Opinion | At a Hearing on Israel, University Presidents Walked Into a Trap

Gay responded that such language was “abhorrent.” Stefanik then badgered her to admit that students chanting about intifada were calling for genocide, and asked angrily whether that was against Harvard’s code of conduct. “Will admissions offers be rescinded or any disciplinary action be taken against students or applicants who say, ‘From the river to the sea’ or ‘intifada,’ advocating for the murder of Jews?” Gay repeated that such “hateful, reckless, offensive speech is personally abhorrent to me,” but said action would be taken only “when speech crosses into conduct.”

So later in the hearing, when Stefanik again started questioning Gay, Kornbluth and Magill about whether it was permissible for students to call for the genocide of the Jews, she was referring, it seemed clear, to common pro-Palestinian rhetoric and trying to get the university presidents to commit to disciplining those who use it. Doing so would be an egregious violation of free speech. After all, even if you’re disgusted by slogans like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” their meaning is contested in a way that, say, “Gas the Jews” is not. Finding themselves in a no-win situation, the university presidents resorted to bloodless bureaucratic contortions, and walked into a public relations disaster.

The anguished and furious reaction of many Jews to that viral clip is understandable. Jewish people of many different political persuasions have been stunned by the rank antisemitism and contempt for Israeli lives that has exploded across campuses, where Jewish students have been threatened and, in some cases, assaulted. This week, when I wrote that the backlash to anti-Israel protests threatens free speech, I received many emails from people who felt I was refusing to grapple with an evident crisis. “You are worried about an overreaction when there hasn’t yet been a sufficient reaction to the antisemitism terrifying Jewish students on campus,” said one.

But it seems to me that it is precisely when people are legitimately scared and outraged that we’re most vulnerable to a repressive response leading to harmful unintended consequences. That’s a lesson of Sept. 11, but also of much of the last decade, when the policing of speech in academia escalated in ways that are now coming back to bite the left.

Amid the uproar over the campus antisemitism hearing, many have claimed that if Stefanik were asking about attacks on any other ethnic group, there would have been no waffling. But Stefanik did ask about another group. Her first question to Gay was, “A Harvard student calling for the mass murder of African Americans is not protected free speech at Harvard, correct?” Gay started to respond, “Our commitment to free speech,” but Stefanik, perhaps realizing she wasn’t going to get the answer she wanted, cut her off and changed tack.

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