University Resignations Spark Debate on Campus Free Speech, Antisemitism and Political Motivations
Wait, did I miss it?
Did the sudden resignation of University of Pennsylvania president Elizabeth Magill and her Board of Trustees, chair Scott L. Bok — regretful of her inadequate public responses to Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-NY, over campus threats to Jewish students — just end rising incidents of antisemitism?
Is the pressure building on presidents at MIT and Harvard — did this just change the prosecution of the Israel-Hamas war or release hostages? Did the pressure for resignations break the current congressional stalemate to continue authorized military and humanitarian aid to Israel’s defenders and Gaza’s homeless over Republican insistence to link aid to U.S. border policy changes?
Did those hearings in which Stefanik ridiculously, but proudly, pushed in rapid-fire yes-no questions even mention that Muslim students too are subject to threats? Indeed, it was three Muslim students, friends of Palestinian origin, home from campus for Thanksgiving, who were shot in Burlington, Vt. Or, a six-year-old Muslim child shot near Chicago in attacks apparently driven by hate spewed toward individuals thousands of miles from the battlefield?
Are students at UPenn and other campuses now to be expelled for political speech? As much as I resist antisemitism, I also react poorly to eliminating free speech. Bad speech calls for better persuasion.
In Florida, the governor simply announced no pro-Palestinian groups could be on state campuses. At Dartmouth, there was an organized set of debates on issues arising from the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Which sounds more appropriate?
Do you really think these resignations will end bias in hiring or promotion, or recognize a pluralistic society rather than demanding a Christian nation?
Appalling All Around
Personally, I’m appalled by protests that go well beyond calls for ceasefire and use the coded Hamas credos to eliminate Israel, to clear the land of Jews “from river to the sea.” Such absurd calls for genocide have no legitimate place in a civilized society. The groups doing so should hear what they are saying and choose words more carefully.
As a humanist, I can see that serious overreaction by the Israeli Defense Forces and a failure to push for hostage returns first is contributing to a vast humanitarian problem that cannot be addressed while combat continues. That the United States finds itself alone in opposing a ceasefire resolution before the UN Security Council should prompt a moment of pause.
As a rational person, I’m open to hearing that daily life in occupied Palestinian lands reflects serious injustice by oppressive rules, the kind of pressure cooker conditions were bound to explode and that must be tamed to gain long-term solutions in the region.
It was appalling to hear three university presidents unprepared for a partisan congressional hearing, sputtering rather than speaking forthrightly about what a campus is about. College campuses are unique places where structured discussion and debate that avoid the cliches and sloganeering could help in many ways, and could draw attention to understanding conflicts in culture and history toward eventual conciliation.
Eliminating abusive calls for intifada and “genocide” hardly eliminates either strong opinions or threats against Jews, Muslims or anyone else. The hate can just move two streets over from campus.
The very notion that university presidents — since when do we care what university presidents think? — “allow” the expression of various opinion, including obnoxious comments, reaches for a level of absurdity that challenges the very idea behind campus life. The idea that controlling the reactions of faculty and students beyond enforcing personal safety from acts, not speech, should trouble us.
Another Political Platform
Alternatively, we can see that the congressional hearings last week were political events, meant to allow Stefanik and colleagues a chance to lower the boom on progressive Democrats and overly liberal college campuses.
As a New York Times analysis noted yesterday, “For years, conservatives have struggled to persuade American voters that the left-wing tilt of higher education is not only wrong but dangerous . . . For Republicans, the rise of anti-Semitic speech and the timid responses of some academic leaders presented a long-sought opportunity to flip the political script and cast liberals or their institutions as hateful and intolerant.”
No more than voting a censure for Rep. Rachid Tlaib, D-Mich., recently, for pro-Palestinian remarks that the Republican majority in Congress found antisemitic. This resignation and others that may follow will do absolutely nothing to lessen perceived threats against Jews or anyone else.
Indeed, these are the very same Republicans who remained quiet after Charlottesville, after the Pittsburgh synagogue killings and other incidents tied to right-wing nuts. These are the very same Republicans who persist in proposals to send tax money to Christian parochial schools, who insist there is a war on Christmas, or who want generally to make this a Christian nation. Stefanik has been silent about Donald Trump cozying up to white supremacists. Anything antisemitic in those efforts?
Over years, there have been excesses in campus reactions — overreactions to speakers with unpopular messages, for example, or casualties of changing mores over perceptions of identity issues and sexual harassment. The standard “conservative” response has been free speech. When Trump is chided for exceeding courtroom practices barring attacks on potential witnesses or court personnel, his lawyers argue, “free speech.”
Apparently, as with wars themselves, one side’s free speech is another’s no-cross line.
For me, you can say what you like, I’m more concerned about what you do.