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This week, three university presidents from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania were pulled into a four-hour hearing titled “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism” before the Republican-led House Education and Workforce Committee. As Inside Higher Ed reported, the lawmakers grilled the presidents “on what they perceive as a lack of ideological diversity among faculty members and pressed the presidents on whether faculty members have been disciplined or students expelled for their actions in the past two months.”

Meanwhile, in a letter to college administrators, the U.S. Department of Education has warned colleges and universities that they must take aggressive action to address antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents on campus or risk losing federal funding. And the United Nations recently published information about how independent experts on its Human Rights Council had “expressed alarm at the worldwide wave of attacks, reprisals, criminalization and sanctions against those who publicly express solidarity with the victims of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.” In their list of concerns, the experts included suspensions and expulsions of college students, the dismissal of academics, and a number of other incidents that have taken place on campuses in the past weeks.

Taken together, the hearing, the letter to administrators and the comments by UN experts shed light on the climate of free speech, dissent and censorship on college and university campuses since the attack on Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7—especially the lack of a fair and balanced response to antisemitism and Islamophobia. In the view of many academics, including myself, the various suspensions, expulsions, dismissals and other cancellations are being disproportionately experienced by those who are speaking out in defense of Palestine—an act that has become synonymous with being “antisemitic.”

Indeed, one doesn’t have to speak out in defense of Palestine but just wear keffiyehs and speak Arabic to be shot these days in the United States. In Vermont last month, Jason J. Eaton, a 48-year-old white man, gunned down three Palestinian students—victims of hate crime and Islamophobia. Yet many news media outlets and even the institution that one of the victims attends, Trinity College in Connecticut, have not called the incident a “hate crime” directed at Palestinian individuals.

The UN’s press release was issued only a few days after The Nation published an article titled “The Harvard Law Review Refused to Run This Piece About Genocide in Gaza.” The piece it referenced, “The Ongoing Nakba: Towards a Legal Framework for Palestine,” was written by Rabea Eghbariah, a human rights attorney completing his doctoral studies at Harvard Law School. The piece had already undergone several rounds of edits, according to The Nation and “would have been the first piece written by a Palestinian scholar for the law review.”

In an email to Eghbariah, an editor at the HLR said that the choice to not publish the article was “an unprecedented decision” by the leadership of the publication, but as Tascha Shahriari-Parsa, the online editor for HLR, told Eghbariah, “the discussion did not involve any substantive or technical aspects” of the piece. “Rather,” she said, “the discussion revolved around concerns about editors who might oppose or be offended by the piece, as well as concerns that the piece might provoke a reaction from members of the public who might in turn harass, dox, or otherwise attempt to intimidate our editors, staff and HLR leadership.”

In fact, the reason for HLR’s response is quite simple: there is overwhelming opposition, discomfort and fear about the topic of publicly and broadly exploring and exposing Palestinian conditions under Israel’s apartheid and the current genocide. In the past weeks, Israel’s militarized actions and carpet bombing have killed more than 15,000 Palestinian civilians. The images of mass graves appearing all over social media are harrowing. Unfortunately, however, the cancellation of Eghbariah’s piece is just one of many efforts to limit attempts to speak out about the atrocities and dehumanization that Palestinians have experienced since Oct. 7.

For example, just two days before The Nation covered the incident regarding HLR’s cancellation, Palestinian professor Ahlam Muhtaseb, a professor of communication studies at California State University, San Bernardino, was reportedly abruptly disinvited from speaking at the National Communication Association’s annual conference, the theme of which was “freedom.” Muhtaseb was slated to talk about the ongoing genocide in Gaza and was also planning on using the phrase “free Palestine.” But only 30 minutes before her speech was scheduled to begin, the association “allegedly blocked” her from delivering it, according to Inside Higher Ed. “I don’t inhibit myself or self-censor. I described what happened in Gaza as genocide, and I’m not regretting it. I will always do the same thing,” Muhtaseb told TRT World. Ironically, a conference purporting a theme of “freedom” inadvertently denied a Palestinian professor her freedom to speak.

The list goes on, and these cancellations are not just taking place in universities. In early November, Moustafa Bayoumi was invited by the Downingtown area school district in Pennsylvania to speak about refugee students and their families as a part of its diversity, equity and inclusion program. The district’s website had already started advertising for this virtual event just six days before, but it abruptly canceled the program, citing as a justification “conflict in the Middle East” and “the overwhelming number of emails we have received expressing concerns about the timing.” Bayoumi, who has written about the Israel-Palestine conflict before, penned an opinion piece in The Guardian about this cancellation that concluded, “If you are Palestinian, Arab or Muslim in the United States today, or someone who is an ally of those groups, your speech is uniquely patrolled and your very right to speak is unfairly limited, if not banned outright.”

