“It was really unexpected and it was really scary. I’m still dealing with the side effects from it,” said Layla, a Palestinian-American graduate student, asking to be identified only by her first name out of concern for her safety. She helped identify the alleged perpetrators. On top of the symptoms she is still experiencing, she had to toss out several articles of clothing that retained the stench of the chemical, which multiple students have reportedly identified as ‘skunk’, a chemical irritant often used by the Israeli Defense Forces against Palestinians.
It was a significant escalation in an ideological conflict that has consumed university campuses across the United States since Hamas’ devastating 7 October attack on Israel and its subsequent retaliatory bombardment of Gaza.
But the trouble roiling campuses isn’t confined to a rising display of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. It is entangled with the raging cultural war in the United States, where a larger political onslaught has been mounted against “woke” ideology. Campuses are the main battleground for this clash of ideas, even featuring prominently in the speeches of Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis during the Republican nomination race.
American campuses, once known for liberal free speech and cutting-edge ideas of inclusion and critical thinking, are now on the defensive. The situation got progressively worse after the 6 December congressional hearing on hate speech on university campuses. The heads of the MIT, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania were accused of dodging a question on whether they should discipline students “calling for the genocide of Jews”. The backlash was swift and bi-partisan—Elizabeth Magill stepped down as president of UPenn and Harvard’s Claudine Gay, who was also facing a plagiarism probe, resigned shortly after. There seems to be no coming back from that.
Deep-pocketed Wall Street funders have waded into the debate. Wealthy donors have pulled funding over pro-Palestine protests, or are threatening to do so. The federal Department of Education is investigating anti-semitism and Islamophobia on several campuses. And Republicans in the House of Representatives are weaponising anti-semitism to target Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programmes, threatening to withhold federal funds and launch expansive inquiries into institutions that fail to combat hate against Jewish students.
What’s at stake is free speech, which campuses have worn like a badge of honour—until now. A generation of younger Americans, including anti-Zionist Jews, have spent the last three months protesting against Israel’s military campaign—which has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians and displaced over 85 per cent of the 2.2 million Palestinians living in Gaza. They have also lambasted the United States’ role as Israel’s biggest military backer. But they are being confronted by students, donors, and politicians proclaiming that Israel has a right to defend itself after Hamas killed roughly 1,200 people and took more than 250 hostages on 7 October.
Conservatives tend to be the pro-free speech people, the but they’re the ones on the frontlines shutting down pro-Palestine speech… because they tend to be more Zionist
-Hamza El Boudali, graduate student, Stanford University
University officials have been caught flat footed in the wake of these protests, and are facing accusations of hypocrisy from across the political spectrum. Progressive pro-Palestine students say their voices have been ignored or actively suppressed, violating commitments to free speech. And pro-Israel conservatives and liberals accuse these same institutions of disregarding their commitment to inclusion and allowing anti-semitism to fester by allowing what they perceive as the spread of hate speech by Palestine supporters.
“Looking at the top-tier schools that become the cultural focus of both the American and the world media, they’re in a tough situation,” said Jeffrey Kidder, professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University (NIU). “There are definitely actors that want to make political hay out of this moment.”
Donors have already started withdrawing millions of dollars to universities in planned funding over pro-Palestine protests.
The cost of free speech
After the 19 January chemical attack, Columbia University officials initially reacted by admonishing the pro-Palestine protesters for holding a rally without permission. Later, as details emerged, they announced that the two alleged perpetrators, who students identified as former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers, were banned from campus while the New York Police Department investigated the incident. As of 7 February, no arrests have been made in the case as protests continue to escalate against Columbia’s administration and the NYPD for their failure to act.
“It’s really disappointing. I think it’s negligence,” said Layla, to whom it was another indication of the university’s uneven treatment of pro-Palestine protesters. In November, the administration suspended two student groups—Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace—for holding unauthorised demonstrations. The students responded by reactivating a coalition group, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, which organised the 19 January rally.
If in any way Columbia or Barnard (an affiliated college) posture themselves as being in favour of pro-Palestinian activism, they lose so much. Not just money either.
-Davy Friedell, Columbia student
“Columbia has really made it difficult for students to even speak about Palestine at all,” Layla said, noting that she was served with a disciplinary notice after she spoke at an event about losing family in Gaza. “They are trying to suppress speech as much as they can. They don’t want students discussing this. They don’t want students acknowledging this… We haven’t received any word or any indication that this is also happening to students who support Israel.”
