As the ongoing Israel-Hamas war triggers mounting violence on American campuses, Jewish and Muslim students feel increasingly unwelcome. Schools struggle to balance the principle of free speech with a moral obligation and pressure to condemn hate speech. There seems to be no way for people or institutions, especially schools, to address the situation without attracting criticism.
Seemingly straightforward statements are interpreted into double-edged swords. The political correctness required to satisfy all groups is nearly impossible to find. People with polarized views hostilely refuse to hear different perspectives, and civil discourse has become impossible.
The Israel-Hamas war began on October 7, 2023. The terrorist group Hamas, in control of the Gaza Strip, launched a land, sea and air assault on Israel. They killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. The next day, Israel declared war. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began conducting air strikes and ground attacks upon Gaza, killing tens of thousands.
The conflict has reignited decades of hostility between the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas. Antisemitism and Islamophobia have intensified in the US as Americans have become increasingly engaged in debates about the war. Many have used the violence of Hamas to justify Islamophobia, while others have used Israel’s violent counterattack to justify antisemitism.
As ethnically charged brutality continues in the Middle East, Jews and Muslims in the US have divided into distinct blocs that heighten ethnic and religious division. These groups are often blinded to each other’s suffering and view any support of the other group, regardless of humanitarian intention, as inherently hostile towards their group. This creates a gap between intention and impact; in this discourse, their advocacy serves little to help their co-religionists abroad and instead inflames feelings at home. The two factions are too angry to recognize their shared outrage at inhumanity, and they are too polarized to acknowledge the duality of Israel and Palestine as both perpetrators and victims.
Strife over the war has permeated schools
The controversy has fostered fervor in American colleges and schools. The US Department of Education has launched multiple investigations into US colleges and schools where students have reported instances of antisemitism and Islamophobia.
At elite college Harvard University, numerous student coalitions joined with the Palestine Solidarity Committee to issue a statement on the conflict. They declared the Israeli regime “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Although the statement was not explicitly directed against Jews or Israelis as an ethnic group, they received it as such. Jewish students interpreted the declaration as pro-Hamas, although the students responsible for the statement denied any support for the terrorist organization. Members of the pro-Palestinian student groups experienced a doxxing campaign as backlash to the statement. These pro-Palestinian students stated they were “flooded with racist hate speech and death threats.”
Instead of fostering open discussion to rectify the hostile discourse, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students continued to resort to rigid rhetoric. On December 8, an anonymous group flew a plane towing a Palestinian flag and a banner proclaiming “Harvard hates Jews” over Harvard and its vicinity. The intent of the message was unclear. Was it condemning Harvard’s attitude toward its Jewish students? Or was it endorsing the hatred of Jews? No matter the interpretation, the vague message exacerbated agitation on campus. Once again, people used inflammatory methods instead of rational articulation to send a message.
Many Jewish and Muslim families are now reevaluating the schools to which their children will apply. Early applications for Harvard University declined 17% this year. Although the decline is not directly linked to antisemitic and Islamophobic hostility, the timing provides circumstantial evidence. Jewish students report feeling unsafe, alienated and afraid at Harvard.
Antisemitism is rising in high schools as well as colleges, creating unwelcoming environments that are harmful to students’ well-being. A high school sophomore attending an elite private school in New York City confided in me that seeing “the blatant antisemitism and justifications that emerged from these attacks is absolutely horrifying and heartbreaking to me.”
At Columbia University in New York, one student beat a 24-year-old Israeli student with a stick. The victim approached his peer, who was ripping down flyers with names of Israelis taken hostage by Hamas. The student responded violently, shouting obscenities and leaving the victim with a broken finger. In a separate instance, a Columbia administrator declared in an interview with the school’s radio station his hopes that “every one of these people die,” about pro-Palestinian protestors on campus.
These schools pride themselves on their liberalism and inclusivity. However, current antagonistic discussions lead to competitive attitudes of whether Palestinians or Israelis have it worse. The way college leaders handle the continuing conflict will impact which schools families feel comfortable having their kids attend.
