An explosion of hypocritical, self-righteous indignation from Republican bigots is never surprising. But this was even bigger, where Democrats, centrists, and typically reasoned and seasoned thinkers jumped on the bandwagon. If this were Game of Thrones, the presidents — Claudine Gay of Harvard, Sally Kornbluth of M.I.T., and Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania — would be marched through the crowds like Cersei Lannister, shamed and shunned and scorned and berated.
The newfound holy grail – antisemitism – had already been appropriated for convenience and expedience by the most rabid of the antisemites. You knew this was coming when Marjorie Taylor Green switched tactics from accusing Jews of setting forest fires with sky lasers to rebuking fellow congress member Rashida Tlaib for antisemitism. Imagine Alan Dershowitz seeking to punish Jeffrey Epstein for taking advantage of underage masseuses.
But this dog and pony show hit the mark. It wasn’t designed to get to the bottom of anything. It was intended to draw blood from the liberal university elite for campaign soundbites. And it succeeded.
It played out like this once the three offenders had been hauled before the congressional tribunal for nearly six hours.
Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, fired questions at the beleaguered presidents, already shell-shocked from donors withdrawing endowments, angry alumni demanding increasingly stronger condemnations of Hamas and support for Israel on the one hand, and increasingly angry students demanding more robust support for Palestinians and condemnation of Israel. Between a rock and a hard place would be an understatement.
Most people have only seen the money-shot soundbites – mere minutes from the nearly six hours of congressional grilling. Before those, all three university presidents, in varying ways, stated that they generally found calls for genocide abhorrent, that terms like intifada were reprehensible, and that they had to weigh their personal viewpoints with the policies they were paid to uphold. But like three shipwrecked survivors on a rubber dinghy surrounded by hungry, snapping sharks, their responses were stilted, carefully worded, rehearsed, devoid of emotion, and legalistic when the occasion called for shrill, self-righteous certainty to suit the black or white demands of the mob.
“At Harvard, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment?” Stefanik shot.
“It can be, depending on the context,” Gay responded.
But not for Stefanik and many others who used to brand the easily offended “snowflakes.”
Stefanik pressed Gay to give a yes or no answer to the question about whether calls for the genocide of Jews constitute a violation of Harvard’s policies.
“Antisemitic speech when it crosses into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation — that is actionable conduct and we do take action,” Gay replied.
“So the answer is yes, that calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard code of conduct, correct?” Stefanik pressed.
“Again, it depends on the context,” Gay said.
“It does not depend on the context. The answer is yes, and this is why you should resign,” Stefanik screeched back. “These are unacceptable answers across the board.”
This exchange almost blew up the Internet, with loud and angry demands for Gay to resign.
While Gay’s biggest mistake was failing to read the congressional room, she issued an apology the following day that did nothing to silence the angry mob.
“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” Gay said. “Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”
(Elizabeth Magill had been forced to resign from the University of Pennsylvania following her testimony, and only yesterday did the Harvard Board vote to retain Gay in the face of an urgent campaign to save her position by the likes of Barack Obama and other influential people with an iota of common sense and decency.)
The absence of context is like the absence of nuance.
For instance, my response to Congresswoman Stefanik’s question would have been: “From an ethical, legal, contractual, or constitutional perspective?”
It’s an easy answer from an ethical perspective. From a legal perspective, there might be state laws governing speech in Massachusetts and local laws governing it in Boston that need to be considered.
Although Harvard gets to set its own Code of Conduct, the very fact that they are being summoned and interrogated by lawmakers suggests that their own Code of Conduct isn’t the only source to approach the question, or for which there are ramifications to face. And then, from a constitutional perspective, the issue is entirely fraught, given how such speech is weighed from a First Amendment perspective.
“Hate speech” is a form of expression that offends, threatens, or insults individuals or groups based on attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender. While such speech is often abhorrent and harmful, the First Amendment protects the most offensive and unpopular speech. And sure, the First Amendment isn’t absolute. and certain categories of speech may be regulated without violating the Constitution. Incitement to violence, obscenity, child pornography, and actual threats are examples of speech that the government can – and does — restrict without running afoul of the First Amendment.
So, the question of whether a call for genocide for Jews (or perhaps an accusation of it being perpetrated by Jews) constitutes an incitement to violence (or bullying and harassment, which themselves are subjectively defined) requires…wait for it…context.
For some, the phrase “From the River to the Sea” represents the extermination of Jews and the eradication of Israel. For others, it has been reframed to represent Palestinian aspirations for a homeland that may or may not include Jews and/or Israelis. For others, it’s a convenient way to veil ugly antisemitism by reframing it and avoiding accountability that might come from expressing it more directly, like “all Jews should be killed.”
But where is the line drawn? Should a person be disciplined for asking, “Why did they discontinue that Zyklon B gas?” or remarking, “That Zyklon B gas sure does a good job.”
The fact that the former President of the United States is currently arguing in a court of law that he can’t be held accountable for incitement to violence on January 6, 2021, against a group like Congress or people responsible for “rigging the election” and in one instance even explicitly aimed at an individual, like Mike Pence, is yet another reason why it seems more than appropriate to suggest context would be necessary to answer some of these questions and decide how to respond.
Harvard’s policies are not a court of law, but even for a disciplinary committee, the intent of the culprits calling for the genocide would be relevant. Did they express it overtly? Are they aware of the potential ramifications of their speech? Do they have the faintest clue what they’re chanting about? There’s enough evidence to suggest that many people don’t realize what the phrase means and change their minds when it’s explained.
As president of an Ivy League university, Gay is bound to afford a student due process in making a disciplinary decision.
The frenzied calls to fire these presidents and the unbridled glee over their forced resignations are misguided overreactions that can have far-reaching and ugly implications. And look different when the shoe is on the other foot. When a president of a university is fired for refusing to discipline and condemn unequivocally a person calling Hamas and their supporters terrorists, who should be eradicated, will the same standard be applied, and would the need for nuance and context be irrelevant?
Universities, of all places, are where robust and unpopular views and sentiments are fleshed out and debated. This latest episode adds to the plethora of restrictions, from trigger warnings to misuse of pronouns to safe space sensitivities that end up being overzealous attempts to thwart dialog and serve nothing other than to deprive people of views and viewpoints they need to hear most. There’s no difference between the left and the right anymore. They both wield “cancel culture” as a weapon. And nothing like self-righteous moral certitude communicates the need to ask more questions and think deeper.
I want to know who hates me. If someone is chanting slogans that could feasibly be interpreted as a call to genocide, I want to know exactly who they are. For a chance to educate, avoid, or expose them. I don’t need lowlife members of Congress pretending to have my back or using my community’s fear to score political points.
Finally, donor influence is a toxin revealed in this latest eruption. Jewish donors can pull multi-million dollar donations, but so can many Arab donors and states that donate to universities or replace donations pulled by Jewish donors to exert influence in other directions. Is education really best served by a tug-of-war between donor interests?
Universities shouldn’t accept donations with strings attached and find ways to fundraise free of donors’ influence.
Select articles, news coverage and books from a plethora of publications covering Clinton Fein’s career as a technologist, activist, artist and speaker.
As an activist, with a Supreme Court victory over the Attorney General of the United States, Fein garnered international attention, including The New York Times, CNN and The Wall Street Journal.
Fein’s thought-provoking and controversial work as an artist caught the attention of prestigious educational institutions, including Harvard University, which recognized its socio-political relevance and ability to provoke crucial conversations about human rights, morality, and the boundaries of artistic expression.