In the wake of genocidal violence in Gaza and the silencing of debate on college campuses, it now hardly matters that I, along with others, did not like every aspect of the arguments made by some student groups in the wake of October 7. When I offered my critique in the London Review of Books of the language used by the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee, I did so in the spirit of a conversation. I did not foresee how their viewpoint would be shut down, nor the extent of harassment and doxxing they would suffer. There is, however, still time to defend these students’—and all students’—rights to express their point of view without fear of retaliation or harm.
The crisis of academic freedom we are currently facing is as acute as any since the McCarthy years in the United States. The charge of anti-Semitism has been instrumentalized to shut down speech in ways that should be acutely alarming for anyone who cares not only about free speech in the public domain, but academic freedom on college campuses. When even calls for ceasefire are considered anti-Semitic, only those who support Israel’s annihilationist war against the Palestinian people in Gaza are exonerated of the charge. The conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism can only serve the purposes of extreme censorship, for it constrains those who oppose ongoing Israeli violence, the killing of nearly 18,000 Gazans to date, from expressing moral and political outrage and defending fundamental principles of free expression and political justice. If we dare to name the killing as annihilationist, as bearing genocidal intent, or as genocide itself, as more than 800 jurists have recently insisted, then we are accused of anti-Semitism. But what does it mean to speak up against genocide only to be censored? It means that only speech that defends injustice is defensible.
When Israeli generals, backed by President Herzog, contend that there are no civilians in Gaza (evoking Golda Meir’s infamous phrase that “there is no such thing as a distinct Palestinian people”) they set the stage for being fully exonerated for obliterating civilians in Gaza. If there are no civilians, then there can be, by definition, no civilian deaths, no war crimes can be committed, and all killing is justified. The “no” of “no civilian deaths” bespeaks and ratifies the logic of annihilation itself. It does not happen and it cannot be opposed. Derealization of killing joins the censorship of any speech that would name it as genocide or even as a war crime or call for its end. It makes sense that student groups form and join small and massive rallies alike to protest this detestable logic and the relentless campaign of slaughter it supports. Those who oppose their protests as “anti-Semitism” cheapen, inflate, and instrumentalize a charge that should be reserved for the clear instances of anti-Semitism that emerge in anti-Zionist rhetoric. Those should be named and opposed since all racism must be opposed. So too should Christian nationalist anti-Semitism that supports Zionism, to which Netanyahu gives a pass. But precisely in this moment we are called upon to ask how censorship, doxxing, and bullying not only suppress—or outlaw—the public condemnation of crimes against humanity but serve to justify the killing.
In a mind-bending twist, those who oppose genocide are, paradoxically, sometimes accused of genocidal intention, as we saw in Republican representative Elise Stefanik’s December 7 public grilling of University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill and Harvard president Claudine Gay. Her interrogation packed a number of dubious assumptions into the questions—that certain phrases express genocidal intent—rather than considering their place in an emancipation movement. Intifada, generally translated as “uprising” in Arabic, means “to be shaken” or “to shake oneself.” It is understood as a movement that refuses to remain docile in the face of colonial violence, an effort to throw off the shackles of colonial rule. It is also a call for Palestinian unity. Does it necessarily imply genocidal violence? No. Now, some may imagine that the colonized, once freed of their shackles, will turn against the colonizer with vengeful, genocidal intention. But imagining is not prediction. Indeed, that will not happen if a radical decolonization is successful. If the rage of intifada, however, is directed against colonial rule, then decolonization will more likely produce another emotion: emancipatory joy, a sense of freedom, the release from shackles that have only tightened over the seventy-five years of their imposition. One need only ask whether Palestinians would prefer to be killed by non-Jewish actors to see that it is state violence they oppose.
When asked whether Harvard University would condemn calls for Jewish genocide, Gay rightly hesitated, since the question assumed that anyone who called for “intifada” or chanted “from the river to the sea” was expressing genocidal intent or making a concrete threat to obliterate Israeli Jewish life, or Jewish life more broadly. The interrogation should have stopped right there to expose its fugitive assumptions. In the moment of questioning, however, they were consolidated: “intifada” and “from the river to the sea” were, without a pause of reflection, made identical with calling for genocide against the Jews, and calls for liberation were understood as threats of anti-Semitic violence. When the ability to reflect on questionable assumptions is ruled out, the trap is set. The terrible consequence is that there can be no critique of Israel’s killing machine, no oppositional speech, that is not immediately construed as a call for violence—if not the verbal threat of violence itself. Any president would be right to hesitate before answering such a question, since the interrogator has offered a set of false premises and specious conflations in the form that that question has taken. In the aftermath of Magill’s resignation, president Gay has an ethical decision to make: to stand up to forms of inquisition that conflate resistance to Israeli violence with genocidal intention, to stand up for the rights of protest and dissent, or to become an instrument of censorship and denial. Her stated apology does not bode well. Whatever she finally decides will set a consequential precedent for both academic freedom and freedom of expression.
At universities, we question the question for its premises. If we lose that critical capacity from our classrooms and from public life, we have lost our mission, and we have failed ourselves and our students. The censor is fierce and consequential, since we do get cancelled or lose our positions, or become smeared in the media. Without conviction, many simply obey the demand to signal their condemnation of Hamas in formulaic ways out of fear. Critical thought has vanished, and the demand to display moral condemnation becomes a form of moral terror.