According to her, the university is prioritising the wishes and wants of wealthy donors instead of acting in the interest of the student body. Donors have already started withdrawing millions of dollars to universities in planned funding. For example, Leon Cooperman, a hedge fund billionaire who has donated $25 million to Columbia, threatened to cut off future donations due to pro-Palestine protests on campus. Similarly, Harvard University is facing pressure from high-profile donors like hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, who has donated over $500 million to the Ivy League institution. He reportedly demanded a public statement from the university defending Israel.
— The Harvard Crimson (@thecrimson) January 30, 2024
“If in any way Columbia or Barnard (an affiliated college) posture themselves as being in favour of pro-Palestinian activism, they lose so much. Not just money either. They’re currently building a dual-degree program in Tel Aviv,” said Davy Friedell, another Columbia student who has been active in the protests.
The New York Ivy League’s at times illiberal response to pro-Palestine protests also flies in the face of its previous pronouncements on geopolitical affairs, such as when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Layla said.
“I really do think that Palestine is a turning point for all of this,” she added. “Because I think people can see the hypocrisy when it comes to our government and our elected officials and… university officials too. Look at how much the US and the university supported Ukraine, for example, calling them freedom fighters, but when Palestinians do it, you’re considered a terrorist.”
Despite the intensity of the protests and the media attention, Columbia University President Nemat (Minouche) Shafik has deftly avoided any major fallout so far. She created a task force on anti-semitism, announced new dialogue and listening forums, and a Doxing Resource Group after pro-Palestine protesters had their names and faces displayed on a roving “doxxing” truck hired by a conservative group.
Latest for @ColumbiaSpec: Accuracy in Media’s “doxxing truck” returned to campus on Wednesday, seeking to “expose antisemitic students and faculty.”
— Joseph Zuloaga (@JosephZuloaga) February 1, 2024
But Columbia is nonetheless among seven schools facing federal investigations, launched by the Department of Education in November, over allegations of anti-semitism and Islamophobia. These investigations come with the threat of federal funds being withheld for universities that do not comply.
For some other elite universities, the struggle has been even greater as they try to balance their commitment to the principles of free speech and inclusion while attempting to appease the sentiments of both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel students. (Private universities aren’t bound by constitutional free speech protections but rather their own internal codes of conduct such as those that prohibit bullying or harassment.)
In December, Republicans in the House of Representatives summoned the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania to testify before Congress about combating anti-semitism on campus. The hearing proved disastrous for the three administrators. In attempting to defend their commitment to free speech, they provided clunky legalistic responses to a question about whether calls for Jewish genocide amounted to violations of university codes of conduct. Columbia’s Shafik avoided similar scrutiny by citing a scheduling conflict and skipping the hearing.
“Conservatives tend to be the pro-free speech people, the free speech purists, but they’re the ones on the frontlines shutting down pro-Palestine speech when it comes to this issue because they tend to be more Zionist,” said Hamza El Boudali, a graduate student at Stanford University in California, who has been taking part in pro-Palestine protests on his campus.
At Stanford, pro-Palestinian students participating in the Sit-In to Stop Genocide have occupied the campus’ designated free speech area for more than three months straight, setting a record for the longest sit-in in the university’s history. On the other side of the plaza, pro-Israel students have also set up protest tents.
“It has been a completely peaceful demonstration happening in the centre of campus,” El Boudali said, noting that Stanford has taken a relatively neutral position amid the competing protests. “The university has taken a free speech stance. They said we’re gonna protect speech on both sides and I think they’ve stuck to that better than East Coast schools like Columbia and Harvard.”
However, El Boudali added that there’s still room for improvement on the neutrality front. While Stanford condemned Hamas’ terror attack, it refrained from commenting on Israel’s military actions. “It would be better, of course, if they were on the right side, or at least, if they would not speak on either side if they’re going to really stay out of it,” he said.
Republicans are now blaming the rise of anti-semitism squarely on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programmes.
Anti-semitism, free speech, and DEI
The larger consequence of the campus conflicts over Israel and Palestine is that it has given conservatives additional ammunition in their long-running crusade against institutions of higher education, which they claim are increasingly indoctrinating young Americans in left-leaning ideology and “woke” politics. Republicans are now blaming the rise of anti-semitism squarely on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programmes.
