University presidents are under fire from politicians and the media over what is being framed as their waffling over allowing antisemitic speech on their campuses. But it is a concocted outrage that has nothing to do with safeguarding Jewish students, and the New York Times is going along for the ride.
The uproar concerns an appearance by the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania before the House Education committee, in which Rep. Elise Stefanik (R—NY) grilled them about antisemitism on campus and whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” violates university codes of conduct.
The Times (12/6/23) reported the story under the headline, “College Presidents Under Fire After Dodging Questions About Antisemitism,” with the subhead: “The leaders of Harvard, MIT and Penn appeared to evade questions about whether students should be disciplined if they call for the genocide of Jews.” Reporters Stephanie Saul and Anemona Hartocollis began:
Support for the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT eroded quickly on Wednesday, after they seemed to evade what seemed like a rather simple question during a contentious congressional hearing: Would they discipline students calling for the genocide of Jews?
Specifically, the reporters wrote, the presidents’ “lawyerly replies”—that it depends on the context of the speech—drew criticism from Jewish leaders as well as Democratic bigwigs, thus framing the ire not as partisan positioning against liberal academia, but a categorical defense of Jewish students against uncaring administrators.
But there are two big problems with the Times‘ framing: The calls for genocide were imaginary, and the presidents’ answers were not evasive, they were accurate reflections of the constitutional protections of free speech and the scope of university policies on harassment and bullying.
‘From the river to the sea’
As a subsequent Times report explained (12/7/23), Stefanik
First, let’s be clear: Calls for “intifada” or a free Palestine “from the river to the sea” are not the same as calls for genocide. Merriam-Webster defines the Arabic word “intifada” in the context of Palestine to mean “an armed uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
repeatedly tried and failed to get them to agree with her that calls for “intifada” and use of slogans such as “from the river to the sea” were appeals for genocide against Jews that should not be tolerated on campuses.
“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is a slogan that’s long been used by Palestinians to “represent the vision of a secular democratic state with equality for all,” as University of Arizona Mideast studies professor Maha Nassar (Conversation, 11/16/23) noted.
The American Jewish Committee describes the phase as “a rallying cry for terrorist groups and their sympathizers,” saying it calls for the “establishment of a state of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, erasing the state of Israel and its people.” But as Nimer Sultany of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies told Al Jazeera (11/2/23), the word “free” in the slogan refers to “the need for equality for all inhabitants of historic Palestine.”
As U.S. corporate media outlets seldom remind their audiences, Israel is currently deemed an apartheid state by leading human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Israel’s B’Tselem (FAIR.org, 2/3/22).
Pro-Palestinian protesters on campuses do talk about genocide, however (Ha’aretz, 10/25/23)—to argue that Israel is carrying one out in its assault on Gaza, which has so far killed at least 17,000 people, 70% of them women and children, according to Gazan health officials (Reuters, 12/7/23).
Announcing the “second stage” of the war against Gaza (Common Dreams, 10/30/23), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible”—a reference to 1 Samuel 15:3: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling.”
A gotcha question
But Stefanik—the chair of the Republican Conference, whom Times reporting by Nicholas Confessore (12/31/22) had earlier depicted as a vacuous opportunist with no real ideology beyond her own advancement—wasn’t asking good-faith questions about antisemitism on campus. She was asking a gotcha question to force the presidents to answer “yes” or “no” about legal and policy matters that in fact required more context. The paper quoted at length her exchange with UPenn president Mary Elizabeth Magill, who has since resigned:
Ms. Stefanik asked Ms. Magill, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct, yes or no?”
Ms. Magill replied, “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.”
Ms. Stefanik pressed the issue: “I am asking, specifically: Calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?”
Ms. Magill, a lawyer who joined Penn last year with a pledge to promote campus free speech, replied, “If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.”
Ms. Stefanik responded: “So the answer is yes.”
Ms. Magill said, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”
Ms. Stefanik exclaimed: “That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context?”
Stefanik was smugly triumphant, and the exchange led to pressure against Magill from the state’s governor (Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/6/23) and calls to resign from the board of UPenn’s business school (Axios, 12/7/23). The school lost a $100 million donation (BBC, 12/8/23).
After issuing an apology (Wall Street Journal, 12/7/23), Magill resigned (New York Times, 12/9/23). Falling just short of openly declaring a witch hunt against university administrators, Stefanik (Fox News, 12/9/23) replied to the resignation:
One down. Two to go.
The New York Post (12/10/23) wasn’t so shy, saying that in response to the supposed leftward nature of higher education society should “starve these schools of funds (alumni giving, government largesse, tuition money) until they have boards and administrations dedicated to righting things.” So much for right-wing opposition to “cancel culture.”
But Magill was correct. Speech is protected; Penn’s policies are about bullying and harassment. So if someone simply uses the phrase “from the river to the sea” or “intifada,” it doesn’t fall under Penn’s policies unless it is accompanied by conduct that can be interpreted as bullying or harassment. As the Daily Beast‘s Jay Michaelson (12/6/23) wrote:
What about when someone makes a statement in a classroom or a college lecture? If someone insists, in a classroom discussion, that Israel as a country is an illegitimate colonial outpost and should be “wiped off the map”?
That sounds like a political statement to me, not an act of bullying or intimidation.
But if a mob marches into a Shabbat service and shouts the same slogan, then that’s clearly harassment and in violation of the policy. Context matters.
In the Times‘ letters section (12/7/23), one writer said:
Free speech doesn’t exist only for speech with which you agree, and if it doesn’t cross the bright legal line into literally targeting individuals or inciting violence, punishing it is problematic.
