Harvard, Penn Presidents Right About Campus Antisemitism

The job of a college president involves constantly apologizing and promising to do better. This week, several elite college presidents’ object of their groveling was Congress, which subjected them to a series of largely impossible queries about antisemitism on campus at a hearing everybody agrees went quite poorly for them.

One of the most instantly infamous exchanges took place between Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, and the Republican representative Kevin Kiley from California. “If you were talking to a prospective student’s family, a Jewish student’s family right now,” asked Kiley, “could you look them in the eye and tell them that their son or daughter would be safe and feel safe and welcome on your campus?”

Gay replied, “We are absolutely committed to student safety.” Kiley noted acidly that Gay had dodged the question, that he repeated it but received the same answer.

And it is true that she failed to answer the question — because there’s no good answer. If Gay says Jewish students would feel absolutely safe on campus, she is denying the problem. If she says they wouldn’t, she is telling Jewish students they shouldn’t come to Harvard.

There are several underlying causes for the discomfort of the college presidents, not all of which have clear solutions. College campuses have been inundated with pro-Palestinian activism, which sometimes contains a threatening tone to Jewish students. Campuses have also been struggling for a decade or so with left-wing demands to make campuses “safe,” which has entailed cracking down on criticism of the political left.

So what does it mean to make Jewish students feel safe on campus? One way would be to crack down on anti-Israel rhetoric that might make many Jews feel threatened. That would be consistent with the methods universities have sometimes employed to protect other minority groups. But it would also be deeply illiberal.

A more limited and defensible response would be to police conduct. When mobs of students disrupt classes and make it hard for students to walk around campus without being screamed at (or shoved), that creates an intimidating atmosphere.

The distinction between speech and conduct is worth bearing in mind when you read this exchange among Republican representative Elise Stefanik from New York, Gay, and University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill. This was probably the most widely cited moment of the hearings, and the one which brought the widest condemnation, but also illustrates the predicament the presidents are trying to navigate:

STEFANIK: Ms. Magill, at Penn, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?

MAGILL: If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment. Yes.

STEFANIK: I am asking, specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?

MAGILL: If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.

STEFANIK: So the answer is yes.

MAGILL: It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.

STEFANIK: So calling for the genocide of Jews is, depending upon the context, that is not bullying or harassment. This is the easiest question to answer. Yes, Ms. Magill. So is your testimony that you will not answer yes? Yes or no?

MAGILL: If the speech becomes conduct. It can be harassment, yes.

STEFANIK: Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide. The speech is not harassment. This is unacceptable. Ms. Magill, I’m gonna give you one more opportunity for the world to see your answer. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s code of conduct when it comes to bullying and harassment? Yes or no?

MAGILL: It can be harassment.

STEFANIK: … And Dr. Gay at Harvard? Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?

GAY: It can be depending on the context.

STEFANIK: What’s the context?

GAY: Targeted at an individual targeted, as at an individual?

STEFANIK: It’s targeted at Jewish students, Jewish individuals. Do you understand your testimony is dehumanizing them? Do you understand that dehumanization is part of antisemitism? I will ask you one more time. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?

GAY: Antisemitic rhetoric when it crosses into conduct, that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation, that is actionable conduct, and we do take action.

Stefanik was asking the presidents about the phrase “globalize the intifada,” a slogan used by many pro-Palestinian demonstrators. Like many slogans, this one is deliberately ambiguous. Globalizing the intifada can simply mean mobilizing demonstrators across the world to support the Palestinian cause. It can also mean spreading the tactics of the intifada (which include attacks on civilians) across the world, which almost inherently means attacking Jews — after all, there aren’t many Israeli state targets outside Israel.

Many Jews quite rationally find the phrase to be a form of incitement against them. And given that pro-Palestinian activism sometimes extends to actions like vandalizing synagogues and Jewish businesses or confronting Jewish students, it seems clear that at least some activists understand the slogan the same way.

Stefanik was defining it even more aggressively, though, by using the shorthand “calling for the genocide of Jews.” As threatening as it may be, globalizing the intifada does not mean genocide.

Even worse, Stefanik was trying to collapse the distinction between speech and conduct when she said, incredulously, “Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide.” No, conduct does not have to mean committing genocide. It can mean vandalism, shoving, invading people’s personal space, or violating content-neutral rules regulating time, place, and manner of demonstrations.

What Stefanik was demanding was the wholesale ban on rhetoric and ideas that Jews find threatening, regardless of context. A university should protect students from being mobbed or having their classes occupied and disrupted. But should it protect them from an op-ed in the student newspaper calling to globalize the intifada? Or a demonstration in an open space demanding “From the river to the sea”? That would entail wholesale violations of free speech, which, in addition to the moral problem it would create, would likely backfire by making pro-Palestinian activism a kind of forbidden rebellion rather than (as many students currently find it) an irritant.

The presidents’ efforts to deflect every question about genocide of the Jews into a legalistic distinction between speech and conduct may have sounded grating, and Stefanik’s indignant replies may have sounded like moral clarity. But on the whole, they were right to focus on the distinction between speech and conduct, and Stefanik was wrong to sneer at it. A better criticism would be that colleges are failing to protect Jewish students by refusing to enforce rules of conduct. But that is different from, and in some ways the opposite of, the point Stefanik chose to stand on.

A huge proportion of the discourse around Palestinian activism and the campus has consisted of pro- and anti-Israel activists accusing each other of hypocrisy. The anti-Israel activists complain that their critics stop caring about free speech when the speech is pro-Palestinian, while the pro-Israel activists accuse the pro-Palestinian left of abandoning its commitment to safety and tolerance when the victims are Jewish.

Both criticisms have a lot of truth. But focusing monomaniacally on the hypocrisy of the opposing side can conveniently free you up to engage in hypocrisy yourself.

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