US universities are in the grip of moral panic over a concocted issue

Rather than debating the war in Gaza, Americans are fixated on non-existent calls for the genocide of Jews

Dr Claudine Gay, President of Harvard University, Liz Magill, President of University of Pennsylvania, Dr Pamela Nadell, Professor of History and Jewish Studies at American University, and Dr Sally Kornbluth, President of MIT, testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee, on December 05, in Washington. Getty Images via AFP
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American society is being shaken by moral panic about non-existent calls for genocide of Jews on US university campuses. At a heated congressional hearing, New York representative Elise Stefanik asked the presidents of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania what their schools' policies are regarding calls for the genocide of Jews. All three academic leaders fell right into this crude trap by correctly but ineptly insisting that context is essential in evaluating any speech.

Public universities essentially have to follow the US Constitution’s First Amendment, giving them little ability and less incentive to regulate the expression of ideas on campuses. However, private institutions like the three whose leaders were grilled are far freer to regulate expression and have done so with a range of limitations, speech codes and forms of formal and informal censorship.

The Republican right spotted a political opening: they could accuse these bastions of liberal culture of hypocrisy for supposedly not protecting Jewish students from harassment, intimidation, anti-Semitism and even, as Ms Stefanik insisted, calls for genocide.

In reality, nobody is calling for any genocide on US campuses

The hapless administrators struggled to insist on an intellectually valid observation that their regulation of speech must depend on context as much as anything else. That won't do politically, where black and white distinctions are demanded, particularly to the "yes or no" questions posed by demagogues such as Ms Stefanik.

Her enemies were able to engineer the resignation of Liz Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, long under fire for various unrelated reasons. And Harvard's president, Claudine Gay, an African-American scholar, is under similar attack, with some on the racist right suggesting that her politically inept, although intellectually valid, insistence on the importance of context demonstrates that she's a substandard product of racial preferences rather than academic or administrative merit.

The presidents could have said that, no, they wouldn't tolerate calls for genocide, but that would have opened up another avenue of attack as we shall see. What they astonishingly failed to note is that there have not been any widespread or noted cases of anyone at any of these universities calling for genocide against Jews or anybody else. The whole thing is a completely concocted moral panic over a non-existent problem. And that should have been the response.

If they had pointed out there are no calls for genocide – or promised they wouldn't tolerate it if there were – the real debate would have been forced. This is a case of cynical and shameless political misdirection, primarily designed to protect Israel from criticism over its extreme brutality in Gaza.

The slogans that were supposedly calling for the genocide of Jews, and which are common at pro-Palestinian US campus demonstrations are "globalise the intifada" and "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free". Obviously, neither of these slogans mentions genocide, murder or violence of any kind. Both are extremely vague and not only can, but obviously do, mean a great many different things to a great many people who utter them, not to mention those who hear and misinterpret them, often deliberately.

Intifada literally means "shaking off" in Arabic, but it has come to represent a series of on-the-ground Palestinian resistance campaigns against Israeli occupation. At times they have involved violence, but more often have been non-violent.

"Globalising the intifada" does not, on its face and given its plain meaning, suggest any call to violence. One has to first misread intifada as necessarily or even typically violent, which is not true, in order to reach that deliberate misrecognition.

The slogan "from the river to the sea", is often understood to dictate the destruction of Israel, and it is unlikely that anyone who utters it supports a two-state solution. It refers to the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, with Gaza and the West Bank on either side of them, and is therefore often understood to call for a maximised Palestinian state, and not just the elimination of Israel but of Israelis as well. In reality, though, the freedom slogan often appeals more to starry-eyed idealists who imagine a binational, democratic and equitable state for all Israelis and Palestinians.

That is certainly in opposition to the present-day reality, including Israel and its open-ended occupation of huge tracts of Palestinian land leaving more than five million Palestinians stateless, disenfranchised and without any recourse to their human rights.

Opposition to that truly scandalous and unacceptable system of ethnic discrimination, unparalleled anywhere in the world today, is hardly a genocidal sentiment. Some Israelis and their supporters take umbrage at the apparent denial of Jewish statehood and right of self-determination, which is politically unwise since only a two-state solution can resolve the conflict.

But, by imposing a system that does in fact run from the river to the sea and denying Palestinian human rights, the Israeli state has made such moral objections inevitable and extremely hard to challenge on purely ethical grounds.

These slogans are plainly not inherently genocidal or even anti-Semitic, although some people may disguise such sentiments in them. But why is this a big deal in the US today?

Partly it is an effort by the Republican right to catch liberals being hypocritical, although these same Republicans have long track records of demanding absolute freedom of speech and denouncing "cancel culture" at which, it turns out, they excel.

But the issue has taken on such a hold primarily because it is a welcome distraction from Israel's rampage in Gaza. Instead of debating US support for that increasingly indefensible offensive, US attention is instead focused on calls for genocide that don't exist and a supposed crisis of anti-Semitism that is actually alarm at the rise of vehement, and in many cases overstated and unwise, criticism of Zionism and Israel. That's why the current debate typically assumes that these two slogans are violent and even genocidal when they are manifestly neither.

It seems the Harvard president has survived the onslaught, but all three administrators blundered by failing to note that, in reality, nobody is calling for any genocide on US campuses. It is an entirely phony and manufactured controversy, but one that, in the context of this atrocious war being waged with the ardent support of the US government, serves the rather obvious purpose of distraction and misdirection.

Rather than debating the war in Gaza, Americans have been instead fixated on non-existent calls for the genocide of Jews. That's a pretty neat political and cultural sleight-of-hand.


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Published: December 13, 2023, 4:00 AM