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A pro-Israeli protester holds an Israeli flag unfurled. In front of her, hands can be seen holding pro-Palestinian signs, including one that reads “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Pro-Palestinian protesters hold signs in front of a pro-Israeli protester on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Contributor/Boston Globe/Getty Images

I want to be happy about Elizabeth Magill’s resignation from the presidency of the University of Pennsylvania. Her congressional testimony, along with that of fellow university presidents Claudine Gay (Harvard University) and Sally Kornbluth (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) regarding campus protests, antisemitism, speech codes and harassment, was rife with hypocrisy. It strains credulity to think that the slogans chanted about Israel and Israelis would elicit no administrative responses sterner than “Look, in context, it’s not a rules violation” if they were raised against any other ethnic or religious group with minority status in the U.S. So I want to celebrate Magill’s downfall. Alas, I cannot celebrate an event that will surely expand the range of punishable speech, not the range of allowable debate.

To lay bare hypocrisy, one must fairly compare two similar things, so let us begin with frank analysis of common anti-Israel slogans, e.g. the infamous “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Though I cannot read the minds of every person who chants that phrase, I have no doubt that many utter it not from personal animus against Jews as a people, but rather sympathy for Palestinians who have suffered serious human rights violations. Surely some students who chant this slogan wish only that the places commonly called Israel, the West Bank and Gaza might be combined into one state that respects the rights of all people currently dwelling there, including the right to free internal movement, and that has a secular national identity centered on no particular ethnic group.

But I’m no fool. I also know that some protesters would prefer a less liberal outcome than the one articulated above. More importantly, regardless of an individual demonstrator’s preferences, any remotely plausible change to the political situation in Israel/Palestine will involve dangerous upheavals. Large political changes amid ethnic and religious conflict almost inevitably involve violence. Many Jewish people would be displaced in ways that would not involve free choices and van rentals.

For that matter, the Palestinians are religiously and politically diverse and would surely face the internal conflicts inherent in any large-scale reorganization. Peaceful resolutions are rare and precious things in human history, and the situation in Israel/Palestine gives no reason for optimism.

So the slogan “From the river to the sea …” is, in practice, a call for violent displacement.

Nonetheless, I do not believe that its mere utterance should be a punishable offense in university conduct codes. The campus presidents were right to tell Representative Elise Stefanik that antisemitic speech is complicated from a rules perspective. A slogan that can be uttered with good or ill intent should be subject to debate, at least if offered as a general statement rather than targeted harassment. I argued above that well-intended utterances are naïve to the violent realities that would attend a one-state solution. That argument can be expanded, considered and if possible rebutted. (Wouldn’t it be nice if I turn out to be wrong about the unfeasibility of a peaceful one-state solution?)

Now consider another situation involving calls for a large-scale displacement of people, in practice entailing much violence and suffering. Many Americans (including a former and possibly future president) believe that all noncitizens residing in the U.S. without proper legal status should be removed from the country. Much of their rhetoric focuses on people of Latin American heritage.

A naïve person might wish to envision mass deportation as an orderly affair, perhaps imagining polite officers in pressed and starched uniforms knocking on doors, somberly presenting paperwork and grimly but professionally escorting people to airports. A sad scenario for those removed and their loved ones, but not, on its face, a violent scenario.

In practice, it would inevitably entail violence. Some of the authorities, having been primed with inflammatory rhetoric to justify removals and assuage doubts, would unnecessarily escalate to violence in their interactions with deportees. This is what happens when demagogues whip up the public in general and the police in particular against a minority group. Some fraction of the millions of prospective deportees, being as human and flawed as anyone else, might also respond violently.

And, of course, there would also be errors that result in citizens or legal residents wrongly receiving deportation notices, responding with justifiable anger and then facing wrathful escalations from authorities who are too reckless or prideful to admit their mistakes.

Now, suppose that college students held rallies calling for such mass deportations and chanted slogans that are either explicitly or at least plausibly accepting of violence. How many college and university presidents would dissemble about the complexity of the relevant free speech issues? It requires the utmost naïveté to think that such rallies would merely elicit shrugs of legalistic helplessness from administrators.

At a minimum, the administration would throw its full weight behind the counterdemonstration and offer emotional support for any students traumatized by the event. In some cases rally organizers might face pretextual obstacles regarding adherence to the finer points of campus event policy, or even outright attempts to stop the event.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and universities would not put their thumbs on the scales against a rally supporting mass deportations. However, if I am wrong, my mistaken impression comes less from academia’s right-wing critics and more from universities’ actions and investments. Ubiquitous statements responding to high-profile police shootings and racial incidents, coupled with extravagant spending on bias response teams and diversity offices, create an impression of vigilance against bigotry. Institutions strive mightily to portray themselves as anything but neutral on incidents or controversies that intersect with group identity, particularly for groups that have historically faced discrimination.

However, empathetic opposition to mobs goes out the window when demonstrators call for mass displacements of Jews from Israel. Administrators instead dust off their previously misplaced copies of the First Amendment. I wish I could celebrate their rediscovery of such a crucial text, but I have no optimism that they’ll rush to the defense of other disagreeable speech. Their free speech commitments rest entirely on a preponderance of sympathy for Palestinians over Jews in the campus political consensus and administrative fears of defying consensus.

I don’t believe that most campus presidents harbor any antipathy for Jewish people. “Some of my best friends are …” is trite to the point of a punch line, but it is nonetheless a pleasant demographic fact that one cannot spend a career in academia without befriending a few Jewish people. The problem here is a deficit of bravery, not a surplus of bigotry. Administrators fear the campus consensus more than they fear being sued over free speech violations.

And now the political winds shift, at least at Penn. Ideally, academic leaders would rediscover the value of debate, realize that all odious ideas need rebuttals and conclude that rule enforcement should focus on clear-cut acts of harassment or intimidation. In practice, though, I suspect that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be added to the list of things that people fear to discuss in anything but preapproved platitudes. If strident criticism of Israel is politically unacceptable, then institutions will find ways to discourage such talk, instead of encouraging more civil and informed debate on one of the most complicated conflicts of our era.

The worst tragedies of this moment are, of course, the many civilian deaths in Israel and Gaza alike. But the next saddest casualty is certainly honest debate.

Alex Small is a professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

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