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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Palestine Protests are a Test of Whether This is a Free Country

Can the United States apply consistent standards to pro-Palestine protesters as it does to protecting speech in favor of our country’s violence? No, it doesn’t seem like we can.

 At an extraordinary hearing in Congress this week, government officials grilled the president of a private university, pressing her to commit to firing professors and disciplining students over their political speech. Instead of telling the government forcefully that speech on college campuses is not a matter for the U.S. Congress to be involved with, the university president in question—Minouche Shafik of Columbia University—groveled and promised to do better. It was a depressing moment, because it showed that freedom of speech and academic freedom are still, as in previous times of war, easily forgotten about or set aside.

The hearing was sometimes absurd. Republican Representative Rick Allen of Georgia quoted the Bible’s warning that “If you curse Israel, I will curse you,” and asked Shafik if she wanted Columbia University to be cursed by the God of the Bible. (Shafik replied that she did not.) But Allen’s ludicrous question reveals something important about the nature of these hearings. While ostensibly about antisemitism on campus, they are also very much about threatening critics of Israel with punishment, ensuring that people will hesitate before publicly opposing the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza or the U.S. government’s transfer of arms to Israel. 

Rep. Elise Stefanik pressed Shafik to agree that certain phrases that had allegedly been heard at pro-Palestine demonstrations were “anti-Jewish.” Most obviously were (“Jews out,” etc.), but Stefanik included “fuck Israel” on her list of “anti-Jewish” phrases, and Shafik agreed. Shafik reassured the committee that she had “dismiss[ed] or remov[ed] five faculty members from the classroom in recent months for comments related to Israel’s assault on Gaza, as well as suspending 15 students and two student groups—Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.” She agreed that use of the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” might be enough in and of itself to warrant disciplinary action. She condemned Columbia Middle East Studies professor Joseph Massad and promised to ensure that he was removed from a committee chairmanship. Massad had written an article that was accused of celebrating violence against civilians on Oct. 7, an interpretation he forcefully rejected

Shortly after the hearing, Shafik demonstrated her commitment to cracking down on unauthorized pro-Palestinian protests by calling NYPD riot cops to arrest over 100 students who were staging a sit-in. The school suspended many students before their arrests, including Ilhan Omar’s daughter Isra Hirsi, meaning they were charged as trespassers on the university campus.

Shafik’s commitment to academic freedom and the freedom to protest appears pitifully weak. She has even had an outside private investigation firm investigate student protesters. Before her testimony, Shafik wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about what she planned to tell Congress. Notably, it did not contain a robust defense of the right of free expression. Instead, it said the issue was “complicated,” because there was a “conflict between the free-speech rights of pro-Palestinian protesters and the impact that these protests were having on our Jewish students and their supporters.” Shafik says that these students deserve “a supportive environment or at least an environment free of fear, harassment and discrimination.” 

A few things about these statements stand out. First, note that Shafik falsely implies that “our Jewish students” do not support pro-Palestinian protests, when plenty of Jewish students are in fact highly critical of Israel. Second, she also implies that the subjective feelings of some students about a protest are a valid reason to abrogate the basic speech rights of others. Indeed, one of the heads of the university’s board of trustees praised “one of the excellent recommendations of our antisemitism task force” that “if you are going to chant, it should only be in a certain place, so that people who don’t want to hear it are protected from having to hear it.” Note that we are not talking about restrictions on outright antisemitic behavior here, which presumably wouldn’t be allowed in any place, but ensuring that free speech is confined to particular designated zones in order to “protect” those who do not wish to be exposed to protest. In other words, to ensure that protest cannot be effective by reaching people. 

Of course, the idea that students have a right to be “protected” from strong disagreement with their point of view is the very kind of thinking that conservatives would have mocked in years past. (Remember the endless whining about “safe spaces?”) If Democrats had hauled university presidents before Congress, pressuring them to crack down on pro-Trump students or fire committee chairs who wrote conservative editorials, it would have rightly been condemned as an attack on “viewpoint diversity” and basic freedoms. Conservatives are not given to understatement, so it would have been called a Stalinist woke-Maoist totalitarian conspiracy to destroy our country. (They call basically everything that now.)
Naturally, the argument here is that pro-Palestine protests are not targeted because they are pro-Palestine, but because they are pro-Hamas, supporting or condoning a terrorist organization that committed a horrifying mass murder on October 7. Massad’s article, for instance, certainly portrays the actions of Hamas positively, as part of a resistance struggle against occupation and apartheid. But here we have to ask: is the standard applied consistently? Israel has committed much more violence than Hamas, including many outright war crimes. We know that Israel does not care how many civilians it kills, and has in fact been deliberately starving Palestinians, letting food into Gaza only under extreme external pressure. We also know that the U.S. government has protected Israel at the United Nations, defended it in the International Court of Justice, and continues to provide Israel with arms without putting conditions on how they are used. A consistent standard would make it just as controversial to publicly support Joe Biden as to support Hamas, perhaps more so if we compare the civilian toll of each party’s actions. (Personally, as a pacifist, I am critical of both Joe Biden and Hamas, because I consistently oppose all terror against civilians and think it cannot ever be justified.) 

Columbia isn’t the only university clamping down on pro-Palestine speech (without similar clampdowns on pro-Israel or pro-U.S. speech). Vanderbilt University has expelled students who participated in a protest after the school stopped an initiative to bar school funds from going to businesses that support Israel. Eighteen Pomona College students were arrested after protesting the removal of a pro-Palestinian artwork on campus. Importantly, these kinds of authoritarian measures don’t just harm the students they target. They also intimidate everyone else who may have been thinking of expressing an opinion. Students who feel they can’t afford to lose their place in the university will have to weigh up the risk of suspension or expulsion against the justice of the cause. Many students have concluded, and will continue to conclude, that the risks to them personally are minor compared to the suffering of Gazans. But it certainly chills speech when professors and students are consistently being targeted for serious punitive consequences. 

History doesn’t tend to look favorably on those who muzzle speech, like Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s or the Wilson administration’s jailing of Eugene V. Debs during World War I. Student protesters today continue an important legacy of antiwar activism on U.S. college campuses. The Vietnam protesters of the 1960s and ’70s heroically tried to restrain their country’s violence, and attendees of today’s Gaza protests are trying to do precisely the same. 

Everyone believes in freedom for speech they agree with. The worst dictators, like Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin, allowed people to praise them. The test of whether a country is free, then, is what happens to unpopular opinions, those that challenge existing authority. If controversial, despised opinions are punished, a society is not free. It is only pretending to be free. Issues like Israel-Palestine pose important tests to the country’s values: do we mean them, or are they entirely fake? Do we allow “freedom for the speech we hate” or do we call the cops to drag people away for making a noise and standing on the wrong patch of ground? Do we deal with a controversial professor by disagreeing with their ideas, or do we get our member of Congress to pressure the university president to remove them from their job? If this is a free country, the answers to these questions are clear.

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