So yes, as Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, rightly said, context matters as it relates to discipline. But that doesn’t mean there is any ambiguity, any argument, that calls for genocide against Jews aren’t both bigoted and deeply disturbing. They surely are.
It wasn’t until the eighth paragraph that the Times said the university presidents “tried to give lawyerly responses to a tricky question involving free speech, which supporters of academic freedom said were legally correct.”
This is a sneaky way to hide the reality that, yes, free speech means, hypothetically speaking, defending people’s rights to make atrocious and offensive statements. If Republican lawmakers believe that such a reality is unacceptable, then they should come out and say they are against free speech.
But the next paragraph is far worse:
But to many Jewish students, alumni and donors, who had watched campus pro-Palestinian protests with trepidation and fear, the statements by the university presidents failed to meet the political moment by not speaking clearly and forcefully against antisemitism.
The Times had just noted that all three presidents “said they were appalled by antisemitism and taking action against it on campus. When asked whether they supported the right of Israel to exist, they answered yes, without equivocation.” So the problem is not their clearly stated opposition to antisemitism or support for Israel. It’s their unwillingness to say they’ll discipline those whose speech some find abhorrent.
Just because people don’t like a protest—even with good reason—doesn’t mean that the protesters should be punished for their speech. Many women might find anti-abortion tabling to be sexist; that doesn’t mean it is outside the bounds of free speech. Would the Zionist version of “from the river to sea”—where Israel includes the Occupied Territories (Times of Israel, 9/22/23)—be considered so offensive to Palestinian students that students who make them should be punished? Would the Times also have us believe that it should be illegal for pro-police students to have rallies in defense of cops accused of brutality and murder of unarmed Black people?
‘Free speech scruples’
After quoting no fewer than six critics of the presidents, the Times finally found someone to offer a defense of their answers—sort of. Saul and Hartocollis turned to Will Creeley, legal director at the Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression, a group more often associated with libertarian pearl-clutching over “cancel culture” (1/31/22). He grudgingly accepted that the administrators were right: “It does depend on context,” he told the Times.
But Creeley added that he was sad “to see them discover free speech scruples while under fire at a congressional hearing,” and hadn’t come out as advocates for his version of free speech more generally, which sees decisions by publishing companies to not publish certain (right-wing) authors as “book banning.”
After Creeley’s brief and half-hearted defense, the Times returned to more critics, one of whom demanded that the presidents “resign in disgrace,” and another who was “appalled by the need to state the obvious: Calls for genocide against Jews do not depend on the context.”
Boosted by conspiracy theories
Perhaps the Times could have glanced at Stefanik’s own record; she has come under fire for engaging in white nationalist conspiracy theories like the “great replacement” theory (Washington Post, 5/15/22, 5/16/22; NBC, 5/19/22). In fact, Albany’s Times-Union editorial board (9/17/21) blasted her embrace of the far-right theory:
If there’s anything that needs replacing in this country—and in the Republican party—it’s the hateful rhetoric that Ms. Stefanik and far too many of her colleagues so shamelessly spew.
This was in response to her ads that said, “President Biden and fellow Democrats are seeking a ‘permanent election insurrection’ by expanding pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants” (Washington Post, 9/16/21).
In perhaps her weirdest outburst, Stefanik “denounced Democrats who disagreed with her proposals to ease baby formula shortage as ‘usual pedo grifters’” (Daily News, 5/13/22), a nod to the antisemitic QAnon conspiracy theory that fuels the Trumpian right (Guardian, 8/25/20). Once an obscure backbencher, Stefanik has risen in conservative fame while latching onto conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election being rigged, to the point the point of aligning herself with an anti-Muslim leader of the “stop the steal” movement (WAMC, 8/23/21).
The Times missed this important context, which would have led a reporter to question if Stefanik’s pointed questioning toward the university presidents was genuinely motivated by a concern for antisemitism or, instead, a kind of projection of her own record.
A right-wing PR vehicle
The whole affair has boosted Stefanik’s currency in right-wing media, especially Fox News (12/6/23, 12/6/23, 12/8/23). In fact, the New York Times (12/7/23) wrote a followup article reporting that the exchange with the three university presidents “went viral, racking up tens of millions of views on social media (the Israeli government even reposted a clip of the hearing).” While Stefanik has had support from the right, Times congressional correspondent Annie Karni wrote that her grilling achieved the “unthinkable” by
prompting many Democrats and detractors of Mr. Trump to concede that an ideological culture warrior with whom they agree on nothing else was, in this case, right.
In yet another follow-up piece, the Times(12/10/23) accepted Republican concern about campus antisemitism as fact, without questioning whether mere criticism of Israel was being wrongly branded as antisemitic, or acknowledging that it has actually been the left that has blown the whistle on the rise of white nationalism, antisemitism and xenophobia in conjunction with the political rise of Donald Trump (Washington Post, 10/17/22; Haaretz, 11/8/22). The “potency” of the recent Republican inquisition into free speech on campuses, the Times‘ Nicholas Confessore said, “was underscored by how many Democrats joined the attack.” It was lost on the Times that it was its own misframing of the exchange that lent liberal validation to a far-right GOP leader like Stefanik.
Of course, Stefanik took to the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page (12/7/23) to rebroadcast her congressional spectacle, calling the presidents’ testimony “pathetic” and displaying a “lack of moral clarity.” But it makes sense for a conservative opinion space to act as a right-wing PR vehicle.
Reporters for an ostensibly liberal paper, meanwhile, should be looking at what is actually being said and what is actually happening. Instead, the Times is fanning the flames of a fake outrage, and it’s already having a dire impact on free speech.