How Unscrupulous Stefanik Punked Those Elite University Presidents
Watching coverage of The Three Equivocating Presidents on TV, I found myself marveling that such a trio of seeming nonentities had been put in charge of prestige universities in the first place. Never mind the Ivy League, I told a friend. The athletic director at the University of Arkansas would have explained himself far better. Of course, that fellow faces hostile public inquisitions all the time.
Despite the chronic ugliness of campus politics, academic administrators are less familiar with televised interrogations. By trying to please everybody, the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT ended up satisfying nobody.
Never mind that the gist of what they said was entirely correct. Whether or not students or faculty should be punished for expressing anti-Semitic tropes on campus depends completely upon context. Are they expressing an unpopular opinion about the Israeli-Palestine conflict or actively threatening violence? The first is permissible, the second is a crime.
Particularly in Republican hands, a congressional hearing is anything but a search for understanding. Basically, the three academics allowed themselves to be sandbagged by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), previously famous for embracing the White Supremacist “replacement” theory alleging that American Jews are conspiring with elitist Democrats to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants for the purpose of out-voting white Christians.
That’s what those torch-bearing geeks who marched across the University of Virginia campus a few years back chanting “Jews will not replace us” were talking about. It’s also the reason a crazed gunman murdered ten black people in a Buffalo supermarket in Stefanik’s own state.
But American Jews, who mainly vote Democratic, are one thing; Israeli Jews quite another. As a self-described “Ultra MAGA warrior,” Stefanik has no problem using QAnon rhetoric to describe political opponents as “pedo grifters.” It will be recalled that then-President Trump also had no problem with the Charlottesville marchers, which as somebody who spent four of the best years of my life on the University of Virginia campus, I confess to taking personally.
How Stefanik trapped the three college presidents in their own rhetoric was outlined in a brave column by the New York Times' Michelle Goldberg, a proud Jew. First, Stefanik got Harvard’s Claudine Gay to agree “that the use of the term ‘intifada’ in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict is indeed a call for violent armed resistance against the state of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews.”
But a call for armed resistance during a war isn’t the same thing as a call for genocide, and Gay was foolish to play along. Having declared that such “hateful, reckless, offensive speech is personally abhorrent to me,” she found herself intellectually disarmed when Stefanik came back later in the hearing demanding to know why Harvard students weren’t being expelled for using it.
But “intifada” means rebellion, not genocide. Also, it’s entirely possible to express sympathy for the Palestinian cause without supporting Hamas. “After all,” Goldberg wrote, “even if you’re disgusted by slogans like ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ their meaning is contested in a way that, say, ‘Gas the Jews’ is not.” Although it’s also true that Harvard probably leads the Ivy League, and probably the USA, in “cancelling” speech deemed offensive by protected categories of people.
In that sense, the three presidents can be said to have been hoist by their own petard. No less an authority than former Harvard president Lawrence Summers has written that “it seems to be that there is a kind of creeping totalitarianism in terms of what kind of ideas are acceptable and are debatable on college campuses.” A veteran controversialist, Summers wouldn’t have been so easily buffaloed by the likes of Elise Stefanik.
Meanwhile, I’ll tell you who should resign: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose incompetent scheming set this whole appalling disaster in motion. But that would require a sense of shame, and there’s no sign he’s got any. He’s the Vladimir Putin of the Middle East.
Over years, Netanyahu’s government funneled hundreds of millions in cash to the extremist, murdering lunatics of Hamas, whose monstrous terrorist attack on October 7 began the slaughter of innocents it was meant to provoke.
Netanyahu’s Likud faction did that even as it encouraged extremist Jewish “settlers” to seize Palestinian property in the West Bank by violence on the (pardon me) mad premise that God had promised “Judea and Samaria” to the Jews and that Palestinians who’d lived there for centuries had no valid rights.
By encouraging Hamas fanaticism, Netanyahu openly intended to prevent a “two-state” solution. As many centuries of European history can attest, the slaughter of infidels is what happens pretty much whenever God becomes the head of state. What’s going on in Gaza today fits the very definition of genocide. Except it’s not Israeli Jews being massacred.
How like us to quibble over legalisms in the face of catastrophe.
Gene Lyons is a former columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a winner of the National Magazine Award, and co-author of The Hunting of the President.