Should we have been shocked by the pro-Hamas demonstrations on our elite college campuses in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas massacre? Yes and no. Should we be worried? Yes. Do we have the means to redeem our universities? Absolutely.
The pro-Hamas gatherings were decades-long in the making, the convergence of two phenomena: a deliberate radical exported agenda and American cultural evolutions, particularly college life. For more than a generation, Jewish students have shared experiences of being particularly unwelcome. Anti-Israel, antisemitic voices targeted Jewish groups. Cultural conservatives, even liberal moderates, made the same claims.
Driven by this convergence, later named “intersectionality” and “cancel culture,” these students and faculty engaged in a pattern of inviting certain speakers, not inviting others, disinviting those who were invited, and shouting down those who did not surrender and came to speak. The university ideal — to educate its students by representing views across the spectrum, advocating tolerance for divergent views — was transformed into a selectively intolerant and hostile environment. The transformation happened incrementally, though noticeably. These trends were well-documented and publicized, except for the media, organizations, and individuals who chose to ignore or minimize it.
What was shocking, in the wake of the Hamas massacre, is the intense pro-Hamas protests. From speeches, signs, and individual comments, we heard and saw young people denying and justifying the massacre of innocents — babies killed and beheaded, women raped, the elderly murdered, families burned, more than 230 hostages taken. No, we were shocked even more. As footage showed Hamas terrorists shouting in glee, these “protestors” celebrated the massacre. Typically they blamed the Jews and America for it. Few could have anticipated these reactions.
But even that was not the only shock. University leaders did not immediately clearly condemn these protests, but cloaked them under a perverted view of free speech. “Perverted” not only as a legitimate theoretical disagreement, perverted because these “models of morality” have themselves been openly and clearly condemning and even punishing less violent speech, even insinuations, directed against others. Our “esteemed” professors, too, remained largely silent. We were shocked by the implicit sympathy and silence of so many.
It is well-known, but needs review, that a transformation began in the 1960’s and 70’s. A new generation of young Americans — now my age — rose to action. Protesting the Vietnam War, supporting civil rights and women’s rights, they organized on campuses, made demands. Action manifested in sit-ins, halting education. The leadership originally opposed the physical means but eventually capitulated. It was not enough to learn, study, and talk, action was needed, and indeed, the direction of the university itself needed to be changed.
In the late 1980’s, a friend and later rabbinical colleague, introduced me to a profound best-selling book that sold more than a half million copies. Rob Toren (where are you?), a Harvard graduate, had rediscovered his Jewish identity and his Jewish religion. He was moving from liberalism to Orthodoxy both in his thinking and religious practice, and would eventually move further right than me.
“The Closing of the American Mind” (1987) still occupies a prominent place on my bookshelf, though I have not read the yellow and red highlighted pages in several decades. The author, Allen Bloom (Professor of Social Thought at the University of Chicago) died just five years later. His thesis: Classical education — he meant Greek philosophy — was largely ignored in our universities, at our peril. Our students were no longer learning important moral lessons in thought and history, but distant from the real issues, they developed a superficial simplistic morality. I cite one of his observations to illustrate his (and my point): The study of history and culture taught his students “not to correct the mistakes and really be right” but “not to think you are right at all.”
Bloom’s observation of our universities is no longer true, measured by the response to Hamas’ massacre. The educational failure that he observed created a vacuum and in rushed simplistic, “emotional truth.” To be sure, the majority of students have not expressed support for Hamas; they remained, as many students and people do, on the sidelines — partly ignorant and confused, partly protecting their own safety not wishing to offend anyone, focused on their own goals, living in their own worlds. But surely they will be affected and can affect.
I recall sharing Bloom’s thesis with Rabbi Alan Yuter, who became my informal influential teacher. I recall him agreeing with Bloom, but only so far. Bloom, he responded, relied on Greek philosophy, rather than the classic Torah-Rabbinic sources.
Torah is not determined by democratic voting, though it acknowledges that individual and national choice resides among the people. In setting out two distinct paths, Deuteronomy 30:15, 19 states, “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity … I have put before you life and earth, blessing and curse. Choose life.” (NJPS) Torah is not neutral about choice, but highlights choice. There are many explicit Torah teachings and implicit narratives that make the same point. RaMBaM (Hilchot Teshuvah Chapter 5) explains that mitzvah — command — implies choice. Human thought and behavior is not predetermined; we choose — life or death.
But Torah was and is democratic in one profound way: Education. All Israel stood at Sinai to hear the commandments, and another public ceremony for the next generation was called before entering the land, towards the end of Moses’ life. Why? Israelite society depended upon it.
Leaders — including political leaders and judges — come from that society. Furthermore, leaders can stray, aggrandize their power, direct the public in the wrong path, and pervert justice. Democratic Torah learning is the foundational check against it.
The Torah required study — “teach them to your children.” (Deuteronomy 6 and 11) Gather the people once every seven years for the hakhel public reading of the Torah. (Deuteronomy 31:10-13) By rabbinic times, the Jewish people had gone much further — reading a section of the Torah publicly every week, actually four times a week, prophetic words in the Haftarah each Shabbat, and much more. Jews studied Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud — and their commentaries. Exactly one hundred years ago, 1923, a program to study daf yomi — a page of Talmud each day — was instituted. Many tens of thousands of Jews, some non-Orthodox, regularly participate. Others engage in less demanding classes of Torah study.
It does not mean that everyone understands and lives Torah correctly. Torah has many voices and oodles of interpreters and interpretations. But Torah study invites conversation, moral conversation, religious conversation, practical conversation. Unlike our university education, central to Torah study is right and wrong, interpreted and debated. Life and death depend upon it.
I do not seek to persuade Hamas supporters. They are cult-like. Emotional allegiance, lies and gross distortions of facts, inversions of truth in a detached concocted anti-reality renders dialogue a waste. So too their “intersectional” partners, who have united in a victim-blame ideology against good, yet imperfect people.
Our political leaders and media need to investigate our college campuses — what are they teaching, who is supervising, from where does their funding come? Follow the money. Anything less is a grave sin of omission, depraved indifference. If university leaders show themselves unable or unwilling to speak with moral clarity, they should be replaced. “Educational” programs and classes, and professors who indoctrinate, who are unable or unwilling to present competing views fairly with restrained emotion, need to be defunded and replaced.
Ultimately, a sustainable democracy depends upon its education. Jews are blessed with a gift — a national treasure, Torah which we generously share with the world. Redemption begins by choosing life; it endures through Torah study.