Above photo: Alisdare Hickson/Flckr.com.
“Fears of Violence on Mass. Campuses Are Silencing Many on Israel-Hamas War,” reads a recent news headline from western Massachusetts. The article quotes several professors who say they feel silenced by those who criticize US-Israeli policy. It also quotes several critics of US-Israeli policy who say they feel silenced. What should we make of these dueling claims?
The key practical question here is what campus leaders are doing to protect free speech. It’s problematic whenever an individual infringes on another’s free-speech rights, but what’s most important is how administrators respond. They’re the ones who set policies and they also exercise the most influence over campus culture.
The problem with the “all-sides-are-being-silenced” argument is that administrators have responded differently based on whether the targeted individuals support or oppose US-Israeli policy.
At UMass Amherst, where I teach, the administration has staunchly defended the free speech of supporters but has failed to defend opponents. When a student allegedly ripped an Israeli flag from a Jewish student’s hands on November 3, administrators sent an all-campus email condemning the action. They sent no such email after a faculty member, who is also Jewish, received threats of physical violence because she opposes US-Israeli policy.
My administration has also opted for a draconian response to activists who criticize UMass’s partnership with weapons makers that supply the US and Israeli militaries. When hundreds of students – Muslims, Jews, and others – occupied a building on October 25, administrators rejected pleas for dialogue and deployed the police department to arrest them. They have since threatened the students with suspension and loss of housing and even posted their home addresses online. Student activists who have received threats have been told by campus police that the threats are not “credible.” The three Palestinian students who survived a murder attempt in Vermont on Nov. 25 may feel differently.
Official statements have also made clear where the administration’s sympathies lie. UMass President Marty Meehan has joined other presidents and chancellors in reaffirming that they “stand with Israel.” That statement was released on October 26, more than two weeks into an Israeli campaign of ethnic cleansing that legal experts widely consider genocidal.
I’ve spoken with many UMass employees and students who fear retaliation from supervisors and/or administrators if they speak out against US-Israeli policy. Some have reluctantly remained silent. Given the administration’s behavior since October 7, their caution is understandable.
They’re also aware of the national scene. Educators elsewhere (including at Smith College) as well as journalists, actors, lawyers, and union organizers have lost their jobs for protesting US-Israeli policy. Student groups that advocate for Palestinian rights are being banned by campus leaders and state politicians – often the same demagogic politicians who have banned discussion of racism, slavery, sexuality, and empire from K-12 classrooms.
By contrast, how often have institutional leaders, at UMass or anywhere else, fired an employee or banned a student group for supporting US-Israeli policy? Even when supporters engage in overtly genocidal incitement – calling Palestinians “bloodthirsty morally depraved animals” or praising Israel’s obliteration of Gaza as a “much needed cleansing” – they have only been investigated, placed on leave, or removed from campus leadership positions, not fired.
Administrators everywhere condemned Hamas’s terror attacks, but how many have condemned US-Israeli terrorism, which is far more destructive of human life? Has a single administrator, anywhere, proclaimed that they “stand with Palestine” against Israel’s illegal 56-year occupation?
How many have denounced, let alone banned, affiliates of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a nationwide spy network that feeds information on activists to the Israeli government? That group is proudly “modeled on General Stanley McCrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq,” in its CEO’s words. It includes “over 600 university faculty from 200 different campuses,” according to its website.
It’s true that supporters of US-Israeli policy may feel some vague social pressure from their peers. But there is a fundamental difference between the credible fear of retaliation felt by critics and the mere discomfort of a conservative tenured professor who disagrees with a petition that a leftist colleague posted on the faculty listserv. Disagreement does not equal danger.
Why then do the supporters of US-Israeli policy keep claiming victimhood? Some of them are undoubtedly sincere. Hamas’s October 7 attacks have been deeply traumatic for people with connections to Israel. The recent rise in antisemitic violence in the West adds to their fear.
In many cases, however, claims of victimhood are a cynical ploy. The Right is consciously “working the refs”: alleging discrimination in order to win preferential treatment.
It’s a time-tested strategy. In 1971 right-wing lawyer Lewis Powell warned the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of a pervasive “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” Powell claimed that “few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American businessman.” He called for an “aggressive” response, including “constant surveillance” of media and school curricula and the lodging of incessant “complaints” with authorities.
Contrary to Powell’s claims, the American businessman was still mostly in control of society – he just no longer had a total stranglehold, thanks to the social movements of the 1930s and 1960s. One measure of business’s continued power is that Powell himself was soon appointed to the Supreme Court. He and the rest of the corporate world then launched an aggressive assault on workers and the public sector, the consequences of which we are living with today.
Their assault included “constant surveillance” and “complaints” directed at universities. Continually claiming discrimination became a way of bullying administrators and faculty into compliance. Powell and his allies simultaneously defunded public higher education, which made campuses more dependent on private donors. Since October 7, donors have threatened to pull funding if administrators aren’t sufficiently supportive of US-Israeli policy. Right-wing donors’ success in a few high-profile cases, like the University of Pennsylvania, is just the tip of the iceberg, since such victories have a broad chilling effect.
Though the Right always claims that universities are dominated by leftists, a better case can be made for right-wing dominance. The campus boards that determine investments, tuition rates, appointment of administrators, and other crucial matters are run mostly by business tycoons. The UMass Board of Trustees is a who’s-who of the Massachusetts corporate elite. The undemocratic structure of the modern university helps explain campuses’ selectivity in responding to recent free-speech disputes.
Democratizing our campuses will require a long-term struggle. Right now, we should demand that campus administrators safeguard the free-speech rights of all employees and students. They must publicly reaffirm those rights, protect individuals who are targeted with harassment and threats, and engage in good-faith dialogue with activists who oppose their policies.
Kevin A. Young is Associate Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He serves on the steering committee of Historians for Peace and Democracy, which has compiled an online archive of right-wing attacks on critical thinking.