“We don’t seriously think the Republican majority cares about anti-semitism, although everyone should. In fact, they harbour vast numbers of anti-semites in their party and have never acted against that,” said Claire Potter, Professor Emerita of History at the New School for Social Research, a graduate institution in New York City. “It’s hard to believe that the protests at various colleges and universities actually pushed them into action.”
DEI programmes are intended to make universities more inclusive to students from marginalised groups, eliminating barriers to racial equity and promoting culturally responsive education. Academic institutions and corporate America expressed a wave of support for DEI in 2020, following massive nationwide Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota by a White police officer. It seemed to be a moment of reckoning with the country’s history of racial injustice.
However, conservatives view DEI as a tool of progressive identity politics that aims to divide Americans along racial and gender lines while also discriminating against White people—a sentiment that has been echoed by the likes of billionaire Elon Musk and former President Donald Trump.
Last year, around 17 conservative-led states introduced or passed legislation targeting DEI programmes. Among their criticisms was that DEI policies were being used to stifle academic debate and smother free speech, allowing progressive students to shut down conservative views that they deemed offensive.
It’s complicated and all sides are trying to say the other side is hypocritical
– Jeffrey Kidder, author & professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University
“When pro-Palestinian groups want to say certain things that are now being challenged as anti-semitic, they’re very much saying that we have free speech rights. But they weren’t necessarily beating that drum a couple of years ago when conservatives were bringing provocative speakers on the campus,” said Northern Illinois University’s Kidder, who co-authored the 2022 book The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right Are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today with Johns Hopkins University sociology professor Amy Binder. “It was much more, ‘Well, these words are harmful and they shouldn’t be allowed’. It’s complicated and all sides are trying to say the other side is hypocritical.”
After the US Supreme Court ended race-conscious admission programmes, or affirmative action, in June last year, Republicans stepped up their attacks on DEI as a policy of “reverse discrimination”. Now, following the Israel-Hamas conflict, they are arguing that universities implementing DEI principles have allowed the voices of left-wing, pro-Palestine students to thrive, thereby fostering a rise in anti-Semitism. The DEI framework, according to them, portrays the former as the oppressed and the latter as the oppressors.
Fervent opponents of DEI even celebrated the resignation of former Harvard president Gay, who had spearheaded such initiatives at the university. They also claimed that she had obtained her position because of DEI policies since she is Black rather than due to her academic qualifications.
“This is the beginning of the end for DEI in America’s institutions,” Chris Rufo, a conservative activist, wrote on X after Gay’s resignation. “We will expose you. We will outmaneuver you. And we will not stop fighting until we have restored colorblind equality in our great nation.”
Rufo had helped draw attention to the allegations of plagiarism against Gay but openly admitted that the effort to create pressure for her removal was part of a broader strategy to undermine the left’s perceived dominance on college campuses. Hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, a major Harvard donor who played a prominent role in the campaign against Gay, also blamed DEI on campuses as the root of increasing anti-semitism. “DEI is inherently a racist and illegal movement in its implementation even if it purports to work on behalf of the so-called oppressed,” he wrote on X.
Following the resignation of UPenn president Magill in December, investor Ross Stevens withdrew a $100 million donation from the school, apparently over its focus on DEI. Last month, Jon Lindseth, presidential counsellor and the biggest donor to Cornell University, called for the resignation of its president Martha Pollock because of concerns over anti-semitism and informed his alma mater that he would stop making donations unless it cancels DEI initiatives. Similarly, Kenneth Griffin also criticised students as “whiny snowflakes” and said he wouldn’t support Harvard until it moves away from the “wilderness” of the “DEI agenda”.
There is some truth to the contention that DEI programs have failed to embrace Jewish identities. In a survey released on 29 November by the Anti-Defamation League, almost 56 per cent of students reported completing DEI training, but only about 18 per cent among them said they had received training specific to anti-Jewish prejudice.
“There’s a genuine crisis on campus about how administrations have handled student protests,” said Potter from The New School. “And many of the coping mechanisms that colleges have around political conversation are formed around anti-blackness and racism in the United States. They were not created to cope with the very difficult questions about anti-semitism that some of the student protests about the crisis in Israel-Palestine created.”
Conservative takeover brewing?
The Israel-Palestine face-off on campuses has largely been a “disaster” according to Potter, but she says she hopes it might prompt institutions to reflect on where their DEI policies have proved “inadequate” for students.
