Last week the controversy surrounding anti-Semitism on American campuses took a dramatic turn. The presidents of three of America’s most prestigious universities told a congressional committee that they refused to unequivocally condemn calls for genocide against Jews. Each of the college leaders told the hearing in different ways that such a ruling would always depend on the broader context.


The presidents of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) refused to denounce chants which have become commonplace on anti-Israel protests. These include “globalise the intifada” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”. None of these slogans were seen as necessarily serious enough to warrant punishment for harassment.

Each of the presidents made similar arguments. The president of Penn, Liz Magill said any sanctions would depend on the context. Since giving her testimony she has resigned from her position, as has Scott Bok, the chairman of its board of trustees. Sally Kornbluth of MIT said such chants would need to be severe and pervasive before action was taken. Claudine Gay of Harvard said  the university took action only when such speech “crossed into conduct”.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce was so concerned it has launched a probe into the three universities according to Politico. It will have full powers to subpoena witnesses.

Penn had already been placed under investigation  by the US Department of Education for possible discrimination based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristicsSimilar probes have been opened into Columbia, Cooper Union, Cornell, Lafayette College, the University of Tampa and Wellesley College. It should be noted that two of these probes are focusing on possible anti-Muslim discrimination.

To be fair, Magill, Kornbluth and Gay did use their opening statements to the committee to outline security measures they had put in place on their campuses. However, their testimony is hard to defend. It is difficult to see how genocidal chants cannot be classed as a form of conduct. The implication seems to be that using genocidal slogans is only punishable if they lead directly to violence.

The implied claim from the presidents that they were defending free speech would be more convincing if they were not so censorious in other respects. For example, according to the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative journalism website, Harvard told all undergraduates in a mandatory training session that “fatphobia” and “cisheterosexism” perpetuate “violence”. It also classified the use of the wrong pronouns as a form of “abuse”. Yet the seriousness of calls for genocide against Jews apparently depends on the context.

Gay, Kornbluth and Magill did tell the committee they would revisit their codes of conduct and policies. However, any attempt to develop a policy based on taking into account context risks becoming impossibly long and unwieldy. What is really needed is a policy which is designed to prevent universities getting into the mess they got into in the first place. Three areas need to be addressed.

The first is communication mismanagement. For example, Magill did on 15 October issue a forceful statement, condemning Hamas’s atrocities. But that statement post-dated the backlash by donors threatening to withdraw funds. As a result it will look to many look like a desperate attempt to manage a public relations disaster. 

It has reached the stage where even good intentions can backfire. Gay has apologised for her testimony to congress as did Magill before she resigned. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that they were both out of their depth.

Impunity is the second area of concern. The issue of anti-Semitism on American campuses might have dramatically intensified recently but it has been a long while in the making. This site has described how various academics at Columbia, Harvard and other universities have been directly contributing to anti-Semitism on campus through teaching that promotes a decolonising narrative. Interestingly, according to Haaretz, various members of the committee raising this at the congressional hearing. Student groups are also facing consequences, but this will be seen as unfair by them, and rightly so, if academics do not face similar penalties.

The final area of contention is free speech. This has two aspects to it. The Middle East Barometer of the University of Maryland has found that academics involved in Middle Eastern studies are now self-censoring. The reasons for self-censorship are fairly predictable. They include fear of so-called cancel culture at the hands of students and concern at potential pressure from external advocacy groups. 

Interestingly although anti-Israel demonstrations far outnumber pro-Israel ones, 81% of those practicing self-censorship stated they were suppressing criticisms they wished to make of Israel. Only 11% said they were withholding criticism of the Palestinians. This is probably testimony to the impact of donors beginning to withdraw or withhold funds. This raises an obvious question: to what extent is the work of such academics genuine scholarship and therefore of value. Alternatively it could be mere politicking and therefore insincere and of no value. If the latter, the fact that their activities has increased the levels of anti-Semitism on campus increases the amount of condemnation they deserve.

The second aspect of the free speech question is that of balance. University officials need to set the rights of anti-Israel activists alongside those of Jewish students not to be intimidated. Here one can have considerable sympathy with officials genuinely trying to do their best. For example, Haaretz reported Magill being asked at the congressional hearing about her decision to allow a Palestinian rights literature festival at Penn. Her answer was reasonable. She said that while she found the views of some of the participants repellent she did not feel able to cancel the event solely for that reason. That was because those who organised the event had the right to free speech.

Two points can be made here. If officials had been more proactive before the 7 October Hamas pogrom they would have found it easier to strike an appropriate balance subsequently. The second is that activists cannot plead the free speech defence if they use their speech to actively harass others.

The communications mismanagement issue is more an issue of the moment. Universities have fallen into the same trap as the ruling bodies of some sports. That is making public statements on issues which ultimately have nothing to do with their activities – such as conflict in the Middle East. Perhaps it would be best to get out of the habit of making such pronouncements at all. 

The questions of impunity and free speech are more fundamental for universities. They go to the nature of the culture that has been allowed to develop on campuses and the worth of the activities of some academic departments. These last two areas deserve urgent attention.

Guy Whitehouse is a member of the Academy of Ideas and the Free Speech Union. His views do not necessarily reflect those of those organisations.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.

PHOTO: "College Hall - University of Pennsylvania" by chrisinphilly5448 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.

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