Opinion Submission: Supporters of campus repression exploit the Israel/Palestine situation

| Senior Lecturer, Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design; Lecturer, American Culture Studies

Last week, Columbia University suspended both the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) organizations for violations of campus policies. This followed Brandeis University’s suspension of its own SJP chapter. I would console these suspended student groups by confirming that no action worth leading should not rankle the establishment. These student groups will not be silent, because they will be vocal outside of the official channels. However, the official suppression of these groups seems to be part of a disturbing trend that fundamentally has nothing to do with Israel or Palestine. 

Recently, Israeli Consul Yuval Donio-Gideon demanded the cancellation of a course at Bard College by appealing directly to Bard College President Leon Botstein. The course is called “Apartheid in Israel-Palestine,” and is taught by Nathan Thrall, a Jewish scholar who fears that Israel is violating the definition of “apartheid” found in international law. Thrall offers the course as an effort to study the issue, not to instill a particular conclusion. Nonetheless, beyond the Israeli Consul, the course caught the ire of Bard College trustee and major donor Robert Epstein, who then resigned as a trustee. 

This could all be some quaint academic scuffle if it were not for the fact that the Ulster County Jewish Federation president — representing Bard College’s county in New York — accused Nathan Thrall of being manipulated by funding from George Soros. Soros donated to an organization that has supported Thrall’s research, but not the course itself.

Of course, George Soros is a contemporary trope of antisemitic politics. Soros supposedly exerts metaphysical power over members of Congress, prosecutors, and professors. He is a Jewish bogeyman that animates the far right and is a cudgel against efforts toward racial and class justice in this country. Supporters of former president Donald Trump often dog whistle Soros’ name when referencing the prosecutors who have brought charges against him. It is bizarre that any Jewish group would join in this far right smear tactic.

Unfortunately, there seems to be an increasing embrace of right-wing narratives among people who otherwise would refute them. Wartime often opens a space for extremism to become normalized. For instance, through an Instagram story, Amy Schumer shared an article from the right-wing Campus Reform that alleged the influence of Arab-state university funding over student activists for Palestine. The article that Schumer posted accused SJP chapters at Cornell of acting upon Qatari funding and those at American University of acting upon Saudi Arabian funding. Of course, the Arab state funding went to various funds at universities and came through subsidiaries. It never flowed directly into student group coffers. The same universities simultaneously received funding from the usual mix of corporate, individual and foundation dollars. Campus Reform could illuminate the overall influence of donations on academic life, but instead it has latched onto the war to agitate against student expression.

The insinuation that students are puppets of shadowy figures and governments, however, is an insult toward students everywhere. Students are organizing according to their own understanding and free will, not through coercion. The attacks on student groups, on the other hand, demonstrate that a lot of powerful actors want students in fact to cower to the demands of political might and donor power. These efforts did not begin on Oct. 7, but have been active for a long time. Campus Reform has been agitating against critical thinking at universities for years, with the scandal du jour changing from critical race theory to gender-neutral sports to Israel depending on what issue is most useful for challenging student freedom to think, perceive and organize. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, an overt opponent of academic freedom, earlier this year worked to secure rules suppressing critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at his state’s public institutions, alongside steps dismantling tenure of faculty. Since Oct. 7, DeSantis has used a state anti-terrorism law against Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida. Just this week, Florida started to walk back its decision, but are demanding groups endorse nonviolence to prevent further action. Of course, DeSantis already used his power to install leaders at Florida’s New College that have moved to eliminate the gender studies department. The DeSantis agenda relies on demonizing the humanities in particular and professors generally.

We all should be wary of efforts to use legitimate grief and fear over the war to advance an old agenda that aims at the freedom that makes academic life so valuable. Supporters of Israel need to reject their newfound friends whose real mission is to make college students and faculty servile to authoritarian regimes and nationalist sentiment. There are many good debates to be had among students and faculty with free speech upheld for all. In the face of current events, those debates are necessary for the prospective peace of humanity. Respectful dialogue is happening, and thankfully the powerful forces trying to use financial intimidation and political power to influence campus discourse are not stopping it. 

The pressure of the 21st century may well be against democracy and toward simplification of political issues, but most people at universities in the US still want to engage each other. We are fortunate at Washington University in St. Louis that we have not faced the censorship of debate other institutions are facing. May we keep it that way, and love each other. Part of the key is to reject the advances from fast friends whose real goals would take everyone’s liberties away, regardless of their perspective.

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