But House Republicans have telegraphed their intent to use the current crisis as a cudgel against higher education institutions, rather than as an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of DEI programmes.
“I fear that this investigation will uncover very, very damning evidence of this abused position of power in academia,” said Rep Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, in an interview with Politico, referring to the heightened scrutiny of DEI programmes. It was Stefanik’s questioning of the three university presidents at the December congressional hearing that went viral and eventually led to the resignations of Magill and Gay.
New College of Florida, a state institution, exemplifies what may happen when Republicans train their crosshairs on DEI and higher education. Reputed to be a progressive liberal arts school, New College underwent a conservative takeover last year under Governor Ron DeSantis, who appointed six new conservative members to the public university’s Board of Trustees, including Chris Rufo.
Just months later, DeSantis signed a law banning the use of state or federal funds to promote or advocate for DEI programmes in public colleges and universities and another legislation that prohibited a curriculum that teaches identity politics. Last month, the Florida Board of Education followed suit with a new rule that prohibits colleges and universities from using state and federal funds for DEI programmes.
Last October, DeSantis also ordered that college chapters of the national Students for Justice in Palestine be deactivated in Florida campuses, prompting a lawsuit on First Amendment grounds by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Lianna Paton, an undergraduate at New College of Florida and the president of its People of Color Union and a member of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Student Alliance, has witnessed firsthand the college’s conservative shift. She said that professors have departed from the college, limiting academic choices and leading students to transfer to other schools. “Academic freedom has definitely diminished in the sense of the academic systems,” she noted. “We’re collateral damage in certain people’s political presidential races.”
While DeSantis opted out of the presidential race in January, the college is left with lasting changes. “He changed the Board of Trustees, he switched the administration of higher education, and now we have to deal with the repercussions,” Paton said.
New College, of course, is just one example. Paton voiced concern about the future of higher education across Florida as conservative control over institutional governance deepens. “I’m worried that this might be a pattern and this will continue to happen,” she said.
In this fraught moment, many are looking to neutrality as a possible way forward.
As El Boudali hinted, Stanford’s commitment to institutional neutrality and its general refusal to take political positions may have helped it avoid some of the turmoil at other universities.
Days after the Israel-Hamas conflict erupted, Stanford president Richard Saller and provost Jenny Martinez made their position abundantly clear.
“Stanford University is a community of scholars. 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,” they wrote in an 11 October letter to the Stanford community.
[U]niversities do want to diversify along ideological lines, and become more trans-partisan and heterogeneous, [but] it’ll still take a while because there aren’t a lot of conservatives or libertarians or just plain not progressives in the pipeline.
Amy Binder, author & professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University
NIU’s Kidder suggested that this approach could also work for other elite universities and colleges.
“There is some movement to say that universities really shouldn’t be arbitrators of what the right opinion of a world issue should be,” he said. “Instead, universities should go back to basically being a place where people can have open discussions about these issues, but the university itself is neutral.”
However, he noted that elite universities are often incorrectly viewed as representative of higher education across the country. The conflict is unfolding on just a handful of campuses among the thousands nationwide.
The University of Chicago and a few other universities that have taken a similar “principled stand” on freedom of speech and institutional neutrality are not entangled in the conflict over Israel and Palestine, pointed out Wayne Stargardt, president of the MIT Free Speech Alliance, a nonprofit created by MIT alumni. “The question is, is this now a turning point where universities will go back to separating themselves from politics? And the answer is, I’m not particularly optimistic,” he said.
Johns Hopkins University’s Amy Binder said that the current moment could portend significant changes in higher education, including a movement towards less ideologically homogeneous universities. But she cautioned that the effects would only be noticeable over the course of a generation.
“There’s a real supply side problem. To the extent that universities do want to diversify along ideological lines, and become more trans-partisan and heterogeneous, [but] it’ll still take a while because there aren’t a lot of conservatives or libertarians or just plain not progressives in the pipeline,” said Binder, who supports institutional neutrality.
But that may not always be possible when a university’s bottom line is at risk.
“I can’t say whether or not I think [institutional neutrality] is a good thing or a bad thing across the board. In general, it’s probably context-specific like everything else is,” said Columbia student Friedell. “But I will say that Columbia is actually unable to take a neutral stance on this issue [because of its donors].”
(Edited by Asavari Singh)