Stacy Gallin

Can Academia Regain Its Moral Compass?

Campus Protests - photograph by Ted Eytan

Stories, whether fact or fiction, have a beginning, a middle and an end.  Sometimes, a narrative can become filled with so many twists and turns that it can be hard to remember how it started and impossible to envision the ending. At times like these, it can be helpful to recap the salient points of the story.

On October 7, 2023, Israel was attacked by thousands of Hamas terrorists leading to the deadliest assault on the Jewish people since the Holocaust. Approximately 1,200 people were murdered, and thousands were raped, injured and traumatized. Additionally, 253 innocent babies, children, women, men and elderly citizens were taken hostage — many of whom remain in captivity over 200 days later. There was never any question as to whether or not Hamas was responsible for the deadly attack on Israeli soil. In fact, they released a 16-page report titled, “Our Narrative,” in which they detailed the background, rationale and timeline leading up to October 7th or “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” as it is referred to by Hamas. This attack was clearly terrorist in nature with the intent being to kill as many innocent people as possible.  Full stop. The ongoing political struggle in the region, while certainly an important topic to discuss, should not have been used to divert attention or blame from the fact that women were raped, children were ripped from their parents’ arms, and elderly people were brutally murdered- all of whom committed no crime other than being Jewish.

In the weeks and months that followed, there was a noticeable reluctance among leaders in the academic world to speak out and condemn the terrorist attack that had occurred. The annihilation of human life, the deprivation of dignity and the quest to cleanse the world of a group of human beings defined as having lives not worthy of living are issues reminiscent of another time in history when much of the world remained silent. Much like Mein Kampf spelled out Hitler’s antisemitic, genocidal ideology, the original Hamas Covenant released on August 18, 1988, clearly states that the goal of Hamas is the complete and utter destruction of both the land of Israel and the Jewish people. This is not a coincidence, for both the Nazis and Hamas have followed the same guiding principle: the labeling, persecution and destruction of all Jewish lives. The United States officially placed Hamas on the list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations on October 8, 1997. What transpired on October 7th was a terrorist attack that a required a response rooted in moral courage and leadership. Instead, leaders within academia refused to speak out for fear of political or social backlash. Not coincidentally, this failure to demonstrate ethical leadership by simply condemning an obvious and egregious act of terrorism has had severe consequences.

In Nazi Germany, leaders of elite academic institutions stood by while racist, antisemitic theories based on the “science” of eugenics and population health prohibited Jews from taking part in university classes. Ultimately, Jews were expelled from academia altogether. These discriminatory policies were backed by internationally accepted notions in science and medicine.  Ethics existed but were pliable and shaped by the scientific, political and cultural norms of the time.

Today’s academic leaders are faced with similar challenges and yet, clearly have not learned from history. Being a university administrator has two main requirements: keeping students safe and providing them with a high-quality education.  The second requirement is contingent on the first and what we are seeing on college campuses throughout the country is a catastrophic failure on both counts. Instead of hiding behind science and medicine, today’s university presidents are using freedom of speech and the right to protest as a rationale for allowing students (and, in some cases, non-students who have somehow managed to infiltrate campuses) to threaten, intimidate, harass, and physically assault students for the crime of being Jewish. These “peaceful protests” have included calls for the genocide of an entire group of people, the destruction of campus property and replacing the American flag with the Palestinian flag. Time after time, when given the opportunity to shut down these protests, university administrators have chosen silence. These questionable decisions are being influenced not by any type of moral fortitude, but by political, social, economic and cultural forces.

Their silence in the immediate aftermath of October 7th was the beginning. It was a statement to faculty and students that sometimes, in certain situations, it’s okay not to condemn terrorism.  If it happens in a particular country, one that is often criticized for its political positions, to a group of people that have been the victims of identity-based hatred throughout history, when it might not be popular to do so, in these very unique situations, one can sit idly by and let the situation play out.  No need to focus on the hostages who, again, were innocent victims- many of whom are still missing- which violates every single international humanitarian law. Instead, lead by example.  Much like they did in Nazi Germany, from the top down, let the universities determine what the prevailing ethic of the day should be and everyone else will follow suit.

Except that now we are right smack in the middle of the story, and this strategy doesn’t seem to be working out as well as it seemed back at the beginning. Students are not safe, classes and commencement ceremonies have been cancelled, police and the national guard have been called in.  There is mass chaos in the American university system and no ethical leadership in sight. This all begs the question, where do we go from here?

As Martin Niemöller poignantly wrote,

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

We’re at a turning point in the story. The lack of moral courage demonstrated by the leaders of American academic institutions has predictably trickled down to the faculty and students, threatening not only the future of our educational system but the core of our democracy and our society as a whole.  How will the story end? Will anyone have the moral courage to stand up and speak out before it’s too late?

About the Author
Dr. Stacy Gallin is the Founding Director of the Benjamin Ferencz Institute for Ethics, Human Rights and the Holocaust, formerly the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust, located in New Jersey. She is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and Co-Chair of the Department of Bioethics and the Holocaust of the International Chair in Bioethics, a WMA Cooperation Centre.
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