The polarized rhetoric emanating from our campuses about Israel and Palestine since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack is the result of decades of universities neglecting their core mission of teaching students how to comprehend one of the major conflicts shaping our modern world.
If there is any issue that educated people should be able to comprehend as not being amenable to easy, one-sided analysis, it should be the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Anyone who knows anything about the history of the world should have been exposed to the plight of the Jewish people, who have over the millennia been exiled from their historic homeland on multiple occasions, subjected to violence and discrimination most everywhere they settled, and virtually wiped out in the most horrific mass genocide in recorded history.
I am not saying that today’s students must endorse the concept of Zionism. But they most certainly should be aware of the historical forces that animate Zionism and ultimately led to the creation of the state of Israel. Having witnessed campus dialogue on Israel-Palestine issues from my perch as a professor at Duke University for almost two decades, I can confidently assert that students advocating for Palestinian sovereignty often lack this fundamental understanding of Jewish history and why Israel exists.
Students who blindly advocate for Israel also appear to be deeply misinformed about the nuances and subtleties of the conflict. These students are intimately familiar with how Israel was attacked by its Arab neighbors immediately after its declaration of statehood; Israel’s victories in the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973; and the national trauma Israelis have suffered from unrelenting terrorist attacks from hostile groups dedicated to the nation’s destruction. But these students tend to know absolutely nothing about the well-documented history of how during the war in 1948 many hundreds of thousands of Arabs were forced, coerced or scared by the Israeli army into abandoning their homes and fleeing as refugees. They also seem oblivious or indifferent to the facts that since 1967 Israel has occupied territory that no other nation recognizes it has a right to occupy, illegally settled more than 700,000 Jews on this territory and regularly used force and coercion to control the Palestinian population and deny them fundamental human rights. Like their pro-Palestinian counterparts, these students see justice clearly falling on their side of the issue and have never been forced to grapple with the countervailing viewpoint.
Worse yet, I have found that most students feel totally uneducated about the conflict and are caught off-guard by the deep passions and animosity it generates among their peers. They are intimidated by the complexity of the issues but lack the time or resources to educate themselves. Despite these deficits, many feel extreme social pressure to pick a side.
Many pundits believe that the misinformed rhetoric from the most extreme pro-Palestinian students (do they really want to associate with Jewish genocide when they chant “from the river to the sea”?) emanates from indoctrination by left-wing faculty.
I don’t buy it.
Yes, there are pockets of faculty who (wrongly in my view) conflate Zionism with imperialism and Western colonization of the Middle East and Africa. And there are some faculty who focus on the role of race in world history and global affairs who (wrongly again in my view) categorize Jews and Israelis as white and view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of the long history of white subjugation of people of color.
Some students are taking courses where these ideas are disseminated, but, at least at Duke, not many. At Duke, at least two-thirds of all students are majoring in computer science, public policy/political science, economics, biological science/neuroscience, psychology or engineering. There are only small numbers of students in majors, or even individual classes, that the chattering class would find to be “hotbeds of radicalism.”
Students are getting “educated” on Israel-Palestine mainly from social media, their peers and the speakers who come to campus on one side or the other. These are sources of information where discourse is almost always one-sided and lacking nuance and context.
Campus events on the subject frequently generate far more ferment and hostility than education. They tend to follow a familiar pattern: a student group or faculty member invites a controversial speaker, sometimes using student government fees or other university funds. Students opposing the views of the speaker complain that the speaker is racist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, an imperialist, a war criminal … you name it. They then lament that the university, by allowing the speaker on campus, is endorsing the speaker’s views. Posters for the event are defaced, students write hot editorials in the student newspaper and the event is protested, disrupted, boycotted or some combination of all three. In my observation, students seem to be more interested in the performative aspect of disruption than the substantive issues at stake. Controversy dies down until the next event, when the same cycle repeats.
For example, pro-Palestinian students at Duke invited the author Mohammed El-Kurd to give a talk in 2022 even though he had become infamous for statements referencing the blood libel trope (the Middle Ages myth that Jews used blood from murdered Christian children for religious rituals). Jewish students called for the event to be canceled. An op-ed in the student newspaper claimed that El-Kurd’s appearance on campus represented a threat to Jewish students’ “safety.” Jewish students passed out fliers at the event accusing El-Kurd of antisemitism. The author challenged the legitimacy of the protesters, suggesting that those who have never been “on the opposite end of a rifle, tear gas, nothing” don’t understand what it means to be “endangered.” There was no genuine dialogue between the groups about El-Kurd’s experiences as a Palestinian or students’ concerns about his use of the blood libel.
