Why Ivy League universities are so blasé about genocide

On the 21st-century campus, everyone is protected from offence. Except the Jews.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics USA World

We’ve seen many sick things in the West since the Hamas pogrom of 7 October. Hitler moustaches daubed on a poster in London featuring two of the Jewish kids kidnapped by Hamas. Britain’s middle classes marching with Hamas fanboys sporting green bandanas and hollering for jihad against the Jewish state. Jewish students in the US taking refuge in libraries and common rooms from mobs screaming: ‘We don’t want no Jew state!’ Synagogues firebombed, Israeli flags burned, feminists who’ve spent years calling everything under the sun ‘sexism’ saying nothing, not a word, nada, about Hamas’s brutalisation of Israeli women.

Now, to this list of shame, this roll-call of moral rot, we can add another repellent incident: the failure of Ivy League universities in the US to make a full-throated condemnation of those who dream of committing genocide against the Jews.

You read that right. The presidents of three of America’s top universities – Harvard, MIT and Penn – got defensive yesterday at a House Education Committee hearing on the rise of anti-Semitism on campus. One of their scrutineers – Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York – asked about campus chants for ‘intifada’. It has become quite the fad among well-brought-up white radicals who get their world history from 60-second TikTok vids to don the keffiyeh – cultural appropriation much? – and call for the ‘globalisation of the intifada’. To some Jewish students, Stefanik said, this vogue for intifada comes off as threatening.

She pushed further. Imagine there was someone on campus calling for a ‘genocide of Jews’ – would that ‘violate [your] rules on bullying and harassment?’, she asked. The responses were extraordinary. Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT, said such utterances might be ‘investigated as harassment’ if they were ‘pervasive and severe’. So an MIT student can rally for a Jew genocide a little, but not a lot. Claudine Gay, president of Harvard, said her university would take action if such speech were to ‘cross… into conduct’. I guess it’s a relief to know that if a Harvard student behaves genocidally – perhaps by erecting a makeshift gas chamber on the quad – the administration will take this seriously.

Liz Magill, president of Penn, said the question of whether calling for a Jewish genocide constitutes ‘bullying’ is ‘context-dependent’. Maybe at Penn you need to do your Shoah lobbying 20 feet away from any Jews so that they don’t feel directly intimidated by your racist lust to exterminate their people. Stefanik got flustered. ‘This is the easiest question to answer!’, she said, offering the assembled heads of America’s most prestigious universities one more chance to say that calling for every Jew on Earth to be wiped out might be against their codes of conduct.

It was a wild hearing. Even those of us who long ago lost faith in the academy – given its descent into the cesspit of anti-civilisational hysteria and woke scolding – were taken aback by the sight of Ivy League bosses erming and ahhing on genocide.

To be fair – briefly – the presidents were not indifferent to anti-Semitism. Gay of Harvard condemned Hamas’s ‘heinous and barbaric’ pogrom. Anti-Semitic speech is ‘abhorrent to me’, she said. All three women were, I think, trying to make the case for free speech. Hence their distinction between words and behaviour. Between expressing the opinion, however vile, that there should be a genocide and screaming in a Jewish student’s face: ‘Your people should be wiped out!’

It’s worth remembering that many a free-speech advocate has defended the liberty to hate. The ACLU – back when it was good – supported the right of Nazis to march in Skokie in Illinois, a town with a large Jewish population. Aryeh Neier, the heroic Jewish director of the ACLU at the time, said: ‘Defending my enemy is the only way to protect a free society against the enemies of freedom.’ Those words should echo down the decades.

Yet it seems clear to me that our shuffling, nervous Ivy League heads have very little in common with yesteryear’s valiant warriors for the liberty to speak. Witness their entirely administrative attitude to the question of genocide-speak. These doyennes of the Byzantine bureaucracy of the 21st-century campus seem obsessed with ‘the rules’. The only way they can understand the profound question of whether genocide advocacy is permissible speech is by referring to their universities’ carefully drawn speech codes. They avoid the immense moral challenge thrown up by a question like ‘Should genocide advocacy enjoy freedom?’ in preference for citing the rulebook. Where liberals of the past thought in deep moral terms, this lot thinks only technically. They end up defending the right to call for genocide for the wrong reasons – not because, in Aryeh Neier’s view, we must defend freedom even for speech we hate, but because they’ve memorised that dusty document in HR’s top drawer that sets out exactly when words become ‘violence’.

Worse, there’s the double standards. To many observers of yesterday’s hearing, it will have felt nothing short of horrifying that the representatives of campuses overrun by petty and insane forms of censorship should be so chilled about the most racist speech imaginable. What the layman knows of the Anglo-American campus in 2023 is that you can be mobbed and reprimanded and disinvited for the slightest transgressions against correct-think. That students, often with the blessing of administrators, have constructed ‘safe spaces’ in which to hide from the horror of a disagreeable idea. That trigger warnings have been whacked on works of literature to shield students from scary storylines and adult themes. And yet now we see Ivy League presidents essentially saying: ‘Yeah, it’s okay to call for the murder of all Jews.’

Jews, clearly, are not covered by the new moral order in the academy. They do not enjoy the same security from offence that is offered to other identity groups. All of us have the right to a ‘safe space’, ‘a refuge’, where we might feel ‘insulated from pressures, insults and impositions’, says the Penn website. Not Jews, though? They might have to run the gamut of genocidal hate? A ‘sense of belonging’ is ‘critical for students’, says MIT, which is why we ‘strive to create an environment that is welcoming’. But not for Jewish students? They might have to suck up hearing people call for the gassing of their race? Harvard promises to be a ‘safe environment’ for everyone regardless of their ‘race and ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ+ [status]’, etc. And yet Jewish students might hypothetically have to listen to some Goebbels fanboy with blue hair and a Palestinian scarf praying for Jewish extermination? Make it make sense.

Clearly, the safe-space system that now pertains on campuses does not extend to Jews. No safe space for you. No sense of belonging. No shield from triggering. Let’s be clear: Jews are second-class citizens in the modern academy. Where racist regimes of old forbade Jews from entering certain professions or marrying gentiles, the new woke regime denies them access to the new moral conventions – good and ill – of campus life. This is identity politics in action, in all its wickedness and bigotry. This new hyper-racial regime brutally organises people according to their ‘oppression’ or ‘privilege’, offering safety to the former while exposing the latter to ridicule, judgement and, we now know, open calls for their mass slaughter. So where some students are protected from the microaggression of being asked ‘Where are you from?’, Jewish students can be exposed to people calling for Jews to be killed. Thus anti-Semitism is re-institutionalised, under the cover of woke.

What should Jewish students do about their blatantly racist exclusion from campus convention? I agree with Batya Ungar-Sargon: instead of fighting for inclusion in the safe space, they should fight against the safe space. Instead of agitating for their fragility to be respected alongside that of other minority groups, they should revolt against the entire cult of fragility. The hypocrisy, illiberalism and outright racism of the new campus ideologies of ‘safety’ and ‘inclusion’ have been starkly exposed in the aftermath of 7 October, and such a poisonous moral order deserves dismantling, not expansion. It was the academy’s turn against reason and enlightenment that landed us in the horrendous situation where students are not allowed to say a man is not a woman but they can call for every Jew on Earth to be murdered – only with the restoration of reason and enlightenment might sense finally return.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

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Topics Politics USA World


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