The Hamas-Israel War and the Tensions on College Campuses
The ongoing Hamas-Israel war has resulted in significant turmoil on college campuses, shedding light on a tension that university administrators have not fully addressed. Many colleges have prioritized creating a safe and welcoming environment for their students, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college and may feel uneasy. As a result, schools have implemented restrictions on speech that may upset students as a means of ensuring their safety.
Examples of these restrictions have predominantly targeted conservative expression. For instance, M.I.T. disinvited a geophysicist from giving a lecture because he criticized certain aspects of affirmative action. However, there have also been restrictions on left-leaning expression, such as M.I.T. prohibiting students from asking others to wear masks during the Covid pandemic.
Regardless of the ideological leaning, a fundamental tension exists. It is often impossible to maximize everyone’s sense of safety and comfort. The expression of certain views on society’s biggest political issues will inevitably make some students feel uncomfortable. However, the restriction of those same views will make others feel uncomfortable as the ability to openly discuss important issues is a crucial aspect of feeling welcome in a community.
The debate surrounding the use of masks during the Covid pandemic serves as a relevant example. Being around unmasked classmates who may spread germs can make some students uncomfortable, while being pressured to wear a mask for an extended period can make others feel uncomfortable. Neither group is necessarily wrong, as they have different priorities.
There are numerous other examples. Debates on affirmative action often center around whether colleges should enroll more or fewer students from various racial and ethnic groups. Strong opinions on this topic can make certain students feel more or less welcome on campus.
These tensions have largely remained under the surface until now, mainly because the debates have been one-sided. Surveys conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression indicate that fewer than 20% of students at most selective colleges identify as conservative. This percentage drops below 10% at many colleges, including Brown, Colgate, Emory, Grinnell, Johns Hopkins, Middlebury, Oberlin, Penn, Pomona, Williams, and the University of Vermont.
The Hamas-Israel war has brought these tensions to the forefront as both sides of the debate have significant constituencies on college campuses. Jewish students and conservatives often believe that colleges have allowed celebrations of Hamas’s violent actions and antisemitic calls for future violence, leading to feelings of hypocrisy. Similarly, Palestinian students and their left-leaning allies perceive themselves to be at risk of harassment and potential job loss for expressing principled arguments about human suffering and democratic rights.
Universities face a challenge in trying to make both sides feel safe. Pro-Palestinian students may feel unwelcome if they are unable to criticize Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and its actions in Gaza. These students may advocate for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” or the “right of return” as ways to express their support for a unified nation that encompasses all of Israel and its occupied territories.
On the other hand, pro-Israel students may interpret these statements as calls for the elimination of the only Jewish nation in the world, to be replaced by another Muslim-dominated state. They may argue that many college activists seem to prioritize criticizing Israel’s human rights record over other countries like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Hamas.
In recent years, U.S. colleges have focused more on restricting speech that upsets liberals rather than conservatives. This inconsistency has been highlighted by Jewish students and their allies, placing university leaders in a difficult position. Regardless of their personal politics, defending different standards for different ideologies becomes uncomfortable for them.
University leaders are now grappling with what actions to take. The answers are not simple. Some political speech may cross the line into harassment or advocacy for violence. Additionally, universities, especially private institutions, have the right to adopt a more restrictive standard than what is protected by the First Amendment.
However, university leaders must make a fundamental choice. Do they expand the list of restricted speech to include more statements that make conservatives, Jewish students, and others feel unsafe? Or do they shrink the list and inform all students that they may need to feel uncomfortable at times?
For more information:
- Harvard’s governing board is expected to announce today whether the university’s president, Claudine Gay, will remain in her position.
- In Times Opinion, Maureen Dowd, Michelle Goldberg, David French, and Bret Stephens have each written columns on campus speech.
- “The anti-Israel activists complain that their critics stop caring about free speech when the speech is pro-Palestinian, while the pro-Israel activists accuse the pro-Palestinian left of abandoning its commitment to safety and tolerance when the victims are Jewish,” wrote Jonathan Chait in New York magazine. “Both criticisms have a lot of truth.”