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Student protests upend hegemony on Israel and Palestine forever

In today's neoliberal climate, increased state repression has become necessary to preserve the pro-genocide status quo
NYPD police officers in riot gear descend on a pro-Palestinian student encampment in front of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in New York City on 30 April 2024 (Emily Byrski/AFP)
NYPD police officers in riot gear descend on a pro-Palestinian student encampment in front of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in New York City on 30 April 2024 (Emily Byrski/AFP)

The resounding collapse of freedom of expression and academic freedom in the United States over the last few months has not been seen since the McCarthyite 1950s and the violent suppression of Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s.

Repressive campaigns also followed 9/11 and the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, primarily in the realm of law and surveillance and often waged on university campuses. It was then that the forces of repression, intent on suppressing my teaching on Palestine and Israel, first targeted me.

Western liberals perhaps thought that the current scale of repression would never recur in the US republic. This was especially the case at universities, which, in the wake of the 1960s' coercive methods, had recommitted themselves to liberal ideals that they often brandish loudly.

Yet, as a victim of ongoing harassment for more than two decades by my own university, which collaborated with extramural forces to curtail my freedom of expression and academic freedom through explicit and tacit threats, I was never convinced.

Institutional commitments to such principles in liberal societies falter as soon as they are judged to be effective in questioning and threatening the reigning political orthodoxy.

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Perhaps a lesson in political theory is needed to understand the functioning of the liberal state and its liberal institutions.

Same system

In his notorious advice on whether rulers should aim to be loved or feared, Niccolo Machiavelli reasons that "one would prefer to be both but, since they don't go together easily, if you have to choose, it's much safer to be feared than loved".

Part of modern rule is for autocratic and democratic leaders to heed such advice as a last resort while instituting mechanisms through which they can ensure that they are also loved.

Karl Marx understood the effectiveness of those mechanisms aimed at producing "love" and the requisite non-coerced obedience to the system of rule as "ideology".

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Rather than viewing contemporary autocratic and democratic systems of governance as antagonistic, if not opposites, as most political commentators tend to do, we should, as I have argued elsewhere, understand them as the same system of rule.

As the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, an astute reader of Machiavelli, argued, this system employs varying amounts of hegemony and coercion - the two principal ingredients of domination - to produce popular consent.

The system that uses more hegemonic methods than coercive means is often referred to as a "democratic" system, while that which uses more coercive methods than hegemonic ones is an "autocratic" one. They are both designed to produce fear of and willing love for the ruling system, but in varying quantities.

By hegemony, Gramsci meant the ruling intellectual, institutional, and moral bases of society - in short, what is often referred to as the ruling "culture". French philosopher Louis Althusser called these "ideological state apparatuses" and called the coercive mechanisms "repressive state apparatuses".

English-speaking pragmatists have referred to these strategies since World War Two as "carrot and stick". Understanding these mechanisms helps us unpack the ongoing situation on US campuses.

Continued domination

When hegemony is no longer sufficient to ensure the consent of the people to domination in so-called "democratic" systems of governance, or if it fails at its task of producing consent, leading to a crisis of authority, the amount of coercion is speedily increased to allow for continued domination - heeding Machiavelli's dictum that it is "safer to be feared than loved".

This strategy has been used in both "autocratic" and "democratic" systems during the last two centuries. The US has used it periodically every decade since World War One, culminating in the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, rendition, torture, assassination, and other assorted repressive measures targeting citizens and non-citizens since 2001.

Universities and the liberal system of rules that uphold them work fine when academic freedom does not lead to dissent from hegemonic ideas

In those cases, when a regime still commands love and, therefore, legitimacy, its excessive use of coercion might threaten stability and could trigger more popular mobilisation against it - or a university administration - rather than the desired demobilisation.

With such mobilisation, the regime risks losing both the love and fear of its people, so less coercion and more hegemony are sometimes advised to restore stability. This is where Columbia University President Nemat "Minouche" Shafik and others who followed in her footsteps recently miscalculated.

The massive campaign against faculty and students at US universities in the last seven months is illustrative of these strategies.

It was preceded by a dress rehearsal 10 years ago during Israel's 2014 war on Gaza when Steven Salaita lost his tenured professorship at the University of Illinois because one of his tweets against the killing of Palestinians exposed the limits of tolerable dissent in the US pro-Israel mainstream political culture.

Universities and the liberal system of rules that uphold them work fine when academic freedom and freedom of expression do not lead to dissent from hegemonic ideas, except to a degree that does not threaten that dominant culture.

This means that the defence of these freedoms is guaranteed only when they are not, in fact, tested. Once dissent from hegemonic ideas threatens the ruling ideology and tests its tolerance, repression ensues in various forms within the university and by external forces, both private and public.

As a principal bastion for the maintenance of the ruling elite ideology, Columbia University is essential for the maintenance of ideological stability. The fear is that when its own students and faculty veer off the liberal script, this will lead to a domino effect on the rest of the university system across the US, or even travel to other liberal systems, as the recent university encampments inspired others across Western Europe, Canada and Australia.

Marginal to mainstream

Indeed, student and faculty agitation against the ongoing Israeli genocide has spread to dozens of universities, including New York University, Yale, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Emory University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Southern California, to name but a few examples of where recent massive repression or the threat thereof has been deployed.

