Sara Yael Hirschhorn
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Something is rotten in the state of academe

The community of scholars has stood aside as ideological vitriol and even actual hate crimes have proliferated on campuses
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators gather for a protest at Columbia University, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, File)
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators gather for a protest at Columbia University, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, File)

As Hamas terrorists invaded civilian residential communities and attacked a rave in the desert of Southern Israel near the Gaza border, carrying out war crimes that included massacres of entire families at home in their pajamas on a Saturday morning, gunning down free-spirited festival-goers as they ran for their lives, burning kibbutzim to the ground, beheading babies, raping women, and carrying off hostages including toddlers and old ladies into captivity on 7 October 2023 and have subsequently used Gazans as human shields, siphoned their humanitarian supplies, and seemingly fabricating the Israeli bombing of the Al Ahli hospital as war ensued. You would think that the best and brightest of America might be the beacons of clarity in an international crisis, wouldn’t you?

Today, these millennials witnessed the wanton slaughter of civilians in scenes from Shoah 2.0, including young students who in an alternate universe could have been their roommates and friends. In response, on dozens and dozens of grassy quadrangles across the country, students gathered to cheer Hamas’s activities at raucous and even violent demonstrations. They featured speakers who expressed support for terror to frenzied glee and enthusiastically chanted call-and-response slogans dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel and the broader elimination of the Jewish people, such as “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Must Be Free!,” “Long Live the Intifada!” and even “Glory to the Martyrs!” At some point, I simply lost count of how many universities have hosted similar rallies, which continue on a daily basis.

Other campuses, most notably the ultra-elite of Harvard University, signed petitions engaging in what can only be characterized as solipsistic whataboutism (surely they do better in their college seminars?) to “contextualize” how they condone violence. Later, some retracted their signatures, professing ignorance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or claiming they didn’t actually do the reading before signing their names, yet some stood by statements shilling for terrorism. These same students seemed shocked when their names were released and they were publicly called to account for their solidarity statements. Other students who issued vitriolic statements blaming Israel for violence or espousing antisemitic sentiments found their prestigious job offers at law firms and corporations rescinded for failing to represent employer values. While doxxing students with their photos on the back of a roving truck around campus is an extreme measure, I wonder: Had I signed a petition calling for 50 Dumas and Huwaras with the kind of atrocities we saw last Saturday, should my name not be known? Should I not face some public and professional consequences too?

In the wake of these events, Jewish and Zionist-identifying students were verbally and physically attacked in their dorms and common spaces, bullied on social media, and made to feel unsafe on their campuses, some even confessing they felt too scared to attend class or solidarity rallies for Israel. [Armed guards have now been deployed to some universities to protect Jewish students while attending Shabbat dinners.] One Israeli student at Columbia University was even beaten on the street with a stick while confronting a protestor ripping down posters of those kidnapped by Hamas. Others were defiant in their expressions of horror, grief, and solidarity, but wondered what truly was the point of a $75,000-a-year university education if it led their classmates to this?

But surely the responsible adults, the educators, the community of scholars, were working overtime in service of truth? Many, it seems, were hiding under the desks, while others denounced Israeli aggression and apartheid to justify brutal acts and war crimes. At Cornell University, a professor professed to being simply “exhilarated” by Hamas atrocities, later issuing a statement where he clarified his remarks, calling war crimes “a symbol of resistance” and equated “the fundamentalism of Hamas mirrors that of the Israeli leadership.” At Yale University, one professor could not seem to pass Political Science 101 to differentiate between “settlers” and “civilians,” announcing her support for Hamas’s actions in a now-deleted tweet on X. At Stanford, Jewish students were sent to stand in the corner (!) while harangued by their lecturer that colonialism had killed more innocents than the Holocaust. Across the United States, students have seen their professors on TV and social media providing a masterclass in the kind of sophistry they could bring to their next rally or petition.

As bullhorns echoed across leafy paths all the way to the offices of University Presidents and DEI administrators, the leadership of academia fell silent. At Harvard, after days of studious reticence, it took the public shaming of a former president and donors closing their checkbooks for leaders to issue a tepid statement, one that was amended a second time for failing to take a stand. [Alumni at PENN withdrew funding and resigned from the university board, which was met with a Faculty Senate letter that seemed to evoke antisemitic rhetoric about Jewish money and power.] Some, even days or a week later, sent emails that could hardly use the word Israel or Hamas without qualification, rendering violence only in the passive voice. Other campuses including my former employer Northwestern University, which have spoken out repeatedly on other events in the news cycle and their campuses, still remain mute.

