New York protests palestinians
New York University students set up a "Liberated Zone" tent encampment in Gould Plaza at NYU Stern School of Business on April 22, 2024 in New York City. Image Credit: AFP

Those who dare impinge on the intellectual autonomy traditionally enjoyed by academic institutions will stir up a hornet’s nest of opposition by students, faculty and engaged citizens who care about the life of the mind. In a democracy, to have politicians (politicians, for the love of God!) sticking their noses into the affairs of a university, the emblematic marketplace of ideas, is a non-starter.

“If we want to resist the power which threatens to suppress intellectual and individual freedom”, wrote Albert Einstein in “Essays on Humanism” (1950), in which he shared with readers his social philosophy and views on everyday life, “we must keep clearly before us what is at stake” And what is at stake, the most influential scientist of all time claimed, is “[W]hat we owe to that freedom which our ancestors have won for us after hard struggles to achieve it”.

Academic freedom in the US has always been woven into and a core value of American society. Imagine, even Richard Nixon once opined that “academic freedom should protect the right of the professor or the student to advocate Marxism, socialism, communism and any other minority political viewpoint, no matter how distasteful to the majority ... “.

One would assume that among these isms, “distasteful to the majority”, would be included the advocacy of Palestinian nationalism, a cause that Israel’s supporters have duplicitously conflated with anti-Semitism. This is called weaponising a morally bankrupt ideology to muzzle pro-Palestinian expressions in the public discourse. And if you want to overcome this obstacle, now long-entrenched in that discourse, you have a big rock to push up a very steep hill.

Read more by Fawaz Turki

The unspeakable horrors that Israel has inflected, and continues as we speak to inflict on the people of Gaza over the last seven months have triggered an anti-war movement across the US, from universities like Yale, Columbia, MIT and New York University on the east coast to ones in the West Coast like UC-Los Angeles, California State Polytech University Humboldt and UC-Berkeley (the latter home of the legendary Free Speech movement, which erupted during the 1964-1965 academic year and which later built the foundation for the equally legendary protests against the war in Vietnam) as well as across campuses all the way from Michigan to Washington state.

Now enter the politicians on the Hill who want to “discipline” university presidents for allegedly allowing students to engage in what these lawmakers see not as students protesting against a brutal war but as students engaging in acts of strident anti-Semitism.

The last casualty of this McCartyist theatre of the absurd was the president of Columbia University, Nimat Shafik, who was summoned to appear before the House Education Committee last Thursday and made to answer questions about what Columbia’s plans were to “tackle anti-Semitism on campus”. Ms Shafik had already been terrorised before her appearance at the panel of mostly Republican lawmakers.

You see, at similar hearings in December before the same committee, the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania were driven to resign when they wavered on the question of what they had done to “combat” protests on their campuses.

Pro-Palestinian student groups

Ms Shafik, who took the helm at Columbia less than a year ago, did not waver. She meekly answered that the university “had not done enough” in that regard but, she added, honest, “some professors were under investigation” and two pro-Palestinian student groups had been suspended. More disciplinary action, she promised, will follow. Sadly, Ms Shafik had the opportunity to stand up for the values of academic freedom, free speech and the right of students to express their views, freely and without fear of retribution, but she chose not to. She did, however, keep her job.

Some members of the committee are a sight to see. There is Representative Elise Sefanik, an ardent Trumpist, who has long promoted the “great replacement theory”, widely considered as racist diatribe. There is Representative Tim Wellberg, who recently suggested that bombs be dropped on Gaza “like Hiroshima and Nagasaki”. And there is Representative Rick Allen, an Evangelical zealot, who, well cited from Genesis while questioning Ms Shafik.

“I will bless those who bless you [Israelites] and curse those who curse you”, he read, then asked the president of the Ivy League university if she wanted her academic institution to be cursed. Ms Shafik quietly answered that she most assuredly did not.

And before Rep. Allen yielded to the next member of the panel, he suggested to Ms. Shafik that she think seriously about having Columbia University offer courses on the Bible.

These folks, who want to discipline university presidents, suggest coursework for august academic institutions and get themselves involved in campus governance, were indeed a sight to see.

Meanwhile, those unspeakable horrors that Israel has unleashed on Gaza have indeed ignited a veritable anti-war movement in the US reminiscent in its rhythmic intensity to the one that dominated campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hundreds of students have already been suspended by their administrations or arrested by the police. (As many as 104 at Columbia and 42 at Yale were arrested this week alone.)

They appear unfazed.

Tracey Hutton, a student protester at Yale who was arrested on Monday was quoted in the Washington Post the following day as saying, “Not only are we not deterred, we may even be more engaged now ... we’re resolute. I’ve been involved in this struggle for a couple of months now and plan to be for the rest of my life”.

These kids, bless their hearts, seem to fear more the consequences of silence than they do the consequences of speaking up — a stance, I say, that points an accusing finger at those among us who forget that we are all complicit in that which leaves us indifferent.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile