing on antisemitism on campus earlier this month, the narrative that our colleges have been captured by students who endorse the slaughter of Jews with the tacit support of campus administrators has kicked into high gear. While there’s no merit to that nonsense, the suppression of pro-Palestinian advocacy on those grounds poses a real challenge for the left—and it’s one that won’t be overcome with mere appeals to the virtues of free speech.

It should go without saying that there’s been an undeniable rise in both antisemitic activity and rhetoric since Hamas’s massacres in October, both on campus and off. And no college or institution should abide threats, harassment, or violence directed at the Jewish community. But it’s also undeniably true that charges of antisemitism are being used to silence as many critics of the Israeli state and advocates for the Palestinian cause as Israel’s most dogged defenders feel they can get away with. Chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine are being shut down. Pro-Palestinian events are being canceled. Publications are being pulled. And Middle East scholars are reporting that they’ve turned to censoring themselves more aggressively.

All told, the civil rights group Palestine Legal has received more than 450 requests for aid on campus since October 7 according to The New York Times, including cases involving “students who have had scholarships revoked or been doxxed, professors who have been disciplined, and administrators who have gotten pressured by trustees.”

Naturally, many right-wing voices who’ve spent the last decade decrying cancel culture and censorious progressives on campus have enthused about the repression of Palestinian advocates and left-wing students. And with more evenhanded groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, excepted, some free speech pundits closer to the center have responded to the crackdowns on Palestinian advocacy with either ambivalence or silence. In fact, one bit of conventional wisdom that’s congealed over the last few weeks, even among some on the left, is that progressives are substantially to blame for the repression they now face.

“In recent years, students have generated plenty of headlines about free speech on campus themselves,” the feminist journalist and author Jill Filipovic writes in a recent piece for Slate, “usually by shutting down speakers who espoused bigoted ideas or demanding that administrations take action against a speaker or an idea.” Campus administrators, she continues, by “confirming that institutional values and even rules are malleable if students only get angry enough” have inadvertently “opened their institutions up to the fiasco we’re seeing today.”

David French, a conservative columnist for the Times, agrees. “For decades now, we’ve watched as campus administrators from coast to coast have constructed a comprehensive web of policies and practices intended to suppress so-called hate speech and to support students who find themselves distressed by speech they find offensive,” he writes. Echoing speech pundit and psychologist Steven Pinker, French ends his piece with a call for the reform of campus speech policies and urges colleges to strengthen their commitment to political neutrality. “The answer to campus hypocrisy isn’t more censorship,” he concludes. “It’s true liberty. Without that liberty, the hypocrisy will reign for decades more.”

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the debate over what colleges should do on speech has been informed by the same sensationalism that has defined coverage of campus politics in the mainstream press for ages now, though some of the propaganda being tossed out about student activists is being rightfully challenged. The Times, for instance, recently debunked the widely-circulating claim that Jewish students at Cooper Union had been violently confronted and threatened by a pro-Palestinian mob. But in misleading viral clips, dodgy polls, and the rhetoric of opportunists like Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, students are being slandered.

The notion that undergraduates demonstrating on Palestine’s behalf are broadly antisemitic rests largely on two bits of language. The first is the word “intifada”⁠—during the hearing on campus antisemitism, Stefanik pushed the college presidents specifically on the slogans “globalize the intifada” and “intifada revolution,” describing them as calls “to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally.”

But as the Forward’s Mira Fox recently noted, “intifada” has been used as a general term for uprisings and rebellions, including the Arab Spring, for decades now—the very first documented use in this context being Iraq’s intifada against its Arab monarchy in the 1950s. And while the word has become tightly associated with the violent Second Intifada against Israel in the 2000s, that uprising was preceded by a mostly nonviolent First Intifada during the 1980s.

It should be said too that even endorsements of armed struggle against Israel, whatever one happens to believe about them in substance, aren’t intrinsically calls for genocide against Jewish people. Over the last few months, Israel has unintentionally made a sound case for the Palestinian right to resist, and more and more students ⁠— including Jewish students—who nevertheless reject Hamas’s butchery and abuse of civilians, plainly believe so.

The second phrase at the heart of things is “from the river to the sea”—a call for the liberation of the Palestinian people from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea that the Anti-Defamation League, which has turned to assailing Israel’s critics full-time in recent weeks, did not label as antisemitic in its glossary of terms as late as October of this year.

Today, the ADL informs readers that the phrase has been used as an “antisemitic slogan” by “supporters of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and the PFLP, which seek Israel’s destruction through violent means.” But the phrase has been used for decades by Palestinians of all stripes, including those committed to nonviolence. One might substantively disagree with those who use it with a single state encompassing Jews and Palestinians in mind. But it is also not intrinsically a call for genocide unless one assumes at the outset that the rights and dignity of Palestinians in the region can only be secured by the extermination of Jews—a horrific idea that ought to be rejected out of hand but that critics of the phrase seem to implicitly endorse.

While the press, politicians, and advocacy groups have been hard at work, parsing the language of pro-Palestinian activists for material that might discomfit Jewish students, there’s been no equivalent interest in whether defenses of Israel’s offensive, which has been promoted with eliminationist language and allegations of collective Palestinian responsibility from Israeli officials and public figures, might be undermining the safety or comfort of Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims—even though they’ve also been targeted for violence since October.

