In Gaza protests, enemies of US higher education find new weapon

Just as universities enter election-year battle over their worth, cries of antisemitism – sincere or otherwise – play into their historic partisan vulnerabilities

April 30, 2024
Montage that shows the destruction in Gaza; Student demonstrators occupy the West Lawn of Columbia University; Students and pro-Palestinian activists face police as they gather outside of Columbia University; torn US flag
Source: Getty Images montage

US Republicans have long eyed higher education for a much bigger role in their strategy of emotional and cultural appeals to voters otherwise wary of their political priorities. With student uprisings sweeping the country, they might now have that opening – at a potentially high cost to academia.

More than a week of round-the-clock sit-in protests at dozens of US colleges and universities produced close to 1,000 arrests, largely ordered by campus presidents accepting the demands of congressional Republicans for crackdowns on expressions of pro-Palestinian sentiment.

The politicians have argued that they are responding to an alarming rise in antisemitic expression, and the institutions contend they are setting reasonable limits on community disruptions.

“Nobody should ever be denied the right to protest or to counter-protest,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative-leaning network of about 23,000 trustees at 1,500 public and private colleges and universities that cheers the Republican effort. “But an encampment is an intrusion on to the university” that deserves reasonable limits, especially given the sensitivities of Jewish students, Dr Poliakoff said in summarising the perspective that many campus leaders have decided they should embrace.

For many other experts, meanwhile, the basic logic of the lawmakers and the institutions doesn’t add up. Expressions of antisemitic sentiment in the US have undoubtedly been on an upswing since the October surge in violence between Israelis and Palestinians. But antisemitic voices have long found receptivity among leading US conservatives, while high levels of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence around US campuses and beyond have largely escaped sustained high-level attention – and continue to do so.

And while US university leaders have a genuine interest in keeping their operations open, many over past weeks have been inviting police to arrest their students while making few if any assertions that the protests have involved actual violence or meaningful disruptions to their campuses. Also, while some student protests in past eras have produced strict law enforcement responses, peaceful overnight sit-in demonstrations have routinely been tolerated – albeit begrudgingly and with moments of pushback – on topics such as wars and civil rights, sometimes even producing negotiated outcomes.

At least one institution is doing that now. Portland State University said that it encouraged student activism and would stop taking gifts or grants from Boeing until it could address concerns about the company’s work with Israel’s military. “The passion with which these demands are being repeatedly expressed by some in our community motivates me, as a scholar of academic ethics and a university leader responsible for the well-being of our campus constituents, to listen and ask additional questions,” Portland State’s president, Ann Cudd, said in announcing the decision.

That, however, stands largely as an exception among the responses around the country. The quick and widespread leap to law enforcement tactics followed almost immediately behind a pair of congressional hearings where Republicans repeatedly accused the new female presidents at four leading universities of being insensitive to the fears of Jewish students who encounter campus demonstrations against Israel’s killing of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians.

After the first hearing, in December, the heads of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania resigned, abandoned by their trustees and other wealthy donors who largely aligned with the Republican demands. At the second Capitol Hill hearing, earlier this month, Columbia University’s president, Baroness Shafik, largely accepted the lawmakers’ demands that she aggressively limit pro-Palestinian protests and punish those involved in them.

The Columbia president then called in New York City police to begin arresting more than 100 demonstrators. Yet almost immediately the protesters resumed their overnight encampments on Columbia’s main lawn, inspiring copycat versions around the country and earning the Columbia president demands for her resignation from both sides.

The situation appeared to be working out masterfully for Republicans on several levels, education and political experts said, given the party’s historic alignment with US religious conservatives who prefer that Israelis rather than Arabs maintain control of Christianity’s holy lands, and who regularly describe themselves as champions of law-and-order social perspectives.

In a close election year, it had basically become a modernised nationwide version of the demonise-the-students strategy pursued so successfully in the 1960s by Ronald Reagan, the future US president just then beginning his career as governor of California, said Jack Schneider, professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As University of California students protested the Vietnam War, Mr Reagan described the University of California, Berkeley as beholden to counterculture activists, prompting the firing of the California system’s president, Clark Kerr, and the defunding of public higher education in California and beyond.

“It was politically brilliant, even if it was disastrous for California students,” Professor Schneider said. “I was just sort of surprised that it has taken so long for the Republican Party to nationalise that approach, but that’s definitely what we’re seeing here.”

Other advantages Republicans were realising from the strategy, said another expert, Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, included driving Jewish American voters from their traditional progressive allies. “In general, Jews in America vote 70 per cent to 75 per cent Democratic,” Professor Sabato said. “In a close election such as 2024, every vote matters.”

