Press "Enter" to skip to content

Will Backlash Over Pro-Palestine Protests Spark Change on College Campuses?

Immediately after Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel on October 7, 2023—starting a regional war that continues today—college campuses across the US erupted in protest. Massive demonstrations were held at Columbia, UCLA, American University, and many other colleges. Most were in support of Palestine, calling for the US to stop giving aid to Israel and for Israel to stop alleged human rights abuses. At Harvard, a coalition of 34 student organizations put out a letter holding Israel “entirely responsible for all enfolding violence.” College students littered their Instagram stories with posts spreading awareness and targeting corporations to boycott. This all seemed like a regular occurrence for colleges that have been bastions of left-wing activism for decades. Due to the unique place that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict holds in American politics, however, the issue snowballed into something much larger and more volatile.

The student protestors have remained passionate about their cause. They view the Israeli government as an oppressive, colonial state that has been violating the human rights of Palestinians. Arman Azedi, a protestor and UC Irvine student, said “Palestinians for decades have been dealing with all sorts of human rights abuses on behalf of the Israeli government. They’ve been subjected to bombings that have wiped out thousands of their civilians. It’s a human rights issue for me.”

The plight of the Palestinians in the more-than-70-year conflict has evoked intense emotions among students, including sympathy for Palestine and anger at the state of Israel. “I am still so, so far removed from what the people there are experiencing. Death, destruction, no water, no electricity, no medicine – the basic necessities that we take for granted every day,” said an anonymous UCLA student. “I feel guilty going to school walking around because there are so many people dying every day.”

A few disturbing incidents of overtly antisemitic threats and graffiti exacerbated this already-charged issue. At Cornell, a student was arrested for posting violent threats against the school’s Jewish students. At the University of Pennsylvania, the building next door to a Jewish fraternity was vandalized with antisemitic graffiti. These demonstrations of hate were highly publicized in the media and, combined with the blurry and heavily contested line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, led to a flurry of backlash against the pro-Palestinian protestors—and their universities.

High-profile Harvard alumni condemned the university for not responding strongly against the protestors. “I am sickened,” tweeted Larry Summers, Harvard President Emeritus and former US Treasury Secretary. “The silence from Harvard’s leadership, so far, coupled with a vocal and widely reported student groups’ statement blaming Israel solely, has allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral towards acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.” Billionaire mega-donors stopped donating to Harvard and other elite universities. Schools suspended pro-Palestinian student organizations. Top finance and law firms threatened to blacklist students who had issued statements against Israel, and some rescinded job offers. Campus free speech, all but abandoned, did not appear to be a consideration here.

This heated conflict between student and faculty activists and outraged alumni and donors has several very significant implications. First is the death of free speech on college campuses. For years, conservative speakers have been unable to speak on campuses due to student harassment and administrative decisions. Last year at Stanford, for example, conservative federal court judge Kyle Duncan was invited to give a speech but was unable to do so because of student harassment that the administration supported. Now, with student organizations shut down and job offers revoked, the crisis has reached a frightening new level. Neither side respects the ideal of free expression, with both labeling their opposition’s speech “anti-Semitic”, “Islamophobic”, or “genocidal”.

Additionally, serious consequences have now been attached to the backlash against universities. Conservative pundits have long been railing against “woke” universities that they accuse of indoctrinating their students. Their complaints about usual grievances, like left-wing politics and LGBTQ acceptance, have largely been to no avail. The outrage against pro-Palestine protestors, however, which has been heightened and appropriated by right-wing media figures, has been much more successful. Culture war conservatives rejoice as universities suffer from public scrutiny, millions of dollars of lost donations, and board member resignations for failing to address left-of-center protesters.

The developments here have consequences that range far beyond the discourse over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They reflect anger with the overall academic climate at American universities and point to the possibility of a transformative culture change in our higher education system. Hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, the chief provocateur against elite universities over their response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has made it clear that his goals are broader. His target is diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, which he called “inherently a racist and illegal movement.”

Ackman is not alone; a major Cornell donor, Jon Lindseth, recently demanded that the school “eliminate DEI staffing and programming.” DEI is a term, ubiquitous in corporate and academic institutions, used to refer to an amalgamation of progressive policies focused on diversity. Recently, in a manner reminiscent of Critical Race Theory, it has been villainized as the face of various concerns, many legitimate, with academic institutions. These concerns, as stated by Lindseth, include racialization, identity politics, the curtailing of free speech, and an attack on merit through a reduced emphasis on grades and test scores. 

Diversity initiatives, of course, have drawn ire for many years. What makes this case any different? One answer is that college culture, where racial and ethnic identities are of supreme importance and perceived slights against these are censured as hate speech, creates a framework where the accusation of antisemitism is extremely damaging—even if not completely substantiated. The acidity of critical theory burns through its own nesting place.

The second answer is billionaires. If there is one lesson that can be taken from American politics, it is that money talks. Even progressive institutions must remain profitable. The full ramifications of the mega-donor pressure against universities are not yet apparent, but there have already been major results. The presidents of UPenn and Harvard, Liz Magill and Claudine Gay, were both forced to resign because of public pressure due to the controversy (for Gay, the increased scrutiny led to the uncovering of plagiarism). As the face of America’s most prestigious university and the first African-American president of Harvard, Claudine Gay is a symbol of progressivism in academia. Her ousting underscores the disruption of the dominant culture of American academia that has happened in reaction to the wave of pro-Palestinian student protests.

Where do we go from here? As the dust settles, new members enter university governing boards, and new campus protest regulations are instituted, it remains to be seen whether positive change will come from this disruption. It is easy to picture this incident passing over as just another case out of countless instances of outrage and firings over so-called harmful language; only this time the supposed victims are Jewish.

Still, there remains a possibility that certain aspects of progressive ideology will be reevaluated. Many students who espouse unequivocal support for Palestine justify themselves by fitting the complex conflict into the familiar binary framework of critical theory. They view the Palestinians as the victims of the conflict, systematically oppressed due to their history, and see Israel as the oppressor, systematically advantaged and innately wrong because of a national foundation that they view as illegitimate. Those who are incensed by student alignment with Palestine may perceive the issue as an example of the hate and divisiveness that comes from labeling certain groups as oppressors and venerating victimhood. If so, they could turn their considerable pressure and resources towards pushing for a wholesale transformation of university ideology. With Ackman’s attacks on DEI, there is evidence that this is already happening. 

Change may just be at our doorstep.

Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Comments are closed.