| The Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University on April 24 2024 | MR Online The Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University on April 24, 2024. (Photo: Pamela Drew (CC BY-NC 2.0))

Suppressing pro-Palestinian speech is the new McCarthyism

Originally published: Suppressing pro-Palestinian speech is the new McCarthyism on May 2, 2024 by Hank Kalet and Sean T. Mitchell (more by Suppressing pro-Palestinian speech is the new McCarthyism) (Posted May 08, 2024)

The new McCarthyism has arrived on college campuses—and with it, threats to the freedoms to speak, teach, research, and assemble in protest at universities as diverse as Columbia University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Rutgers University.

Congress and the U.S. Department of Education has opened investigations into numerous schools, using accusations of antisemitism as a pretext. Pro-Palestine slogans and public opposition to Israel’s actions in Gaza have been called genocidal by Republicans in Congress and groups like the Anti-Defamation League. Columbia is the current ground zero of both Congressional inquiry and student action, as students and faculty protest the failure of its president, Nemat Shafik, to stand up to Republican questioning, and the university’s continued funding of companies that do business in Israel. Instead of defending the free speech and academic rights of faculty and students, and instead of listening to student concerns, Shafik essentially threw them under the bus.

Students at Rutgers, where we teach and serve on our unions’ Academic Freedom Committee, launched their own tent encampments on April 29, the last day of classes. Like the students at Columbia and elsewhere, they are demanding that the university divest from Israel and say they plan to remain encamped until their demands are met.

Rutgers also has been accused by the university Hillel chapter and GOP Representative Virginia Foxx, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Work Force, of a “failure to protect Jewish students, faculty, and staff.” Foxx, who represents a largely rural district in North Carolina, demanded in a March 27 letter that Rutgers provide a slew of documents as part of an investigation into what she calls a “pervasive climate of antisemitism.”

The documents include years of internal communications regarding disciplinary actions, student and faculty social media posts, and data on “the mandate, size, budget, agenda, and performance metrics of all diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and programs.” The committee’s investigation letter came after a separate February letter to Rutgers’ president from the Republicans of the Senate Judiciary Committee with similar, and equally unfounded, allegations.

The contents of the Foxx letter to Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway are similar to allegations made by Foxx and Representative Elise Stefannik, Republican of New York, about Columbia, Yale, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT. They recast protected speech and research as harassment and bias, and most of the documents have little to do with protecting Jewish students from antisemitic threats. Instead, they are part of a political assault on higher education, and erase legitimate distinctions between criticism of Israeli policy and hostility toward Jewish people. They also sidestep the university’s need to protect the speech rights of Palestinians and the ability of scholars to critically examine the causes and implications of war.

Rutgers is the first public university to be targeted by Congress as part of this growing right-wing campaign, though it was not the first to feature student encampments. Republicans have been attacking university education on several fronts, from prohibiting certain discussions about race and American history in Florida (since undermined by state and federal courts) to the current Congressional investigations. This is part of a concerted effort to coerce university administrators into repressing anti-war, pro-Palestinian, and progressive speech on campus, and to scare faculty and students into silence.

As Rutgers faculty members and members of the Academic Freedom Committees of Rutgers’ unions, we see the fear firsthand. Faculty, especially vulnerable adjuncts and full-timers without tenure, have expressed concerns that they could lose their jobs if they speak about the conflict or allow students to do so. And many students fear participating in open debate. Yet, such debate is necessary and central to the mission of a university.

U.S. universities have long been a site for some of the most important debates in society, from the civil rights and anti-war movements of the twentieth century to conversations about Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and U.S. foreign policy today. During all these periods, right-wing politicians worked to silence that debate, although the terms justifying these attempts at repression have changed.

Today, universities in the United States face perhaps their greatest threat to academic freedom since the McCarthyism of the mid-twentieth century, when criticisms of U.S. foreign and domestic policy were also investigated by Congress. Then, anti-communist fear-mongering played the role that accusations of antisemitism play today.

Rutgers is the State University of New Jersey. Most of the other universities investigated by Congress, at least so far, are private. But all receive at least some federal funding. Public universities, like other public institutions, are mandated to protect First Amendment rights for all within the institution. This includes safeguarding the freedom to speak in public forums and in the classroom, to research and publish, and peacefully demonstrate on controversial topics.

Rutgers has a long history of resisting efforts at political repression. When historian Eugene Genovese famously welcomed a “Vietcong victory” at a 1965 teach-in at Rutgers, it spurred political backlash in New Jersey’s gubernatorial election. Rutgers came under enormous pressure to fire Genovese, but stood by him on grounds of academic freedom.

We hope that today’s academic administrators muster similar courage. As Columbia president Shafik has likely learned, calling in the NYPD to clear student protesters did nothing to placate the right-wing attacks on universities, as House Republicans continue to push for her ouster.

There is no place for bigotry in a university. And when there have been genuine cases of faculty antisemitism on campus, Rutgers has engaged in appropriate disciplinary action, as it has also moved appropriately to investigate recent acts of Islamophobic vandalism on campus. But the current McCarthyite campaign is not about combating bigotry, or about making Jewish students safe (least of all the many Jewish students and faculty members who oppose Israel’s actions). It is about restricting a debate that should be open.

If the United States is to be a free society with a well-informed foreign policy, our universities must be places where robust discussions and debates can take place free from government or administrative repression.

Rutgers unions—like our fellow academic unions across the country—are prepared to stand up for faculty and students’ rights. University administrators need to do the same. Together, we must mount a principled defense against the New McCarthyism and, in doing so, lead a national movement to protect higher education.

Hank Kalet is a journalist and poet who has covered local and state issues in New Jersey for 30 years. He teaches journalism at Rutgers University and writing at several local community colleges.

Sean T. Mitchell is associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, Newark, and serves on the Academic Freedom Committee of the AFT-AAUP.

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