Instead, we’ve seen efforts like Florida’s attempt to disband state university chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine on the grounds that the group has provided “material support” to Hamas. They have done no such thing. In fact, Governor Ron DeSantis would be more justified barring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters from speaking events given his role in propping up and funneling resources to Hamas in Gaza—part of the Israeli right’s strategy to divide Palestinians and undermine calls for a Palestinian state.

All of this substance aside, the question of how private colleges and institutions should handle speech remains fraught. These controversies are typically debated in two registers. The first rests on the consequentialist notion that institutions ought to be maximally permissive on speech because it might benefit or protect today’s would-be censors tomorrow. This is where the idea that progressives are partially responsible for the suppression of pro-Palestinian speech comes from—if left-wing college students and progressives in other major institutions had let up on putatively bigoted and offensive speech over the last decade, writers like Filipovic argue implicitly, we’d be seeing fewer crackdowns on Palestinian advocacy now.

But this is entirely speculative. It is not at all obvious, actually, that defenses of Palestinian resistance, particularly armed resistance, and criticisms of Israel⁠—which has long been neigh-untouchable in mainstream political discourse—would have been more well-tolerated in a world where the campus controversies of the last decade hadn’t happened. We likely would have seen the very same pressure to support Israel after Hamas’s attack; as such, the speech climate likely would have been just as stultifying.

To believe otherwise is to invest fully in an odd precedential logic that regularly leads minds astray in these debates—those who use and abuse power are not always groping around for actions in the past that might justify their actions in the present. Reality is not a judiciary. And believing otherwise gives agency and responsibility over to whataboutism. Israel’s defenders and the right point to campus progressives, progressives might rightly say that conservatives and reactionaries suppressed left-wingers on campus first during the Cold War, defenders of Cold War conservatives might allude to the Soviets and the gulag, defenders of the Soviets might reference the repression of left-wing activists and thinkers by reactionary governments, and on and on backward in time to some creature of the caves who first realized that a club to the head was a reliable way to end arguments.

As a matter of liberal principle, if progressives were wrong to adopt an attenuated understanding of speech rights, that wouldn’t make the repression of Palestine’s activists today right. As it happens—and as I’ve written previously⁠—the drive to make campuses and institutions accord with progressive values is, in fact, fully in keeping with liberalism. There is no coherent conception of free speech that would not also encompass the right to say someone should be fired or that certain views ought not to be accepted.

Moreover, the freedom of association is also a core liberal value. In liberal societies, we ought to have the right to join together with those who share our values and exclude those who do not—a right conservatives have taken full advantage of with the establishment of Christian and explicitly conservative colleges that have drawn little attention from those perpetually shrieking that colleges have an obligation to be ideologically neutral. But private institutions like the elite universities in question plainly don’t.

In fact, taking both free speech and free association seriously implies not that private institutions have an obligation to be maximally permissive of speech but that we should accept institutional values being open to active contestation—underneath, in this country, a First Amendment that offers blanket protections from the intrusion of the state into the fray and, ideally, labor protections that might protect people from summarily losing their livelihoods without due process.

Students, academics, administrators, and outside influencers with different views will naturally clash and compete. In the end, some institutions will wind up more progressive or more conservative, some institutions will be more or less tolerant of criticisms of Israel, and some portion will choose, as is their right, to keep to the now prevailing understanding of higher education’s mission—the view that the liberal university is ideally a place where a student can survey centuries of history, learn from many intellectual traditions, encounter extreme ideas, debate vigorously, and land gracefully somewhere within the band of opinions deemed sound by the editors of The Atlantic.

Taking the freedom of institutions seriously in this way is not without costs for progressives. Bill Ackman and the captains of Wall Street do, in this framework, have the right to bar pro-Palestinian activists from employment at Scrooge McDuck Capital. The purges we’re seeing now are not incompatible with sound liberal principles—advocates for the Palestinian cause will not find refuge in them or in a fuzzy speech maximalism defined and defended inconsistently by most of its own proponents. And activists know this already: All of the action against the pro-Palestinian left now was preceded by the cancellations of controversial academics like Norman Finkelstein and Steve Salaita as well as a years-long assault on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which has been the target of laws, executive orders, or resolutions in at least 36 states.

None of this attracted much broad public interest or outrage; we did not hear from many magazine writers or major newspaper columnists that the state acting against pro-Palestinian activists through anti-BDS laws portended the end of free discourse in this country or Western civilization itself. Just as before October 7, the left and Palestine’s advocates will not be rescued today by the neutral application and enforcement of norms. The only recourse is politics—the sturdiest argument against the repression of those speaking for Palestine isn’t that institutions and the billionaires and propagandists pressuring them don’t have the right to try suppressing Israel’s critics but that the Palestinian cause is substantively just, and Israel’s defenders are backing a senseless and immoral war, a stance more and more Americans are coming to agree with.

Despite all that’s being thrown against them, activists around the country are continuing to make that case stridently and straightforwardly—absent the cowardice and laziness that has driven so many near the political center and right, unwilling to defend their stances on matters like racial justice and transgender rights on their own merits, into proxy debates on free speech designed to secure a place for right-leaning opinions in otherwise liberal institutions, a kind of ideological affirmative action.

The left needn’t engage in that kind of misdirection; the urgency of the crisis in Gaza denies us the luxury of merely whispering what we really feel in email lists or group chats or of running in tears to the next available magazine, photo shoot ready, to sniffle about how we’re being silenced. The task now is to direct attention to the war and the Palestinian condition in every available space by all available means. When a door shuts, we must find another; when a microphone is taken away, we must shout, carrying the message along with the strength of our own voices—which have never been stronger.