Campus politics in America irrevocably changed this week when student groups that champion the noble goal of justice for Palestinians endorsed the evil means of war crimes in pursuit of it.
Last Saturday, hundreds of gun-toting men stormed into Israel by land, air, and sea with the express purpose of killing as many Jews as possible. They succeeded in perpetrating a pogrom reminiscent of the Cossacks and the Nazis. They murdered civilians in their homes as their families watched. They massacred young people at a music festival. They kidnapped children.
Across America, millions of people with wildly diverse opinions on the longstanding conflict between Israel and Palestine denounced those atrocities, because it is always wrong to deliberately target and slaughter civilians and it is always wrong to abduct, let alone kill, children.
I naively believed that those were near-consensus beliefs on college campuses––that whether one sided with Israelis or Palestinians in the long and heartrending conflict between them, almost everyone could agree that certain actions were evil regardless of who took them. Then this week, on dozens of campuses, student groups reacted to the attacks by attempting to absolve the murderers and child abductors of all responsibility.
“We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence,” a letter signed by multiple student organizations at Harvard stated. (Several of the named groups have since withdrawn their endorsement.)
At the University of Virginia, the chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine declared that it “unequivocally supports Palestinian liberation and the right of colonized people everywhere to resist the occupation of their land by whatever means they deem necessary.” How depraved a response to Hamas war criminals who just demonstrated that they deem murder of civilians, including children, necessary.
George Washington University’s Students for Justice in Palestine joined the swell of extremists who reject the Geneva Conventions on noncombatants. “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” the group stated. “It is not an abstract theory to be discussed and debated in classrooms and papers. It is a tangible, material event in which the colonized rise up against the colonizer … We reject the distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘militant.’ We reject the distinction between ‘settler’ and ‘soldier.’ Every Palestinian is a civilian even if they hold arms. A settler is an aggressor, a soldier, and an occupier even if they are lounging on our occupied beaches.”
At a small liberal arts school near Philadelphia, the group Swarthmore Students for Justice in Palestine said, “We call on all Swarthmore community members to unite in solidarity with the plight of the oppressed and confront the dishonest, racist tropes that view resistance as barbaric and uncivilized only when it is exerted by indigenous people.” (Do they not know that most people regard murdering civilians and kidnapping kids as barbaric and uncivilized regardless of who the perpetrators are?)
I understand various reasons why advocates for the Palestinian cause might keep quiet––as many supporters of Israel have done after abuses of Palestinians. I understand why, thinking of loved ones in Gaza, they might skip right to anticipating and preemptively denouncing retaliatory attacks, hoping to avert the deaths of still more innocent people. I understand why some observers feel there is a double standard in the West that accords less attention to the killings of Muslim innocents. I saw that firsthand when condemned America’s drone war and argued for a moratorium, to little avail. When Senator Lindsey Graham says of Gaza, a place dense with civilian children, “Level the place,” I’m appalled.
What I cannot understand is endorsing, validating, or standing in solidarity with war crimes. That so many student organizations did so is stunning. It commits them to positions anathema not only to the conservatives they often tangle with but to left-leaning liberals and progressives, many of whom now perceive a frightening difference in core values that too many had scarcely pondered before.
The issue isn’t support for Palestinians, who deserve better advocates than pro-pogrom zealots. As Eric Levitz put it in New York magazine:
Hamas’s project is antithetical to the left’s foundational values of secularism, universalism, and egalitarianism. And it is also completely at odds with the progressive vision for Palestinian liberation. Western radicals’ predominant prescription for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is a “one-state solution,” in which Israelis and Palestinians all enjoy democratic equality in a single binational state. Hamas’s atrocities have not advanced this ideal but set it back, lending credence to those who insist a one-state solution is a recipe for ceaseless civil war. This weekend was not a triumph for the left’s project in Palestine but a disaster.
Israel is sometimes accused of targeting civilians or taking too little care to spare innocent lives. Whether that is true of any given incident is subject to debate, but the wrongness of targeting civilians for death or kidnapping is not. Partisans of Israel who endorse those actions should lose moral standing. And Israeli President Isaac Herzog and others are wrong to assign collective responsibility to Palestinians, as if collective punishment is ever just.
Indeed, the dubious morality of collective punishment helps to explain why apologies for Hamas’s atrocities are a political disaster for the broad coalition of left-leaning activist organizations who have long shaped how social justice is understood on campus. Up until this point, the left’s most radical elements exerted influence disproportionate to their numbers because of the belief among their progressive allies that however zealous or utopian its members might be, their hearts were in the right place and their influence was bending the arc of history toward justice. So long as that seemed true, relative solidarity could prevail in spite of disagreements.
But one cannot cheer what Hamas did and retain moral high ground; nor can one declare solidarity with campaigns of civilian slaughter and remain in solidarity with liberal humanists, progressive wonks, or adherents of international human rights or the beloved community.
Though many on the left, including many critics of Israel, bear no responsibility for its pro-Hamas faction, newly aware observers cannot help but wonder what flawed ideas informed the violence-endorsing statements. So this episode will rightly cause some who deferred to leftists on social justice to regard their views with less deference and more skepticism. Virtue signaling on campus will change as radical views are seen as less virtuous. New scrutiny will be applied to concepts like “decolonization.” Academics who oppose othering and dehumanization should be newly attentive to the ways colonizer and oppressor can be misused to justify atrocities.
