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From moral rot to the rule of lawlessness on a US campus

The commencement ceremony in US universities is the highlight of the academic year. It marks the end of the academic year, but, more significantly, it marks the start of educated life for the students who are graduating with academic degrees. It is a very formal event, with regalia, music, marches, and speeches full of life wisdom. This year would have been my 30th commencement event at Rice University, and I have decided to skip it.

To understand why, we have to go back to October 7, 2023, when invading Hamas gunmen murdered, tortured, mass raped, and mutilated some 1,200 Israelis. The vast majority of the victims were unarmed women, children, infants and the elderly. About 240 hostages, including women, elders, children, and infants were taken as hostages to Gaza. This was the opening act of the Hamas-Israel war, which is still raging as I write these lines, with tens of thousands of Palestinian casualties, combatants and non-combatants, and over 130 hostages still in captivity in Gaza.

On December 6, 2023, I published a short essay, “A Moral Rot at Rice University”, in which I charged the academic community at Rice with the antisemitism of double standard. I wrote: “It is ok to criticize Israel, but not ok to pay lip service to Palestinian atrocities. It is ok to call for a cease-fire, but not ok to ignore the hostages. It is ok to call for a two-state solution — which I strongly support — to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not ok to talk about Palestinian liberation, while mentioning the 1948 Nakba, implicitly suggesting ethnic cleansing of Jews in Israel. It is ok to express sympathy with Palestinian refugees. It is not ok to ignore close to one million Jews that were pushed out of Arab countries after the 1948 war. It is ok to talk about Palestinian casualties. It is not ok to ignore Jewish casualties and civilian casualties elsewhere in the Middle East. (Civil wars are raging in Syria, Yemen, and Sudan.) It is ok to express concerns about anti-Palestinian hate crimes. It is not ok to ignore anti-Jewish hate crimes. It is ok to demand a culture of care for Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students, faculty, and staff. It is not ok to ignore Jewish and Israeli students, faculty, and staff.” I followed up with a longer essay, trying to offer a historical perspective on the rise of US campus antisemitism.

The continuation of the war in the Middle East and the high number of civilian casualties triggered an intensive and extensive student protest movement across US campuses. The protest movement at Rice started on February 15, 2024, when a group of pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted a presentation by Antonio Neri, Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett Packard Enterprises, organized by the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership and attended by approximately 200 guests. The response by Rice to this clear violation of the university’s Code of Student Conduct, as well as Policy 820, was a thundering silence. In fact, the only public response to the disruption was an op-ed article at Rice’s student newspaper, The Thresher. The article ended with “This is an institutional matter, and I wait for an institutional reply from the Rice president, provost and other authorities.” No institutional reply ever came. When explicitly asked, the response from Rice leadership has been “We cannot comment due to students’ privacy”, even though they could have commented without mentioning students’ names.

After the disruptors were escorted out of the auditorium by Rice University Police Department (RUPD) they regrouped at the center of the campus, where they mounted a loud demonstration. (Another demonstration was held to protest the visit to the Baker Institute of Condoleezza Rice.) As on other campuses, the demonstrators did not call for a ceasefire or for an independent Palestinian state. Rather, their loud chants included “From the river to the sea, Palestinian shall be free”, “Intifada Revolution is the only solution”, and “Globalize the Intifada”. There has been an extensive debate whether such chants are or not antisemitic. But I am an Israeli Jew (Israeli, for short). We hear people say these days, “I am not antisemitic; I am anti-Zionist.” I doubt that these people can define “Zionist”; “Zionist” for them has just become a code word for “Israeli”. I challenge anyone to argue that such chants are not anti-Israeli. As Judith Shulevitz wrote, “A close look at the words being shouted at protests on campuses across the country reveals why some see the pro-Palestinian cause as so threatening.”

My aim here is not to ignore antisemitism, but the endless debate about antisemitism vs anti-Zionism misses an important point. Anti-Zionism is clearly anti-Israeli. There are Israelis on US campuses and they deserve to be free from harassment and discrimination on the basis of their national origin. Just as no one would accept the excuse “I am not Islamophobic, I am just anti-Arab”, no one should accept “I am not antisemitic, I am just anti-Israeli.”