Education officials face backlash for addressing the issue
On December 5, 2023, Harvard’s president Claudine Gay gave testimony to a Congressional hearing about antisemitism on college campuses. She intended to soothe the controversy surrounding Harvard, but her words intensified backlash against herself and the university.
Representative Elise M. Stefanik pressed Gay down a line of questioning. Stefanik laid down a rhetorical trap, asking whether calls for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s code of conduct. Gay struggled to respond as she grappled with the difference between using the phrase “globalize the intifada” to support Palestinian freedom as opposed to using it as a call for the genocide of Jews.
Additionally, Gay wrestled with the issue of the right to free speech. She stated: “We [Harvard] embrace a commitment to free expression even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful — it’s when that speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies against bullying, harassment, intimidation …” If Gay responded that language like “globalize the intifada” was against the code of conduct — even if not expressly genocidal — she would be prohibiting free speech on campus. There is a fine line between controversial free speech and outright threatening free speech. Gay was unable to clarify the difference during this narrow line of questioning. In an attempt to explicate this distinction, Gay stated that “it depends on the context.”
Gay could not, in truth, give a straightforward moral answer because the application of Harvard’s code of conduct depends on the context of specific speech or actions. Gay released a post-hearing statement: “There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students … Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community … have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”
The presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also spoke in front of Congress. They appeared to similarly evade the question of whether students who called for the genocide of Jews should be punished. 74 members of Congress signed a letter urging for the removal of all three presidents. The president of UPenn, Elizabeth Magill, resigned on December 9. Gay, after backlash over her handling of antisemitism led to investigation of her academic integrity, resigned on January 2, 2024. She had served less than six months as Harvard’s first black president. Many argue the scrutiny that led to her resignation is a symbol of partisan tensions and a discriminatory level of probing.
Does pressure to remain politically correct make silence a better option?
As colleges struggle to address the conflict in ways that satisfy all parties, some have begun to wonder whether silence is a better option. After being criticized intensely by students and donors alike over its public statements, Harvard has started to consider a neutrality policy. American public schools, as well as colleges, have contended with the issue of how — and whether — to engage with the war between Israel and Hamas.
Colleges are under immense pressure from donors to stamp out antisemitism. Donors are overwhelmingly older Americans, who tend to have more favorable attitudes towards Israel than younger people do. These donors are shocked by the failure of colleges to take unequivocal stances about the murder of Israelis on October 7. Consequently, they have begun to withdraw their funds from colleges. Colleges face a paradox of retaining donor support while upholding their valued principle of free speech and preventing overall controversy. The attempt to balance appeasing donors and the happiness of students is a tricky task, especially with the looming standard of political correctness.
Politically correct language is used to appease members of particular societal groups. In this case, institutions must avoid offending both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian individuals. They will provoke anger if they make a statement that is not wholly politically correct. Making a wholly politically correct statement is nearly impossible, as supporting Palestinians is taken as antisemitic and supporting Israelis is taken as Islamophobic. Attempting to support both Palestinian and Israeli citizens, likewise, is received as spineless and conciliatory. Vague statements merely condemning “terrorism” simply trigger more frustration. Silence now seems like the only acceptable option.
Yet silence, incessant division and relentless anger will never result in anything productive. The whole principle of successful democratic politics requires working together with multiple perspectives to devise a course of action. Americans should be able to recognize common human rights violations and their shared goal of peace instead of amplifying violence and tensions.
People and politicians must meet in the middle to have a sensible dialogue instead of wielding the controversy for their own purposes — whether those purposes be antisemitism, Islamophobia, or, in the case of American politics, right-wing politicians attempting to discredit opponents such as Claudine Gay. There is no such thing as a side that is so right that the other side has nothing to say worth hearing. The public must open their minds and listen to the other side. Democracy and discourse depend on it.
[Cheyenne Torres edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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