This event will also scramble ongoing debates on free speech, cancel culture, and the relationship between college administrators and the events they are pressured to comment on. Even the most deplorable and hateful statements that I’ve seen from student organizations are entitled to First Amendment free-speech protections. Free expression, even of abhorrent views, is worth defending.. Better that we know which students stand in solidarity with whatever Hamas deems necessary, so that their views can be challenged and defeated. So I will defend their free-speech rights, as I have defended BDS advocates in the past.
But how will the leftists who long claimed that hate speech is not free speech react? What will advocates of “safe spaces” tell students who feel like this young woman at the University of Washington, who cried, amid a crowd of students waving Palestinian flags, “How is this allowed? They want our people dead! They want us killed! How is this allowed? How are you allowing this?”The therapeutic university cannot survive these tensions.
The contours of cancel culture are changing as people appalled by the statements put out by student organizations try to identify their members, publish their names, and deny them future jobs. At Harvard, a truck drove around publicly shaming students by displaying their names and faces.
My own skepticism of cancel culture is unchanged. These “cancellation” or “accountability” efforts will unfold as arbitrarily and capriciously as ever, with rushes to judgment and a dearth of due process and guilt by association; principled critics of cancel culture’s injustices and unintended consequences will continue to object. But with changes in the ideologies most subject to cancel culture’s excesses and attendant chilling effects, I believe we can expect to see some on the left and the right swap positions on the subject while deflecting charges of hypocrisy.
Indeed, that is already happening.
“Shaming people for saying things others disapprove of has been something I’ve opposed for a long time,” the populist-right commentator Kurt Schlichter said on Twitter. “But I was overruled. And I was overruled by the kind of people who, by and large, make up Harvard law school. They decided they wanted a different rule. Well, now they’ve got it. I’m not sure what I’m expected to do here. But I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to ensure that they feel the full consequences of their bad decisions in the hopes that they decide we’re going to go back to the old rule.” It won’t take many people behaving that way to alter the incentives students perceive.
At the conservative outlet The Dispatch, Nick Catoggio argued that, for the most part, students at schools like Swarthmore, UVA, NYU Law, and Harvard “get to be radically chic during their stay in the university playpen,” and future employers agree not to hold it against them if they leave it behind when they graduate. “So imagine the surprise of the students who signed this week’s statements upon finding out that their bargain has an outer moral bound after all and that overt enthusiasm for war crimes crosses it,” he wrote. “And imagine their outright shock upon realizing that ‘cancellation’ isn’t a punishment American businesses reserve exclusively for right-wing thought criminals. Big Law, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and the media industry may lean left on cultural issues, it turns out, but beheading infants is where they’re apt to get squeamish.”
I am not sure if Catoggio’s narrative is accurate, but I am confident that many people will perceive employers as newly willing to punish leftist excesses and alter their behavior accordingly. For example, I suspect that in the future, heads of student organizations and individual students alike will think much more carefully before signing group political statements in solidarity. According to J. Sellers Hill and Nia L. Orakwue at The Harvard Crimson, “Amid continued national backlash, multiple Harvard student groups have withdrawn their signatures from a controversial statement calling Israel ‘entirely responsible’ for the ongoing violence, and group members have faced doxxing attacks.”
And what of college administrators who have struggled with making statements about this controversy? In 1967, another era of polarizing ideological conflict, the University of Chicago published an influential report on the university’s role in political and social action. “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic,” the Kalven Report stated.
The report went on to assert that the university “is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.”
Had universities kept to that model, today’s administrators wouldn’t have to do or say much of anything about a small faction of students declaring their solidarity with violent extremists. Instead, these institutions spent years issuing all manner of official statements on controversial events while creating huge administrations to micromanage student life. Diversity-equity-and-inclusion bureaucracies with expensive staffs purport to ensure that all students on campus feel a psychological sense of safety and belonging. Many monitor even alleged “microaggressions.”
Endorsing violence against Israeli civilians is more of a “macroaggression” against a national-origin group. Many Jewish students understandably feel unsafe and unwelcome when college classmates affirm solidarity with the anti-Semitic attackers rather than the Jewish victims.
Hence the pressure on campus leaders to say something now. Administrators at elite colleges do not want to be seen as anomalously insensitive toward Jews, let alone in silent agreement with the hard-left students acting as apologists for murder and kidnapping. At the same time, denouncing violent extremism on the right, which has no meaningful representation on most faculties, is easier than denouncing violent extremism on the left. I suspect that the Kalven Report approach will make a comeback. Just this week, Stanford and Northwestern University administrators have both put out statements about how, going forward, they’re going to refrain from putting out so many statements.
If I’m right, many will understandably perceive a double standard and find it galling. For my part, however, I think Stanford’s statement is broadly correct in many of its particulars, including these:
We believe it is important that the university, as an institution, generally refrain from taking institutional positions on complex political or global matters that extend beyond our immediate purview, which is the operations of the university itself. Maintaining university neutrality allows for our individual scholars to explore them freely. In recent years, many universities have gotten into the habit of issuing frequent statements about news events. This creates a number of difficulties. The decision to take a position about one event or issue yields implications for silence with regard to other issues; given that different subsets of a campus community may be more or less affected by particular issues, this inconsistency is felt acutely. It can enmesh universities in politics and create a sense of institutional orthodoxy that chills academic freedom.
Looking back on the Manson killings, Joan Didion wrote, “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.” A few people I know believe last Saturday’s attack on Israel and the responses from leftist student groups mark the end of the “Great Awokening.”
Although it is too early to evaluate the accuracy of that hypothesis, campus politics have certainly transformed in recent days. Now we are left wondering whether what comes next is better or worse than what preceded it.