Furthermore, I view chants about the Intifada as threatening, rather than merely offensive. The Second Intifada was a 2000–2005 terror campaign aimed at Israeli civilians — which included suicide bombings, shootings, and stabbings — resulting in over 1,000 people murdered. I lost a very good friend in the Passover Massacre, a suicide bombing carried out by Hamas at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel in March 2002, during a Passover festive meal, in which 30 civilians were killed and 140 were injured. To me “Globalize the Intifada” means that not only Israelis in Israel are legitimate targets, but that Israelis everywhere are legitimate targets. As Jonathan Chait recently wrote about the recent US campus-protest movement: “The movement’s ideological character invites rage and violence.” My personal sense of threat is sharpened by the fact that many of the protesters at Rice may not even be Rice students. In campuses where arrests have been made, a significant fraction of those arrested were not affiliated with the campus, and there is evidence that also at Rice demonstrations were attended by non-students. There are about 15 Israelis at Rice. We find the Intifada chants highly threatening.

My response to these threats was to launch a formal complaint with RUPD. On February 16, 2024, I informed RUPD, as well as Rice’s leadership, that threats of violence have been issued against me and against other Israelis on the Rice campus. The only response I received was that I should download an alert app to my phone. (Other Israelis received similar advice.) Inquiries as to what happened with my RUPD complaints have been answered with “We cannot comment due to students’ privacy.”

I and others also filed complaints with Rice’s Office of Access, Equity and Equal Opportunity (AEEO), arguing that the threatening chants violate Rice’s Policy 830 on Discrimination and Harassment. (See Rice’s definition of Harassment here.) AEEO is now investigating if the chants that we found threatening are truly threatening. Perhaps “From the river to the sea” is just about freedom, never mind that the origin of the phrase, as coined by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1960s, was “from the water to the water, Palestine will be Arab”, which is what protesters at the Rice “liberated zone” (see below) have been chanting in Arabic. Perhaps, “Intifada” just means ““shaking off injustice”, and “resistance is justified” is just about “self-defense”, never mind the 1,000 Israelis that were murdered in the Second Intifada, and the 1200 Israelis that were murdered on Oct. 7. So the era of content warnings and policing of microaggressions in academia seems to have come to an end, as well as the understanding that a speaker’s intent is irrelevant in deciding what speech is problematic. Now speakers get to define the meaning of their utterances. More than three months after these complaints, there is yet no resolution.

To understand the absurdity of this most-benign-interpretation approach to the chants I find threatening, imagine a hypothetical All-Lives-Matter demonstration at Rice in 2020, in response to the Black-Lives-Matter movement. Imagine demonstrators carrying Confederate flags, chanting, “Jim Crow was right about state rights’’, or dressing in white robes and hoods, carrying burning crosses. Suppose they would have claimed that the flags and outfits are symbols of “Southern heritage”, the crosses are symbols of Christianity, and the chants are about “federalism”. Does anyone believe that such claims would have been taken seriously? Does anyone believe that Rice would not have taken action against these hypothetical demonstrators? For Israelis, Intifada chants are just as threatening as burning crosses are for Black people.

Trying to push Rice’s Students Judicial Process to tell me what was the outcome of my complaint about threats of violence, I quoted to them from the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974:Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit an institution of post-secondary education from disclosing the final results of any disciplinary proceeding conducted by such institution against a student who is an alleged perpetrator of any crime of violence,” where, by statute, the term “crime of violence” means “an offense that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another.” The response was still “We cannot tell you because of students’ privacy.” In other words, “We are not obligated to, so we will not tell you.” The student-privacy argument is just an excuse.

