Speaking out on the Israel-Hamas conflict doesn’t mean taking sides

Universities have long taken diverse stances on difficult current issues, proud of their ability to intervene thoughtfully and respectfully, says Harvey Graff

November 29, 2023
Two deer lock horns, symbolising a two-sided debate
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It is impossible now to open a newspaper, let alone browse social media, without drowning in condemnations of universities. We live at an exceptionally revealing – and testing – moment.

How are we to respond responsibly, in historical, intellectual and ethical terms, to Hamas’ deadly terrorist attack and hostage-taking in Israel? But not only that: also to Israel’s excessive, international law-breaking response, the reflexive equation of any criticism of Israel and/or support for the Palestinian people with antisemitism and the international neglect of anti-Muslim, black, brown and Asian offences in comparison with the wide variety of actions deemed antisemitic.

As a retired professor of comparative social and cultural history and an American Jew who defends Israel’s right to statehood but is critical of indiscriminate Zionism since my teens, my view is that all parties are failing. This ranges from Hamas’ terrorism to Israel’s refusal to consider a “two-state solution”, assaults on Gaza and actions on the West Bank. Human rights and freedom of speech are lost between extremes.

There are long traditions of external actors reaching out with clear expectations of responses from institutions, their leaders and scholars. But what we are seeing today goes far beyond precedent. In the US, university presidents who do not immediately and unequivocally condemn not only Hamas but all supporters of innocent Palestinian lives and critics of the Netanyahu government are condemned and frequently face loud calls to quit or be fired.

It is not accidental that special targets are the new female presidents of Pennsylvania and Harvard, the latter of whom is also black. The former, Liz Magill, made a public statement, “Countering Hate, Together”, three weeks after 7 October, which mentioned non-Jewish groups only in her sixth paragraph (though she did acknowledge that “they have also been targeted with harassment and horrific threats…[that] must be addressed with equal vigor”.)

Meanwhile, Penn’s vice-provost for global initiatives and professor of medical ethics and health policy, Ezekial J. Emmanuel, argued in a New York Times essay that “when a coalition of 34 student organizations at Harvard can say that they ‘hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence’ and students at other elite universities blame Israel alone for the attack Hamas carried out on Israelis on Oct. 7 or even praise the massacre, something is deeply wrong at America’s colleges and universities”.

Faculty, therefore, are to blame. Students “spouting ideological catchphrases have revealed their moral obliviousness and the deficiency of their educations. But the deeper problem is not them. It is what they are being taught – or, more specifically, what they are not being taught.” But Emmanuel does not specify what is being or what should be taught, or which speech should be free.

Meanwhile, Columbia University suspended both Palestinian Students for Peace and Jewish Students for Peace groups in a way whose due process was, at the very least, questionable.

All too rare is the exemplary joint statement of two public policy school deans at Princeton and Columbia respectively, Amaney Jamal and Keren Yarhi-Milo – one of whom comes from a Palestinian family displaced by war, the other from a prior career in Israeli military intelligence.

Without turning ideological and choosing only one side out of a fuller, complicated context, they declare: “Universities should state hard truths and clarify critical issues…We train the leaders of tomorrow to think creatively and boldly. It starts with countering speech that is harmful; modeling civic dialogue, mutual respect and empathy; and showing an ability to listen to one another.”

Clarifying historical and rhetorical misperceptions and misinformation, especially about Palestinians, they continue: “Universities should not retreat into their ivory towers because the discourse has gotten toxic; on the contrary, the discourse will get more toxic if universities pull back…Free speech works only when there is vigorous counterspeech.”

In response to all the controversies about how universities should respond to the Israel-Hamas conflict, the Washington Post ran an editorial on 10 November called, “For universities, the less said about controversial issues, the better”. Its very premise is based on a misreading of the history of universities, misconceptions about their repeatedly declared “missions” and “responsibilities”, and a misunderstanding of the University of Chicago’s conveniently rediscovered Kalven Report of 1967.

That conservative report’s soft call for “neutrality” in no way obstructs “speaking truth to power” on all sides. Contrary to the fictions of “ivory towers”, colleges and universities have long taken diverse stances on difficult current issues and prided themselves on their ability to referee and arbitrate, intervening thoughtfully, carefully and respectfully.

Speaking out on “controversial issues” does not mean taking only one side or one over others, plural. That is among the grossest confusions of the present moment. Defending the lives of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians who are not members of Hamas is neither anti-Israeli as a people nor antisemitic. These are not difficult distinctions. Criticism of Netanyahu – who more than 80 per cent of Israelis oppose – is in no way support for Hamas terrorism or antisemitic either.

Finally, in our endless contradictory noise of the past seven weeks, on and off campuses, we forget centuries of struggle for freedom of speech – including the stark fact that reasoned criticism is not “hate speech”.

If we genuinely care about higher education traditions and respect for human lives, let courage and clarity reign.

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history, inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and academy professor at Ohio State University. He is writing Reconstructing the ‘Uni-versity’ from the Ashes of the ‘Multi- and Mega-versity’.

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