The students and faculty at Columbia have been condemned by Congress, the White House, wealthy businessmen, private organisations, company CEOs, the conservative and the liberal press, as well as by the university's own trustees and its president, Shafik. And they were aided and abetted by the New York Police Department, whom Shafik invited to repress the students and deny them their liberal freedoms, which the university president cynically continues to celebrate through rhetoric but repress through action.

One would think that these students and faculty support genocide rather than oppose it; that they support the suppression of a people, not a cessation of the genocide of a people that has been persecuted by Israel since its founding in 1948 with a hefty dose of western liberal and conservative support; that they support increased complicity by Columbia University in upholding Israeli apartheid and colonialism, not that they are demanding it end such complicity.

The reversal of roles in the Palestinian-Israeli case across the western world is so Orwellian that the Palestinians, who have been subjugated in the most violent ways possible by a European-founded settler-colony for three-quarters of a century, are depicted as genocidal antisemites by none other than white European and American Christian supporters of Israel's genocide, whose political forbears perpetrated, supported, or remained silent at the perpetration of the Holocaust.

In today's neoliberal climate, increased repression inside the US has become necessary to preserve the pro-genocide status quo. This task has not only been carried out since 9/11 through repressive legislation and legal and illegal police surveillance, but also through the much more thorough militarisation of police forces across the country.

As peaceful demonstrators against economic ills and poverty have been deemed "not non-violent", a whole new mindset of how to crack down on them has arisen.

But as the militarised police have been deployed to take care of these "not non-violent" dissidents, whether during the Occupy Wall Street movement or later during the Black Lives Matter uprisings, it could not do so as easily with dissidents inside the walls of the academy, at least not until Shafik invited them twice to do so in recent weeks.

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Achieving this repressive takeover of the university system in the long term, however, was not going to be easy in a university culture that purports to value academic freedom and freedom of opinion. A weak link in the chain of academic freedom had to be found, one around which people could more easily mobilise - one that could set a precedent. Enter the question of Palestine and the Israelis.

As I argued a decade ago, there has been a solid consensus on Israel across the different branches of American elite opinion, accompanied by broad public support, since 1948. Whereas dissent from this consensus always existed, it was confined to marginalised political groupings and individuals, and if the individuals were not already marginalised, their marginalisation would ensue immediately.

In the last 25 years, however, dissent on the question of Palestine and the Israelis has travelled from the margins to mainstream America - to artists, scientists, journalists, academics, and students, including prominent Jewish academics and scores of Jewish students.

Whereas Noam Chomsky was once the only prominent Jewish academic who dissented on Israel and who was marginalised from mainstream public opinion as punishment for his dissent, today, a whole slew of Jewish scholars and many more Jewish students are dissenters.

Quashing dissent

The persistent mainstream consensus on Israel is what makes the powers that be convinced that the success of their campaign to quash dissent at universities will be more likely if its entry point is the issue of Israel and Palestine. In doing so, they could redirect focus to questions around which there is consensus, namely the question of antisemitism, the history of the Jewish Holocaust, and how Israel is allegedly the only "democracy" in the Middle East.

Using Israel and Palestine as the entry point to normalise the quashing of dissent inside the walls of the academy is both tactical and strategic

Using Israel and Palestine as the entry point to normalise the quashing of dissent inside the walls of the academy is both tactical and strategic. It is tactical because, once successful, it would take away key aspects of faculty governance and transfer them to neoliberal university administrations (as has happened at Columbia in the last few weeks) and would set a precedent and an ensuing chilling effect on other, perhaps even more dangerous, kinds of dissent that command broader public support than do the Palestinians.

Let us recall here that the Ford Foundation used Israel and Palestine in 2003 to require that potential grantees sign a statement pledging to oppose "violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state".

The move elicited condemnation at the time from university provosts at Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Yale, Cornell, and indeed Columbia University, among others, who did not hesitate for a second to defend academic freedom.

The provosts wrote Ford a letter in April 2004 (six months before the official witch hunt against me at Columbia had begun) expressing "serious concerns" about the new language on the grounds that it attempted to "regulate universities' behaviour and speech beyond the scope of the grant". "It is difficult to see how this clause would not run up against the basic principle of protected speech on our campuses," they added.

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Using the question of Palestine and Israel in this manner is also strategic to stop the growing tide of academic dissent on Israel, specifically in relation to boycott and divestment affecting neoliberal forms of investment and overall US policy towards the Middle East.

It was in this context that the battle intensified between 2002 and 2009 against me at Columbia University until, despite the best efforts of many, it finally failed to block my tenure.

Today, we are again in the grip of this ongoing war. In the current Orwellian language, opposing Israel's genocide of the Palestinians is translated as support of a Palestinian genocide of Jews; opposing Israeli Jewish supremacy and colonial apartheid translates into a form of antisemitism; and suppressing academic freedom and protected speech on campuses becomes a form of championing it.

The neoliberal top brass at universities, their private and public funders and their allies in government seem to labour under the delusion that they can suppress opposition to genocide by every force possible and that this will chill dissent and uphold the unflinching support for Israel's genocide within US and western elite circles.

What students and faculty have demonstrated in the last seven months, however, is that reestablishing ideological hegemony has been lost forever and that the more government and university administrations use coercion, the more that hegemony is eroded.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.
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