Indeed, since Hamas’s deathly attack on Israel, many postcolonial, area studies, Middle Eastern and Arab American scholars whose scholarship is more broadly focused on decolonization, histories of settler colonialism and apartheid conditions and most specifically on Palestine have noted that they are feeling a chilly, McCarthyesque climate on their campuses. They have reported a deep hesitance to speak, critique or take any stance about Palestine or the history of Palestine. There has been an environment of overwhelming fear and paranoia that people will be censored, suspended or fired for expressing their views on Palestine. These fears are clearly not unfounded.

At Yale University, a student launched a petition to fire Zareena Grewal, a pro-Palestinian professor at the university, due to her social media activities; it garnered more than 25,000 signatures. Yale has defended Grewal’s right to free speech, but other academics report that they have been fired due to their pro-Palestinian stances. A Smith College lecturer, Olive Demar, has told the news media that she was terminated in what she calls a case of “academic repression,” although the college disputes the characterization, for discussing the Israeli-Palestinian war in class.

Meanwhile, since the Hamas attack on Israel, Canary Mission, a group that, according to its website “documents people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews,” has been aggressively calling out professors and students for their speech, their participation in rallies or their collective walkouts for Palestine. It has deemed those actions anti-Israel activism.

Canary Mission is just one of a number of organizations that have organized campaigns to intimidate and harass pro-Palestinian professors and student organizations. A Palestinian American professor at Emory University, Abeer AbouYabis, was put on leave, as reported by The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, after the watchdog group StopAntisemitism and others shared screenshots of posts accusing her of antisemitism.

In addition, as The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has asked college leaders to fight antisemitism by calling on them to exercise “moral leadership” and to condemn Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel “publicly and unequivocally.” Henry Reichman, the former chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, noted that this letter is “extraordinarily unusual, if not unprecedented” and “inappropriate.” Without mincing words, Reichman said, “It isn’t for the head of state of another country to tell presidents how to do that.”

The Power to Narrate

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the American Association of University Professors organized a committee charged with assessing risks to academic freedom and free inquiry that America’s response to those attacks posed. The committee then issued a lengthy report, “Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis,” on the first anniversary of Sept. 11. Last month, in the wake of Hamas-Israel conflict, AAUP issued another statement, “Academic Freedom in Times of War” reminding institutions of their obligations to protect faculty members and their academic freedom.

Yet despite the AAUP’s statements, two education professors were suspended from the University of Arizona after a student released audio of a classroom discussion about the Israel-Palestine conflict. In an interview with the Chronicle, one of the suspended professors, Rebecca Lopez, “said the instructors’ words had been taken out of context and paused in certain places ‘that make it seem as if we’re implying things that we’re not implying.’ She also said that the videos had incorrectly labeled speakers (such as a professor speaking when it was actually a student) and lacked key parts of the discussion.”

Colleges and universities have long contended that they hold academic freedom and free speech as fundamental values. But as Ussama Makdisi, professor of history and Chancellor’s Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, has tweeted, “Like many of you, I have noted how university administrations across this country have repeatedly downplayed, ignored, minimized and devalued Palestinian life despite the unfolding horror of Gaza. Like many of you, I notice how the vast majority of doxxing, cancelling, intimidation, threats, and bodily harm is being directed against Palestinian & allied students, staff, and faculty.”

In his groundbreaking book Culture and Imperialism, the late Edward Said noted, “The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.” After Oct. 7, we have been witnessing full-blown imperialism on a number of college and university campuses. Narratives are not just being blocked, but those who are continuing to speak out about the dehumanization of Palestinians are being canceled, censored and punished.

While the rise of antisemitism on college and university campuses is receiving hearings, spikes in Islamophobia against Muslims, Arabs and Palestinian students and faculty are receiving “thoughts and prayers.” In the meantime, calling a genocide against Palestinians a genocide has led to a moral panic among administrators, the Congress, editors and organizations. Increased policing of language among those who ought to uphold and preserve the university as a vital democratic space for debates and dialogues has led to both paranoia and anxious conditions.

Can colleges and universities withstand this paranoia or succumb to it? Will universities uphold or abandon their commitment to freedom of expression? Whatever they do will determine whether the modern university—what Said called the last democratic space—will survive or not.

Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt is the Edith Green Distinguished Professor at Linfield University in Oregon, where she teaches in the Department of English and directs the critical ethnic studies program. She is the author of The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant (Peter Lang, 2010) and the lead editor of Civility, Free Speech and Academic Freedom in Higher Education: Faculty on the Margins (Routledge, 2021).

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