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Ivy League orthodoxy on Israel is rotten

Elite universities are proving to be a breeding ground for anti-Semitism

Harvard President Claudine Gay speaks before the House Committee on Education on Capitol Hill on Dec. 5. Associated Press/ Photo by Mark Schiefelbein

Ivy League orthodoxy on Israel is rotten
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On Dec. 5, New York Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik confronted the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about their institutional responses to calls by students for intifada against the Jews of Israel and around the world. Her direct questions pushed the three academic executives of some of the nation’s most prestigious universities to say whether such genocidal rhetoric should result in sanctions against the students involved for violating policies against harassment and bullying.

The high-profile investor Bill Ackman watched the testimony with other Americans and observed the degree to which the three presidents carefully avoided taking a strong stand against campus antisemitism or expressing a direct commitment to punishing students who employed the language of Jewish genocide. Ackman reacted with outrage. Noting their cautious, nuanced answers saying that such statements and their impact depended on the context, he declared:

They must all resign in disgrace.

If a CEO of one of our companies gave a similar answer, he or she would be toast within the hour.

Why has antisemitism exploded on campus and around the world?

Because of leaders like Presidents Gay, Magill and Kornbluth who believe genocide depends on the context.

Ackman, who has been following the controversy and trying to put pressure on individuals associated with elite institutions who make anti-Semitic statements, went on to offer his opinion that these academic presidents exemplify a failure of ethical leadership and share responsibility for the explosion of anti-Semitism globally.

The billionaire investor lives an atypical life as a Wall Street celebrity, but his surprise at the calumny heaped upon both Israel and the Jewish people makes him more like the many millions of Americans who have been shocked by the level of support many young people (and especially young people influenced by higher education) have expressed for Hamas. Opinion polling shows Americans generally share a deep support of the nation of Israel, but it is also true that in the 18-24 demographic views are almost split with a big group viewing the surprise attack on Israel as justified by Palestinian grievances.

The same left-wing orthodoxy that tends to enshrine collectivism, secularism, and critical theory also typically includes partisanship on the side of Muslims and Palestinians over against the modern state of Israel. 

Why the change? First, there is little question that supporters of Hamas and critics of Israel have made savvy use of social media. Many parents have heard narratives shaped largely by TikTok and YouTube that sound unfamiliar to them, but which have become normal among the younger age group. Second, we are now more than 75 years away from the Holocaust that went beyond calls for Jewish genocide to a systematic attempt to achieve it. Some six million Jews died in concentration camps and via related means during Hitler’s rule of Germany.

In order to understand the scale of the atrocity, it is important to know that there are only about 15 million Jews on the planet today. They constitute a mere 0.2 percent of the entire world population. Few young people understand that the successful attempt to found a modern Jewish state (Israel) was a specific goal formed in response to the frightening anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This anti-Semitism ultimately expressed itself in the largest, most sustained, and determined genocide ever attempted. Is Israel resolute and aggressive in its own defense? Yes, but it has had to be both because of the tragic history of the Jewish people and because of the deadly attacks it has repeatedly had to fight off in its short history.

So, there is the matter of social media’s capacity to shape opinion and the diminishing cultural memory of the Holocaust, but what about the point at which we started, which is the tremendous reluctance of premier American academic leaders to take on anti-Semitism on their campuses? Why is that such a problem? The answer that is the same left-wing orthodoxy that tends to enshrine collectivism, secularism, and critical theory also typically includes partisanship on the side of Muslims and Palestinians over against the modern state of Israel.

The Jews of Israel end up being characterized as white, capitalist oppressors imposing an Apartheid-like state upon Palestinians. Given that highly unfavorable narrative, grievances applied to the United States or “the West” more broadly also apply to the most western state in the region. It surely does not help that evangelicals—high on the list of disfavored groups in the view of the academic left—are among the state of Israel’s greatest supporters.

Will Bill Ackman’s outrage have any impact? Will Elise Stefanik’s direct questioning prompt a re-evaluation of the left’s antagonism toward Israel based on the poisoned fruit it is producing on American campuses? Right now, the money flows toward prestige without many restrictions. We’ll see if the major supporters of the Ivy Leagues, such as America’s billionaires and multi-millionaires, start to ask more questions about what their support is producing.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the provost and dean of faculty at North Greenville University in South Carolina. He is the author of The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student's Guide, and The System Has a Soul. His work has appeared in a wide variety of other books and journals. He is formally affiliated with Touchstone, the Journal of Markets and Morality, the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy, and the Land Center at Southwestern Seminary.

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