The Republicans have found a new battering ram to attack the Democrats: the manifestations of anti-Semitism that, on the occasion of the war in Gaza, are circulating on American campuses and that, in their opinion, are promoted by the "radical left", the one that, according to the Republicans, is in favor of a ceasefire or, even more extreme, It is difficult to question the actions of the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip. A session of the House Education Committee, with the presidents of three major universities (Harvard, Pennsylvania and MIT, the first two of the exclusive Ivy League) on the bench, has ended up becoming a simple rhetorical question on Tuesday: do women rectors condemn anti-Semitism? The three, who began their speeches with an explicit denunciation of the Hamas attack of October 7, gave the only possible response.
The hearing was intended to analyze the cases of anti-Semitism registered on campuses, but above all to ask about the actions or omissions of the centers when responding to these facts, as well as the measures taken to avoid incidents (harassment, threats, denunciation or finger-pointing) and to ensure a safe environment for Jewish and Israeli students; Only in passing were some incidents in which the victims have been Arabs or Muslims. But the Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, turned the session into a lock-in, if not an auto-da-fé, with extemporaneous questions (do you think Israel has a right to exist?, the committee's chairwoman, Republican Virginia Foxx, asked the rectors) and other more tricky ones: how many conservative professors are there in each of the cloisters, South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, also a Republican, asked the question. The principals replied that teachers are not asked about their ideology, to which Wilson replied that there lay precisely the problem: their scarcity.
Claudine Gay, Harvard president; Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania and Sally Kornbluth of MIT were seconded by Pamela Nadell, a professor of history and Jewish studies at American University, who traced the rise of anti-Semitism not only on campuses but across the U.S. to President Donald Trump's term. The Republican's ambivalent response to the racist events in Charlotesville in 2017 was "a turning point" for this speech, the moment when "the long tradition of anti-Semitism in the United States exploded again." Nadell, who is Jewish like the MIT president, recalled the importance of the national strategy against anti-Semitism adopted by the White House in May, "an extraordinary document to be followed by another against Islamophobia," and urged Congress to implement all its recommendations to fight hate, especially on campuses and on social media. Several members of the committee, obviously Republicans, flatly rejected the equating of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
The only international conflict capable of viscerally mobilizing Americans is increasingly pitting the two sides against each other, with threats, cancellations and even physical attacks, such as the shooting suffered over the Thanksgiving weekend by three students of Palestinian origin at Brown University (Vermont), one of whom has become a quadriplegic. For the Republicans, the tension has served them a new casus belli against the Democrats: to the well-known battles of their culture war against everything that sounds woke (critical theories of gender, race, sexual identity, LGTBIQ movement, etc.) they have added the banner of the fight against anti-Semitism.
The street, like the campuses, does not hide its Palestinian sympathies — the flag flies prominently at the headquarters of some Columbia fraternities — nor do some groups of American Jews very active on campuses, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian organization. Harvard is in the spotlight after some thirty student groups published a letter blaming the attack on Israel following the brutal Hamas attack. The principal was hesitant at first to condemn the message, prompting accusations that the school neglected its Jewish students. Something similar happened to Columbia's Egyptian-born chancellor, Minouche Shafik, who preferred to leave room for debate and only belatedly—in the opinion of Jewish students and professors—banned the activities of Jewish Voice for Peace and another related group, Students for Justice in Palestine.
Discrimination at Harvard
In November, the Department of Education opened an investigation into an alleged case of discrimination at Harvard that the rector did not want to comment on because it was ongoing. That's why Gay attracted more interest than her counterparts, even though the intent of the call left no doubt about the suspicions that fell on all of them: "[College] administrators have largely stayed out [of the incidents], allowing horrific rhetoric to fester and grow," Foxx said at the opening of the session. The prologue was served by the projection of several videos of pro-Palestinian protests on campuses, with slogans such as "long live the intifada" or "intifada revolution". "When are they going to have the courage and do what they need to do, which is condemn terrorism and do what they can to protect their students?"
Little was made clear from the interventions of some congressmen — full of assessments to the point of making them incomprehensible, as Magill stressed several times when he was unable to answer due to the lack of specificity of the question — beyond the fact that in general Republicans question the teaching staff and that they confuse academic knowledge with revealed truth.
The continued plea of the rectors for the university as a meeting place, "for the exchange of ideas and freedom of expression", was buried by criticism and the unanimous condemnation of campuses as too liberal places, with insufficient numbers of "conservative" professors as Wilson stressed (another Republican, Glenn Grothman, blamed the rector for the few Harvard professors who supported Trump in 2016 and 2020). "The free exchange of ideas is the foundation of a university," Gay reiterated. "This commitment has guided, and continues to guide, our conduct (...) Anti-Semitism is, first and foremost, a symptom of ignorance, and ignorance cannot have a place in the cradle of knowledge," the Harvard president insisted.
Another Republican on the committee retorted that it was not a matter of knowledge, but of "truth." One of those "alternative truths" invented by the most radical wing of the Republicans landed in the session when Republican Michelle Steel asked the rectors about "undeclared money from Middle Eastern donors" to fund the centers. All three denied the existence of spurious funds.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., raised the temperature of the debate by reproaching Gay for not having taken disciplinary action against students who have chanted in favor of the intifada, because for the politician, of the most extreme faction of the party, they represent a call "to commit genocide against the Jewish people." Like Rector Gay, who for the umpteenth time reiterated the importance of guaranteeing freedom of expression, the Democratic representatives of the committee stressed the difficulty of distinguishing between speech that incites violence and that which is abhorrent or uncomfortable, but legal.
In line with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a prominent scourge of anti-Semites, Democrats did not deviate far from their rivals' line of criticism of universities for allowing events with anti-Semitic speakers, such as recently Roger Waters, the musician of Pink Floyd, at the University of Pennsylvania. "Our approach is not to censor based on content, but to be concerned about things like security and the time, place and manner in which the event would be held," Magill said. "I think canceling that conference would have been very inconsistent with academic freedom and freedom of speech, even though the views of some of the people who came I find very, very objectionable," he added.
The rectors outlined a series of measures to guarantee the physical integrity of students and teachers, such as outreach activities – knowledge as an antidote to hatred – or the reinforcement of mental health care services, but at all times they spoke a language different from that of their interrogators. All three unequivocally condemned Hamas' Oct. 7 atrocity, as well as any manifestations of anti-Semitism on campuses, but their statements were refuted by another rhetorical question from Republicans: "Are you experts on anti-Semitism, yes or no?" The second option, the one formulated by the three, seemed to implicitly invalidate them as responsible for guiding the centers in the midst of this virulent ideological tide.
Harassment, threats, and physical assault
The auto-da-fé to which the Ivy League presidents were subjected on Tuesday is the latest academic disappointment after weeks of setbacks and criticism. Harvard and Pennsylvania have seen several historic donors withdraw their funding for what they see as an insufficient reaction, while many Jewish students on campuses say they feel unsafe, in a context in which a simple slogan such as "no war" is seen as a threat.
Anti-Semitism, however, was already on the rise even before the war. According to the FBI, anti-Semitic hate crimes increased 25% from 2021 to 2022. American Jews make up 2.4% of the population but are victims of 63% of reported religiously motivated hate crimes, according to the federal agency. After two previous hearings, on free speech in general, Tuesday's House session has only contributed to accumulating more reproaches, as Republicans persevere in their attempt to cut funding for the Department of Education and the Office for Civil Rights, which deals precisely with cases of discrimination such as anti-Semitism.
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