Examples of that split can be seen in students such as Avi Balsam, a sophomore computer science and maths major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr Balsam said he knew full well that Palestinians as well as Jews were native to the land that now comprises the state of Israel, that Palestinian civilians were being killed in large numbers by the Israeli military, that antisemitism was just one among many flavours of discrimination fouling US society and US college campuses, and that Republican lawmakers weren’t necessarily seeking constructive solutions by heavily politicising the issue.

And yet Mr Balsam also acknowledged that Jewish identity left him and other students highly sensitive to the specific terms and the emotions that some protesting students were using to express their grief over the killings of so many Palestinians. “When you’re speaking about these things,” he insisted, “you have to be very careful what language you use and who you’re triggering, who you’re upsetting.

“If there are Israelis on your campus who have lost family members in the Second Intifada [between 2000 and 2005], maybe don’t call for intifada on our campus. And if there are people on your campus who have Jewish relatives living in Israel, maybe don’t say, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine is Arab’, which implies that your family has no place to go, they should be expelled, they should be killed.”

In the end, therefore, as much as Mr Balsam opposed Republicans on most political issues, he welcomed their alliance over Israel.

Leading Democrats have broached the topic carefully. As the House education committee hosted its hearings with the university presidents, the panel’s leading Democrat, Bobby Scott, repeatedly acknowledged the hurt felt by Jewish students while pleading for equal consideration of Arab and Muslim students. And two of the committee’s Democratic members – both with Jewish backgrounds – joined their Republican colleagues in sharply challenging campus tolerance of pro-Palestinian student advocacy.

President Joe Biden, while avoiding any public advice on how universities should handle student protests, has also chosen to single out comments by individual Columbia students that he regards as antisemitic, saying through his media representatives that they should “serve as a wake-up call” for the attitudes among some activists.

US higher education’s national leaders also have trodden carefully. The main US higher education lobby group, the American Council on Education, has largely refrained from criticising either its own members – the nation’s university presidents – or the lawmakers they cultivate for financial and policy support.

“What’s happening on campuses involves really complicated tensions between free speech and safeguarding student safety,” the ACE’s president, Ted Mitchell, said. “It’s certainly not always easy, but college administrators need to be very clear about what their policies are and be consistent about how they enforce those policies.”

The convergence of Republican political interests with the protests over renewed Middle East violence, experts said, dealt US higher education a tough political hand at a time when it was already struggling with fundamental and widespread public concerns about its overall cost and value.

Republicans aligned with Donald Trump might deserve to have questions asked about their sincerity in battling antisemitism, said Christopher Brown, professor of history at Columbia University. But regardless of any actual hypocrisies, Professor Brown said, “the main issue for me is the threat they pose to what is one of the greatest assets this nation has – which is its massive, broad, diverse, varied institutions of higher education across the country”.

And on that measure, he said, despite all the political and emotional baggage of Israeli politics in the US, Columbia’s president had a real chance during her congressional hearing, and immediately afterwards, to have pushed things in a markedly different direction for the entire country. That’s because the executive committee of Columbia’s University Senate unanimously told the president and her team, as she was contemplating using police against the student protesters, “that is a really bad idea”, Professor Brown said. “And they went and did it anyway.

“For higher education, generally, it was a disastrous mistake,” Professor Brown said. “And I think it was a fully predictable outcome – that rather than quieting things down, it would simply inflame them.”

The Columbia leadership has tried since then to work much harder at negotiating with the students, he said. But in the meantime, the spark has been lit well beyond Columbia. Each day since the congressional hearing with the Columbia president and the accompanying arrests, the nation watched the situation spiral, with classes moved online, commencement ceremonies cancelled and students on both sides saying they don’t feel safe and don’t feel heard.

“They took a very difficult, bad situation and made it so much worse,” Professor Brown said. “All of the campus protests that have emerged have arisen after the police were called in.”

Perhaps most dangerously, Professor Schneider said, the raft of negative public attention had created a big new opportunity for Republicans to expand their ongoing work to withdraw public funding for education.

That pursuit had been hitting roadblocks at the school level in the US, he said, as conservatives showed ideological interest in the ideals of privatisation but generally recognised – especially in the small rural communities where Republicans tend to thrive – that their children were well served by local public schools.

Higher education, however, seemed much more vulnerable to a sophisticated new round of attack on its already weakened levels of public investment, Professor Schneider said, because universities often did not have the same level of close emotional attachment to their local communities. “You don’t have a ton of folks in the middle of Kansas whose kids are currently enrolled at Harvard,” he said. “So that's an easier potshot to take.”

Given that dynamic, Professor Schneider said, campus leaders should expect the fundamental conflict to persist – if not with students, then with lawmakers. “It’s not going to pass any time soon,” he said, “because the right has figured out that this is good for business.”


Print headline: Enemies of higher education in US find new weapon in Gaza

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