Beyond the threatening nature of the February 15, 2024 demonstrations, there is the issue of compliance with Rice’s Policy 820. The policy requires those wishing to organize or stage demonstrations or protests on any University property to contact RUPD at least 48 hours in advance of the activity to request permission to hold the activity. Did the February 15 demonstrations receive Rice’s pre-approval? Only Rice knows and Rice has chosen to stay silent. Policy 820 also states that “Groups outside of the Rice community are generally not permitted to use the campus for demonstrations, protests, organized expressions of opinion, or meetings or similar activities; if a group from outside Rice seeks to participate in an event organized by a group within the Rice community, the outside group must request permission to participate at least 48 hours in advance.” Did Rice allow people not affiliated with Rice to participate in demonstrations on the Rice campus? Only Rice knows, and Rice has chosen to stay silent.

Also in spring 2024, Rice’s Student-for-Justice in Palestine (SJP) student club launched its BDS campaign. Rice SJP is under the leadership of National SJP, an organization that describes itself as “Supporting over 350 Palestine solidarity organizations across occupied Turtle Island (“North America”)”. (For a thorough analysis of SJP, see “Students for Justice in Palestine Unmasked”. ) BDS is a Palestinian-led movement promoting boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. National SJP has called on SJP chapters to “seize the university and force the administration to divest, for the people of Gaza.” In early April 2024, the Student Association (SA) was scheduled to vote on a resolution to boycott and divest SA funds from Israel-aligned companies. At almost the last moment, the SA had to table the resolution after a student filed a discrimination complaint with AEEO. According to Rice Thresher, the AEEO director notified the SA of the complaint. The complainant had requested that the SA’s Senate withhold voting on the resolution, which AEOO granted while the complaint was being investigated. The resolution’s authors claimed the administration’s response was an “overstep of power,” according to the Thresher. “We believe this is a direct violation of our freedom of expression,” they wrote in a statement to the Thresher. “We view this as an overstep of power by the administration on Student Association proceedings.” I actually agree with the students on this issue. The complaint does not justify prior restraint. (Rather, I believe that the resolution was beyond the authority of SA, and Rice should have told them so.) I suspect that the true reason for this blatant exercise of prior restraint is a flood of letters and emails that Rice received when the draft resolution became public in late March. It does not look good in Houston for Rice University to boycott Chevron. Rice SJP mounted a demonstration to protest the tabling of the resolution. It is not clear if this demonstration met the 48-hour-in-advance pre-approval requirement. Only Rice knows and Rice has chosen to stay silent.

Rice SJP launched the BDS campaign at Rice already in February 2024, when it started flooding the campus with BDS posters. In response to that, Rice quickly issued a poster policy. Policy 856 aims at establishing campus-wide rules for display of posters, flyers, and similar materials in public places at Rice University. But Policy 856 is openly flaunted. For example, the policy requires that “Posters must clearly and visibly display the name of the sponsor; the date of postering; and the email address and/or phone number of the sponsor.” BDS posters at Rice openly violate this requirement. Rice SJP’s “defense” is that they printed and distributed the posters, but they did not actually post them. Yet Rice has yet to decide who at Rice should adjudicate violations of Policy 856, so no disciplinary measures have been taken, in spite of numerous complaints.

In early April 2024, I filed a formal complaint with Rice’s Student Affairs against Rice SJP. I argued that Rice SJP has been violating its own constitution, which requires “adherence to Rice University institutional policies”. Rice SJP has been disrupting university events in violation of Rice’s Code of Student Code of Conduct and Policy 820, Rice SJP demonstrators have been expressing threats against Israelis, in violation of Policy 830, and Rice SJP has been distributing posters on campus in violation of Policy 856. Since Rice’s student clubs are required to be registered with Rice to be officially recognized, I asked that Rice SJP’s registration be reconsidered. The response was that such matters belongs to Rice’s Student Judicial Programs and not to Student Affairs. But Student Judicial Programs follows Rice’s Code of Student Conduct, which is aimed at conduct by individual students, and not by clubs. So far it seems that Rice simply does not have a disciplinary process for clubs.

