Originally appeared as an op-ed at Townhall.com on December 13, 2023
The testimony of three university presidents at last week’s congressional hearing about antisemitism on American campuses continues to reverberate. What we heard and saw left many of us dumbfounded. Not a single one of them could clearly answer the question, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate their school’s bullying and harassment policies?” Not one of them could say, “yes.”
As a result, major donors to Harvard, MIT, and University of Pennsylvania have begun withdrawing support and calls for the resignation of their leaders have intensified. The axe has started to fall with the resignation of University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill. Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Harvard’s president Claudine Gay issued an apology for her testimony.
Let’s ask ourselves: why was their response so troubling, and what should they have said? Their responses were troubling for two main reasons.
First, because of their unwillingness to make a moral judgment. Their evasiveness on a straightforward question asked multiple times about the most serious of subjects—the genocide of the Jews—reflects the moral bankruptcy of many colleges and universities. Are we that steeped in postmodern moral relativism that we can’t say, without hesitation, that calls for genocide constitute a violation of our otherwise elaborate college speech codes.
In answer to the question, we heard that “it depends upon the context,” according to president Gay. And thereafter, she and the others seemed to dig deeper holes for themselves. We were assured that she is personally against antisemitism, but somehow was not institutionally against it? And then this: “Antisemitism is a symptom of ignorance, and the cure for ignorance is knowledge.” Really? Has all moral reasoning gone out the window where we can’t simply call this evil? In a later clarification statement Gay said, “I failed to convey what is my truth.” For goodness sakes! The motto of Harvard is Veritas: the truth, not “my” truth!
I suppose we should not be surprised. After decades of moral relativism in secular higher education, we seem to have lost the category of absolute evil. Universities have stopped teaching it, until recently. It seems we are now entering a new era of the intellectual history of the university with a pervasive moralism shaped by a conceptual Marxism. According to the new ideologues the world is divided into two groups—the oppressed and the oppressors. For them, America, the West and Israel are cast as the evil oppressors. This is what is radicalizing so many college students.
A second reason why the response of these presidents was troubling is their blatant double standards over freedom of speech. “We do not sanction individuals for their political views or their speech” until it crosses into conduct, said Gay. “We embrace a commitment to free expression and give a wide berth to free expression even of views that are objectionable, outrageous and offensive,” she added.
Oh really? What about the diversity bureaucracies that police microaggressions? At Harvard, the use of wrong pronouns for a person constitutes harassment. The University of Pennsylvania punished a law professor in 2018 for racial language which violated its discrimination policies.
Yet when it comes to calling for the genocide of Jews, it depends upon the context? The selectivity of such harassment policies is what makes their statements look like blatant antisemitism to the rest of the world. Why is there an exception for Jews? Imagine their response if students were calling for the genocide of Black or Muslim students?
So, what should these three presidents have said that would have led to a very different outcome? How should they have answered Congresswoman Stefanik’s question, which was clear and simple to answer. She asked: “Yes or no, calling for the genocide of Jews does not constitute bullying and harassment?”
They should have answered with moral clarity and said something like, “Yes, it does violate our codes. It is abhorrent speech.” They should have explained why this goes way beyond the typical microaggressions. That calls for genocide of any people group are evil and go against everything we stand for as a nation. And then they should have decreed a zero tolerance policy for this kind of thing and urged other universities to do the same.
Along with that, they should have explained something important about free speech: that as much as we want to protect free speech, freedom is not an absolute value.
In America, freedom is precious, but it is bound by a deeper belief in human dignity, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” I have a hard time understanding why advocacy for the genocide of any group, but especially Jewish people, should be protected speech given both historical and recent circumstances.
When the Supreme Court ruled in Brandenburg vs Ohio (1969) that the First Amendment protected speech at a Ku Klux Klan rally, they said that speech loses its First Amendment protection only if it is directed to and likely to produce imminent lawless action. The context must be targeted, repetitive, severe in nature, and go beyond the mere expression of words.
Didn’t we see this just a few months ago in the terror Hamas unleashed on October 7? Haven’t we seen an unprecedented outbreak of antisemitism in American cities and on college campuses that involves physical threats and actual violence against Jews? Aren’t we talking about this only 78 years after the Holocaust? And has not this particular people group been subject to repeated genocidal threats and violence throughout history.
This is what the presidents of these elite universities should have said on December 5th.
Unfortunately, none of this happened, and all the subsequent clarifications have not helped either. I don’t believe that the resignation of any president will solve this and get to the bottom of the problem infecting our universities. Why? Because this is not just an issue of presidents who were “over-prepared” and “over-lawyered” for this congressional hearing (that’s how their allies defended them).
This is about an ideological captivity of universities that shows up in the classroom. It was evidenced by more than thirty official student organizations at Harvard that signed a statement blaming Israel for the Hamas massacre. These events call for a deeper diagnosis of what ails American higher education in the post-Christian era.