Gay’s position has been compromised from the beginning by allowing the doxxing of students and failing to support their basic rights of assembly and expression. Of course, she has been, and will now be, criticized by Zionists for not having intervened to shut down the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee more quickly and brutally. The effort to suppress their message helped to initiate the the wave of campus censorship we now see, one that operates formally and informally. Such censorship not only allows this campaign of slaughter against Palestinians to continue but serves as its mirror and justification. The Israeli state shuts down Palestinian life, and censorship of statements of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle (conceived as larger and longer than Hamas) are shut down as well. The one requires the other, since a war against civilians can only be won if (a) the international community is convinced that civilians are either human shields or all terrorists and (b) open, public criticism of those assumptions, among other appalling conflations, can be suppressed. In other words, killing with impunity of this magnitude requires a censorship campaign that shuts down speech that would rightly name and oppose that killing, narrate the history of killing, and the structural violence of the state itself.
It is not just the Harvard students who find their speech mangled in the public reception and their lives besieged by media attacks, doxxing, and harassment. All student speech that seeks to counter the conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, or indeed, all efforts to name Israeli killing as genocidal, are targets. Students are harassed and job offers are rescinded, their professional aspirations are halted or destroyed, and their ability to withstand appalling accusations results in forms of psychic damage that only they can truly (one day) relay.
If this moment were less fraught with fear and hatred, we could pause and ask some important questions. Is Hamas a terrorist movement or a movement for armed resistance? When students defend Palestine, are they calling for decolonization, the end to Israeli state violence, or are they cheering for the death of Israelis? Shall we ask them? Shall we bother to find out? Or should we, as we now do, move quickly to the conclusion that the emancipation of Palestine leads to death for Israelis when, in fact, it may lead to a new possibility for cohabitation, whether in a one- or two-state solution or another form of governance? My own political alliances remain with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement whose nonviolent instruments and aims comport with my own values. But perhaps it is important to ask those who defend Hamas as a movement of armed resistance how they situate this armed resistance within a history of armed struggles, and what, if any, conditions would have to be met for the laying down of arms. One obvious answer is that Israeli state violence would have to end. If Israeli state violence is the condition of possibility for armed resistance, then the cessation of that violence would doubtless produce another political constellation.
I quarreled with the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee in my LRB essay for claiming that “the apartheid regime is the only one to blame” for the deadly attacks by Hamas on Israeli targets. I thought it was “wrong to apportion responsibility in that way, and nothing should exonerate Hamas from responsibility for the hideous killings they have perpetrated.” I do not think it makes sense to say that Israeli violence is the name for the violence that Hamas commits, since Hamas has its own plan, and the decision to launch an armed struggle is one for which it assumes responsibility. One could even say that claiming Hamas’s violence is only Israeli violence turned back on the Israelis undermines the agency of those Palestinians who have taken up the position in favor of armed struggle. They are not vessels for a reverse Israeli violence but are acting in their own name and for their own reasons, or so I would presume. That said, the students are surely right that there would be no need for armed struggle were there not an ongoing and insufferable infliction of state violence by a colonial power against the besieged and dispossessed.
But this thought can barely be communicated, let alone argued with, under present historical conditions. Palestinian lives are being destroyed in Gaza, and every Palestinian will object to that destruction. If they object, and we object with them, that does not make us supporters of Hamas. It only makes us vocal critics of genocide.
Let me then apologize and make clear: the students have every right to oppose the way that “the conflict” has been framed in the press, the way that October 7 and Hamas’s acts become the false starting point for any public debate, effacing the seventy-five years of occupation, detention, dispossession, and land theft that came before it. We do not have to back everything about their message to deplore unconditionally the way they have been damaged by the Zionist movement in the United States. They have a right to speak, to speak out against injustice, and to have their voices be heard—and fairly debated—in the public sphere. The censorship of their voices is in all respects unconscionable, for it demands silence in the face of an appalling attack on Palestinian lives and refuses to consider the campaign of slaughter that Israel now wages as part of a longer campaign to deny the basic rights of the Palestinian people to their homes, their land, and a future of political self-determination free of violence.
Censorship is always the instrument of the weak. Yes, it wields power, but it confesses that matters are already out of the control of those who use it. Censorship is deployed by those who seek to contain or eliminate a point of view they do not want to be heard. It attributes great power to that point of view because, perhaps, it knows that vocal opposition to injustice can attract supporters who still have the courage to see, name, and oppose the horror of what is happening. Censorship may instill fear of the censor in those who watch its operation as the cultural wing of the military campaign against Palestine. But there are always those who refuse to be contained or silenced by the censor, those whose sensibilities are awakened by the censor and oppose the stifling of speech and debate. Let us join those who believe that the Harvard students were right to speak freely, right to oppose injustice, and right to bring attention to the longer history of violence that has culminated in this horrible moment.
Universities should be places where we are free to learn about such viewpoints, where students are free to express dissenting ones, and where debates on the merits of their views should be encouraged. There are so many conversations to be had, including the question of how those of us committed to nonviolence can play an active role in preserving rights of speech and the critique of falsehoods. Censorship belongs to the scourge of authoritarianism. And as attacks on democracy are rampant and rising, it is the responsibility of university administrators to safeguard rights of free expression, especially when the atmosphere is tense, the language is fraught, and allegations and threats take the place of reflection and debate. To be prohibited from opposing injustice is to suffer a further injustice. Can we perhaps have a debate about justice? The university might then have the chance to renew its reputation for open inquiry. Can we listen to our students? The university might then have a chance to become a place of learning and provide, for faculty, a new lesson in humility.
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