The same thing happens in the other direction.
Last spring, former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett spoke at Duke. A colleague and I urged critics of Israel to listen to Bennett, ask him challenging questions and try to learn more about the issues that continue to drive the conflict. Our advice was ignored. After heckling Bennett for the first five minutes, about 60 students walked out. These students picnicked on the lawn outside the event and listened to their own speakers talk to them about Palestinian suffering. Following the event, many Jewish students were bused over to the Jewish student center, had their own meal and then engaged directly with Bennett when he showed up at the reception. Throughout the entire evening, there was not a single interaction or idea exchanged between the opposing camps.
Rather than becoming actively engaged in providing their students with a rich and nuanced education about the conflict, universities mainly seem content to be the protectors of free speech by allowing both sides to have their viewpoints expressed on campus. University officials seem to be exhausted by the experience and concerned mainly with avoiding bad publicity, preventing events from being canceled through a heckler’s veto and managing the blowback from important constituencies like students, faculty, alumni and donors. These experiences seem to make university officials loath to be proactive in trying to alter the polarized narrative. Instead, they hunker down, hold their breath until the next episode and hone their tools for keeping a lid on the situation.
I have observed at Duke that there is a yearning among many students to better understand the conflict and the strong visceral emotions it generates from advocates on both sides. However, there are barely any initiatives, centers, faculty research efforts, programs, events or courses that attempt to provide balanced and nuanced dialogue or bring polarized audiences together to try to better understand each other.
It is worth contrasting how universities reacted to the mass protest movement following the murder of George Floyd with the decades of simmering tension on campus relating to Israel-Palestine. The racial awakening following Floyd’s killing led to a rethinking of how race is addressed and taught on campus and large-scale efforts to change the nature of the dialogue. On Israel-Palestine, however, for decades tensions and problems have been managed when they crop up, but there has been no proactive effort to grapple effectively with campus polarization and the bitter, often uninformed rhetoric that pervades campus discussion of the issues.
This is exactly the wrong approach. Universities exist to educate and create knowledge about the world’s hardest problems, not merely to be open forums for expressions of outrage and grievance. Continuing down this path is an abdication of responsibility.
So, what is to be done?
First, every major university should have a course every year on the Israel-Palestine conflict that provides a deep history of both the Zionist and Palestinian movements and chronicles the many chapters of both violence and attempts at peacemaking that have transpired over the past 75 years. To give the course legitimacy, it would probably be best to have it co-taught by professors who have differing outlooks on the conflict but are committed to understanding and teaching about both perspectives. Delegating this responsibility to graduate students or adjuncts, or faculty who take a one-sided approach, as has often been done in the past, is a mistake. The University of North Carolina learned this the hard way when a course being offered by a graduate student on the topic burst into the news when her tweets demonstrating a strong anti-Israel bias were uncovered.
Second, universities need centers or programs dedicated to advancing mutual understanding and cross-religious, cross-ethnic and cross-ideological dialogue and understanding. A broad-based center that hosts events, conducts research and promotes conversations about resolving conflict and addressing hostilities would be far more appealing to the vast majority of students than the narrow casting that currently takes place at religion- or region-based academic centers. I know from personal experience that trying to bring polarized faculty and students into difficult conversations and uncomfortable environments on Israel-Palestine issues is tough sledding. But with leadership from the top, universities can make this happen.
Finally, universities need a much clearer set of principles for how to navigate issues relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict, which can often devolve into conflicts over antisemitism and Islamophobia, as has happened on many campuses in recent weeks. I applaud universities for taking a strong First Amendment position that tolerates constitutionally protected speech on campus even when it is offensive or considered by many to be “hate speech.” However, when events on campus turn controversial and universities start backing down on their principled positions, they look defensive, inconsistent and beholden to constituencies that complain the loudest, or, even worse, that have made the biggest donations.
The trickiest issue to resolve is the highly controversial topic of distinguishing between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. A parallel concern arises when attempting to determine when discussion of violent Islamist extremist movements devolves into Islamophobia. These are deeply contested issues in society at large, but it is impossible for universities to grapple effectively with them on campus unless they try to set clear guidelines that can be consistently applied when controversy arises. This will inevitably happen as the crisis in Gaza continues, so universities should move with dispatch to put some of their best minds to the task.
It is well past time for universities to get out of their defensive crouch on issues relating to Israel-Palestine and religiously motivated hate. If we can’t have informed discussion on these matters at a university, places with great scholars and fertile young minds, society is destined for deeper divisions and more tension and despair for a long time to come.