It would appear that many of the students who have been violating Rice rules and policies are international students, probably paying full tuition. Academic suspension or expulsion would terminate their ability to remain in the country. Perhaps Rice has refrained from disciplining these students out of concerns for “collateral consequences”. Only Rice knows, and Rice has chosen to stay silent.

So Rice refuses to say how it enforces its own Code of Student Conduct or Policy 820, does not enforce its own Policy 130, does not know who is supposed to enforce Policy 856, and does not know who has jurisdiction over student clubs. Hence the phrase “rule of lawlessness” in the title of this article, and hence my anxiety about physical safety on the Rice campus.

In mid April, Rice received a “D” rating on the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) antisemitism report card, citing its “deficient approach” to antisemitism. The Houston Chronicle explained that “free speech issues complicate Rice University’s ‘D’ rating on ADL’s antisemitism report card”. But when speech crosses the line into harassment based on race, national origin, religion, or sex, it violates federal civil-rights laws, and schools can — and indeed must, if they receive federal funding — prohibit it. In fact, Rice’s Policy 130 is lear about that. had the ADL rated Rice on its approach to anti-Irsaeli harassment, Rice should have received an F, I believe, rather than a D. As the New York Times’ Editorial Board recently wrote: “Rules matter only when guardrails are consistently upheld. It’s in that enforcement that the leadership of too many universities has fallen short.” Indeed, Rice is patently failing to enforce its own rules and policies, yet it seems to believe it is doing the “right thing”.

On April 7, 2024, I wrote to the Director of Human Resources at Rice to tell her that “I am a faculty member of Rice University, and I do not feel physically safe on the campus.” I added that Rice has a duty of care to provide a workplace that is physically and emotionally safe. The response on April 12 was that if I do not feel physically safe, I should call RUPD and if I do not feel emotionally safe, I should seek counseling. Following that deeply unsatisfying answer, a group of about ten Israelis — faculty members, staff members, and students — held a meeting in mid April with the leadership of the university. We made it clear that we do not feel safe on the Rice campus. Two people pulled out pocket knives that they carry with them for self defense while on the Rice campus. The leadership listened with interest, but no promise of concrete steps to address these issues was made, other than a vague statement about something to be done during Orientation Week in the fall.

A response of sorts came a week later, when Rice SJP declared a liberated zone on campus. Rice said that the Rice “encampment” had their approval, and called it a “student-led teach-in event”, but the approval came after the fact and was not obtained 48 hours in advance, as required. This encampment was in response to a “Call-to-Action” by National SJP. While Rice was able to avoid the violence that accompanied encampments on other campuses, the praise to the organizers in Rice’s end-of-semester email, seemed out of place after a semester of lawless behavior by Rice SJP. The email stated that “Rice unequivocally considers calls for violence or genocide against any group to be evil, wrong and immoral,” but, so far, Rice declined to go beyond such generic announcements and address specific utterances that Israelis find threatening, such as “global intifada” and “from the water to the water, Palestine will be Arab”. The email claimed that “Those who violate our policies will face consequences through our established processes.” But what we have learned over the past few months is that those established processes have huge gaps in them, and then Rice uses privacy as an excuse to avoid accountability.

So I did not attend Commencement at Rice in 2024. The campus was not safe enough for me to do so.

Post-commencement, the Rice campus is quieter now as most students are gone for the summer. But the fall semester starts in just three months. The summer break provides Rice with an opportunity to reflect and decide how to bring back the rule of law to the Rice campus.

P.S. The image at the top is of a large poster that was posted in front of Rice’s Multicultural Center. which is part of Rice’s Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. The Popular University for Gaza is an initiative of National Students for Justice for Palestine, launched on April 20, 2024, as “a coordinated pressure campaign against university administrations and trustees to immediately divest from the Israeli state.” This poster was posted by Rice SJP with Rice’s approval, but it violates Rice’s Policy 856, as it does not identify the sponsor of the poster.

About the Author
Moshe Y. Vardi is a University Professor and the George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering at Rice University. He is the author and co-author of over 750 papers, as well as two books. He is a member of of the US National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences.