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Why Zionist efforts to suppress Palestine activism on US campuses will fail

The campaign of intimidation and deceit waged by pro-Israel groups will fail on university campuses and institutions where people seek, speak and publish truths
People gather to protest the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace at Columbia University on 20 November 2023 in New York City (Michael M Santiago/Getty via AFP)
A protest in New York City against Columbia University's ban on Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, 20 November 2023 (Michael M Santiago/Getty via AFP)

The question of the nature and function of a university has been the subject of the most detailed and probing reflections. In his classical study, The Idea of the University, the English theologian John Henry Cardinal Newman proposed that the ultimate goal of a university is to offer the premise of a “unified whole of knowledge” that would enable and enrich students to gain any other specific form of knowledge their vocation might demand. 

A century later, American scholar Jaroslav Pelikan published a sequel to that seminal work, The Idea of the University: A Reexamination. He updated Newman's assessment and stressed the organic link between scholarship and teaching and the paramount significance of free enquiry. 

More recently, in The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected, Jonathan Cole, the visionary provost at Columbia University from 1989 to 2003, detailed both the global significance of American universities and the myopic ideological threats they face domestically from narrow political pressures.  

Common to all these landmark studies is their recognition of the unique character of the university and the need to protect it from outside forces seeking to damage its intellectual character, moral mission, and spirit of free enquiry into the most vital issues of the distant past and the immediate present.

Presently in the US, there are nefarious outside forces - both political and financial - that seek to compromise and tarnish the character of a university. American sociologist Sigmund Diamond's seminal study, Compromised Campus: The Collaboration of Universities with the Intelligence Community, 1945-1955, details the manners in which the site of the university has been historically violated by such outside forces and partisan abuses.  

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Recent ideological pressures have mainly come from white supremacist racists, xenophobic and homophobic fanatics, and now, above all, the militant Zionist forces that seek to stifle and silence the creative and critical forces at work in the university. Like all dogmatists, these groups seek to control how people think about the world - both historical and contemporary events.

University campuses are institutions where people often seek, speak and publish truths - from discussions on critical race theory to criticism of settler-colonialism. Truth bothers these right-wing extremists who seek to silence, intimidate, bully and smear people who dare speak up.

Zionist attacks on speech

Since the 7 October Palestinian jailbreak from Gaza and the subsequent genocidal campaign against the Palestinian people in their own homeland, US university campuses have been under attack by pro-Israel donors and their political minions, who think their money has given them the power to alter the nature of these institutions and mould them in a way that stifles any criticism of Israel's policies. They know sustaining this delusion is a lost cause, but they are determined, seemingly powerful, and gaudily sport very deep pockets. 

Earlier this month, the presidents of three major American universities - Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT - were badgered by staunchly pro-Israel Republican House members, who accused their campuses of “antisemitism”, a heinous accusation they have long weaponised to frighten and silence those who dare criticise their favourite settler colony.

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This was around the same time that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a measure equating criticism of the racist, Jewish supremacist ideology of Zionism with “antisemitism”.  

After their testimonies, the three university presidents faced a backlash and an onslaught of media attacks, and were chased out of town. One of them resigned, the other apologised profusely for failing to condemn imaginary hate speech, and the third was not heard from.

Other university presidents were put on notice: pledge allegiance to the Israeli flag, declare loyalty to the Israeli settler colony, allow the violent demonisation of Palestinians as “terrorists”, silence faculty and students who dare to speak the truth, or else. 

The bogus charge of the rise of antisemitism on US campuses is central to the efforts by right-wing reactionary politicians and their billionaire donors to silence criticism of Israel

You watch this spectacle and you wonder: while Israel is actively and relentlessly slaughtering Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, its supporters in Congress, who just approved even more billions of dollars to fund Israel's continued muder and maiming of Palestinians, are putting three major university presidents on the defensive based on the hypothetical suggestion that someone may have called for “the genocide of Jews”.

But no one ever did.

The whole spectacle was a sham, a subterfuge, and a diversionary tactic used to distract from the real, factual, televised, and fully documented genocide of Palestinians. It was an abusive reading of the Arabic word “intifada” and of the Palestinian chant, “From the river to the sea”, claiming an imagined threat to Jews that Israelis actually pose to Palestinians. The spectacle is so unreal that not even Orwellian Newspeak could mock and expose it.  

The charge of the rise of antisemitism on US campuses is central to the efforts by right-wing reactionary politicians and their billionaire donors to silence and eradicate criticism of the Israeli settler colony, and reverse generations of critical thinking and scholarship.

Liberating the 'compromised campus'

The fact is American university campuses are changing and there is very little that racists and their bought politicians can do to change that fact.

While they managed to force out the University of Pennsylvania leadership, they are delusional if they think this will change the critical discourses on US campuses that have been patiently and painstakingly crafted over at least the last half a century.  

Right now, reactionary politicians like the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, are banning critical race theory from that state. Palestine is right there where critical race theory is. Pro-Israel donors, however, are no match for the legacy of Edward Said and the seismic changes he and his generation of critical thinkers inaugurated.  

At US universities, free speech isn't free for pro-Palestine activists
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For many far-right politicians who have waged a war on universities in the name of "fighting antisemitism", the ongoing slaughter of Palestinians may be viewed as a means to reverse what reactionary politicians and pundits in US call “the great replacement”. It is a racist conspiracy theory that claims Muslims and other people of colour are replacing white settlers.

It is no coincidence that Republican Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, a staunch Trump devotee who believes the last presidential election was rigged and advocates this “great replacement” gibberish, has now emerged as the champion of the radical and liberal Zionists alike.

Stefanik has previously “blasted President Biden for providing infant formula to undocumented immigrants” and believes that “a Satan-worshipping cabal of liberal pedophiles” have taken over the Democratic Party. Zionist forces did not seem to mind that the champion of "fighting antisemitism" promotes a conspiracy theory that holds Jews chiefly responsible for leading the effort to replace white people.

A university campus is where such ugly theories and claims are discovered and exposed. The racist white supremacists and Zionists do not like that. 

At the vanguard of the struggle to speak truth to racist, white supremacists and Zionist power are the Jewish faculty, students and administration alike, active in organisations such as Jewish Voice for Peace.

A significant body of Jewish students and faculty are in fact leading the Palestinian cause on campuses - as they do in many other progressive causes. They are not in any more or less danger on campus than Muslim and Black students, for whom not a single billionaire donor advocates.

The issue is therefore not Jewish students feeling unsafe, but rather the Zionist donors losing the control they thought they had over university campuses. They never did. They mistook the lusciously furnished wood-panelled offices of the university presidents they frequent with their fat chequebooks for the university. The university is not its corporatised upper administration. The university is its unionised graduate students, staff, and custodial workers who fight for a meagre living.

The university is the dilapidated, neglected, barely functional classrooms where chairs are falling apart, audiovisual equipment is falling to pieces, and where proper air circulation is scarce - yet right there and then, students and faculty sit and seek the truth. There and then, the fact that the Israeli settler colony is a lost cause is a foregone conclusion. 

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

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York, where he teaches Comparative Literature, World Cinema, and Postcolonial Theory. His latest books include The Future of Two Illusions: Islam after the West (2022); The Last Muslim Intellectual: The Life and Legacy of Jalal Al-e Ahmad (2021); Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (2020). His books and essays have been translated into many languages.
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