While the public value of official statements may be dubious, the stunning absence after these attacks against Israelis and Jews could only be read as coded antisemitism. For all the campus chatter about diversity, equity, and inclusion, there seems to be one category that need not apply. Further, we should be crystal clear that the lack of condemnation of pro-Palestine rallies on campus that have threatened and terrorized Israeli, Jewish, and Zionist students would never be tolerated for other identity politics groups. Can you imagine a university in 2023 that would allow the KKK to wander through campus extolling the burning of black babies? Or tolerate a call for the extermination of Native Americans from sea to sea of American shores? Or proclaim a never-ending uprising against Palestinian students? As administrators fulminate about protecting free speech (or hate speech and incitement to violence?), this simply confirms what many have feared all along: Antisemitism has taken firm root in academia.

I was an undergraduate at Yale University on 9/11, and I remember how my fellow classmates and I sat slack-jawed in common rooms watching the Twin Towers fall over and over on television, then stood sheltering candle flames from the wind on Cross Campus as we mourned the dead. I was no stranger to wars in the Middle East even then and had spent my junior year of high school in Israel shortly after the Rabin assassination. It simply never occurred to (most of) us then to cheer Al-Qaida or to defend the killing of Manhattan office workers, Pentagon officials, or airplane travelers as an appropriate and proportionate response to US imperialism. How times have changed.

As a professor of Israeli studies in the UK and USA for more than a decade, I am not surprised that the campuses have erupted in paroxysms of rowdy hate while maintaining a deafening silence on the Hamas atrocity. I have taught hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students about the conflict, but sadly only the ones who defied campus orthodoxies to take a course with “Israel” or “Zionism” in the title, a topic that we all knew to be the third-rail of campus politics. These brave students, I might add, have been Jews, Muslims, Christians, black and white, millennials and mature students, Germans and Poles, Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab. I had even joked in recent years that my enrollment was becoming a kind of algorithm for normalization with Israel.

I have heard their stories of real micro-and macro-aggressions from fellow students and even from my colleagues in the professoriate, not to mention their social anxiety over the risk of becoming a social pariah if they bring up the topic in the cafeteria or dorm room; whatever historical information and tools of critical inquiry I could instill, many seemed to beg me just to be a kind of campus babysitter to enable the three hours a week they could sit together and have a supervised conversation with their peers without fear of ignorance or shame.

I myself have felt increasingly isolated, despaired as my scholarly research and progress on the academic job market were subjected to political litmus tests, and even shaken by the occasional antisemitic outburst from an academic peer. It had become increasingly hard to uphold critical thinking and intellectual integrity, groundbreaking research and open-minded education, and real dialogue with fellow professionals when this seemed to be policed and even punished by peers and higher powers.

Mostly, I just saw a lot of the Ivory Tower not doing its job: While there can be a fine line between ardent yet principled anti-Zionism and rank antisemitism, I saw this crossed with impunity in an academy that abandoned its intellectual duties. Rather, as not only ideological vitriol but actual hate crimes proliferated on campuses in recent years, the community of scholars stood aside.

Today, as I watch my professional home descend into a despicable orgy of hatred and violence, I wonder how any Zionist or Jew can return to these campuses without a true reckoning (one that is unlikely to be forthcoming). Is everyone now supposed to just go back to Kumbaya in the classroom and cafeteria as if we can somehow unsee what our community of scholars has become? The Ivory Tower has been blackened by the events of this week, but who will be called to account?

Ultimately, I watch in anguish at what has been a profound failure of education – including of myself and fellow educators – for at least a generation. If this is what informed student-citizens in a democratic society think and do, we have utterly failed them. We must have taught them polemics rather than principles, apologetics rather than analysis, slogans rather than critical thinking. While politicians, society, the media, and even parents may have a role to play, it is also we who have caused this scourge to set in. Can we really now be the ones to nurture new growth?

Something is rotten in the state of academia. We can only hope sunlight will be the best disinfectant in our troubled times.

About the Author
Dr. Sara Yael Hirschorn is a researcher at the Comper Center for Contemporary Antisemitism and instructor at the Ruderman Program for American-Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa. She is the author of the award-winning book, City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement (Harvard, 2017) and completing a new book on Zionism, Jewish Power, and Identity Politics Since 1967. Follow her on SaraHirschhorn1@X.