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The university presidents were right and American Jews’ moral panic is wrong

Joining a right-wing war on higher education will not make us any safer

American Jews are in a moral panic about antisemitism, and we need to get hold of ourselves before we do more damage to ourselves and the society we care about.

I’m referring, most recently, to the widespread outrage over three university presidents — now one ex-president — who testified recently on Capitol Hill about antisemitism on college campuses.

Because the presidents were right.

I’ve now read at least a dozen takes (and seen hundreds of social media posts) expressing outrage that these academics didn’t “condemn” calls for genocide against Jews. And indeed, they did not do so — because that is not what they were asked.

What they were asked is whether “calling for genocide against Jews” — more on that phrase in a moment — violates university harassment policies. And the correct answer is exactly the answer that they, coached by their lawyers, provided: It depends on context.

“At Harvard,” Rep. Elise Stefanik asked of its president, Dr. Claudine Gay, “does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?”

Sounds simple, right? But there isn’t a yes-or-no answer to that question. It’s a trick question. A trap.

Let’s take a well-known cliché, shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater. Is the word “fire” an incitement to chaos and disorder? Obviously not. But in a certain context, the same word can, indeed, be a negligent criminal act. It. Depends. On. Context.

Likewise here. If someone says “Gaza should be turned into a parking lot” in the Knesset, or at some right-wing political rally, that is indeed a call for genocide. But is it harassment? No. And yet, if the same phrase is shouted in the faces of Palestinians who are marching in their own rally, or if it’s spray-painted on a mosque, then it is.

Now switch out “Gaza” for “Israel.” The same logic holds. If someone says “Israel must be pushed into the sea” in a college political science seminar, that may be a genocidal statement, even an antisemitic one, but it isn’t harassment. But if someone spray-paints it on a synagogue, or shouts it at a group of Jews, that’s harassment.

In other words, the presidents were right.

Representative Elise Stefanik grills the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT. Photo by Getty Images

Now, while they were correct as a matter of legal policy, they clearly made a gigantic mistake, politically speaking. As legal commentator David Lat pointed out, they failed to “read the room.” Meaning, they provided legally accurate answers but emotionally and politically inept ones.

A smarter response would have been “I completely condemn antisemitism, and any call for genocide against anyone. But you are asking about a harassment policy, and for something to qualify as harassment, there has to be a direct threat made to another person. When that is present, it is harassment. When it is not, it is protected speech on a university campus, even if it is antisemitic or racist.”

The only trouble with that response is that the right-wing demagogue Stefanik would never let them make it. Again and again, Stefanik refused to let these out-of-place scholars complete their sentences before yelling her next question. This is someone schooled in the dark arts of Bill O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson, in turn gleaned from Roy Cohn: Never let your target finish. Interrupt, aggressively and often. Knock them off their balance. Set the trap.

Three highly intelligent university presidents tried not to step into it, but Stefanik got them anyway.

Fine – that’s Stefanik being Stefanik. But the mainstream American Jewish reaction — off with their heads! — has been wrongheaded, damaging, and frankly terrifying.

It’s not hard to see why we’re responding this way. American Jews are so traumatized by Oct. 7, by the war, and by much of the world’s reaction to the war, that we’re not paying attention to nuance. For entirely good reasons, we’re hurt, we’re angry, and we’re feeling defensive. The non-responses or hostile responses of many of our supposed allies still sting. So does the astonishing ignorance of those marching against Israel — a recent poll suggests that over half of people chanting ‘from the river to the sea’ cannot name the river and sea in question. And, of course, we’re afraid of and angry about the harassment and violence, from street attacks to vandalism of synagogues.

But when we react emotionally instead of intelligently, we make mistakes. And that is exactly what these wealthy, powerful Jewish donors, leaders and pundits are doing right now: making a huge mistake.

Just consider the optics. A university president says something that is ill-advised, yet accurate and nuanced. She apologizes for it soon after. And yet, for this sin, she is expelled from the community like a leper in biblical Israel. No teshuvah is possible, no atonement, no expiation. And by whom? Not some rabbinic court, but by elite, wealthy Jews using their money and clout to shut down discussion — exactly what antisemites say we do all the time. We are fulfilling their wildest bigoted fantasies. And this is going to come back and hurt all of us.

I’m not saying that American Jews shouldn’t be involved in politics, or that donors shouldn’t do what they want with their money. Everyone does that, and antisemites don’t get to define what legitimate activism Jews do or don’t engage in.

But I am saying that we’re seeing a kind of angry mob, demanding resignations and firings without regard for reason or moderation. This isn’t legitimate philanthropy or activism. It’s weaponized rage.

Just look around you. Is it not odd that, if you’re a relatively moderate or liberal American Jew, your current villain is a distinguished university president and your hero is a hard-right rabble-rouser who campaigned for a guy who praised Adolf Hitler? (Carl Paladino, if you want to look it up.) Don’t you see that you’re being played? Our pain is being weaponized as part of a longstanding hard-right attack on institutions of higher education. Do you really think that will be good for the Jews?

Obviously, it will not. As a vulnerable minority, Jews are safer in a country that values reflection, tolerance, education and reason — none of which our self-appointed guardians are displaying right now. Antisemitism is real, but these academic scapegoats are not the cause of it. We are being exploited by people who do not have our best interests at heart.

Jews are entirely justified in being hurt and angry — I certainly feel that way. But we need to pause for a moment before we hurt somebody. Starting with ourselves.

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