American universities have served as a vibrant arena for the cultivation of progressive ideas for decades, owing to the cherished liberties of belief, conscience, scientific exploration, and free expression they enjoy. In the aftermath of the war in Gaza, however, US university administrations appeared disoriented and uncertain regarding the stance they were expected to adopt.
The attack by Hamas, which controls Gaza, on 7 October resulted in the death of 1400 Israelis and 200 individuals taken captive. Israel retaliated with a barrage of aerial and artillery bombardment, claiming the lives of over 4,400 Palestinians, including 1,700 children and more than 1,000 women, as reported by the Palestinian Ministry of Health at the time of writing. Authorities in Gaza announced there were close to 1,500 bodies buried beneath the rubble.
Estimates provided by United Nations agencies operational within the Gaza Strip, which has endured an Israeli siege since 2007, indicate that around one million people have been displaced whether due to complete destruction or partial damage of their homes.
Israel’s occupying forces issued orders for residents of the northern Gaza Strip to evacuate their homes and relocate southward, citing the intention to target Hamas’ concentrated presence in the northern region, according to Israeli press reports.
However, the true underlying objective might be to exert pressure on Egypt, compelling the opening of border crossings for Palestinian migration into Sinai, thereby liquidating the Palestinian cause. This move is vehemently rejected by Egypt’s government and people alike, as it is by the Palestinian people.
Since the outbreak of the war, Israel has mobilised 300,000 reservists in anticipation of a ground offensive against the Gaza Strip. This operation is expected to inflict human losses far surpassing the gravity of what has transpired thus far.
A multitude of capital cities saw mass demonstrations condemning the Israeli aggression against Gaza, which many deemed disproportionate to the actions undertaken by Hamas on 7 October. The Israeli bombardment, surpassing the realm of rightful response, transgressed into collective punishment and war crimes, ultimately becoming ethnic cleansing.
By week’s end, 100,000 protesters marched on the streets of London, Reuters reported, to voice support for the innocent civilians in Gaza who were being killed for absolutely no reason beyond the fact they were Palestinian or resident in Gaza, where the Islamist movement rules.
In the first days of the war, German Chancellor Olaf Scholes and French President Emmanuel Macron announced that their respective governments would prohibit pro-Palestinian marches, leading French protest organisers to resort to the legal system.
Despite the display of the Israeli flag at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, the number of protesters against the Israeli air strikes on Palestinian civilians in Gaza did not dwindle.
In the US, Israel’s foremost ally, cities such as New York and Washington DC saw demonstrations demanding an immediate ceasefire. Two senior officials from the US State Department tendered their resignations in protest of the official US position concerning the war in Gaza.
“Prior to the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, European public awareness of the Palestinian issue was limited, allowing Israelis to shape public opinion in Europe,” said Abeer Taqi, a professor of classical studies in Rome. “Today, however, details have begun to surface, and they are accessible on social media platforms.”
A significant portion of Europeans, for example, were unaware that Jews in Palestine did not constitute a majority, except through immigration from Poland and Tsarist Russia. The plight of the Palestinians was not widely understood, leading many Europeans to believe that taking a stance on the matter was unnecessary.
“Europeans thought that because the Palestinians were under the occupation of a democratic state, their rights would be protected, but they have come to realise that this is not the case,” Taqi noted.
In the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict, US universities, particularly the prestigious ones, have traditionally aligned themselves with Israel. They used slogans like “combat anti-Semitism,” “compensate Jews for centuries of suffering and diaspora,” and support “an oasis of democracy in the autocratic Middle East.”
However, the landscape has evolved, as Aziz Khouri, a retired geography professor in Alabama, noted. “It used to be unacceptable to criticise Israel or view its actions against the Palestinians as fundamentally wrong. Professors or students showing any inclination to support the Palestinians could have faced repercussions. But today, the situation is no longer one-sided.”
It is not uncommon now for a professor at an esteemed institution like Cornell University to describe the 7 October attacks as “exhilarating” and “motivating,” while his colleague at Yale University characterises Israel as “a settler state engaged in collective genocide.” Although both universities initiated investigations into these statements, no punitive actions were taken against the professors.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, US Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr withdrew his family’s funding support from the University of Pennsylvania, citing the administration’s perceived inadequacy in combating anti-Semitism on its campus. In response, university President Liz Magill issued a statement acknowledging the need for a stronger response to events in the Middle East and asserting the university’s unwavering stance against the attacks while emphasising the moral responsibility to combat anti-Semitism.
The US Politico website quoted Jim Malatras, a former chancellor of the State University of New York, saying that university and college administrations are afraid of siding with one party or the other. According to Politico, some law students at the elite Harvard and Columbia universities lost job offers due to their views.
Harvard University fears losing a number of major funders of its academic programmes, according to The Financial Times, after the founder of Limited Brands, Leslie Wexer, called on the university to strongly condemn the actions of Hamas and punish students who participate in anti-Israel protests.
Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer resigned from his position on the executive board of Harvard University. To the south, Florida Atlantic University came under pressure from members of Congress, such as the state’s only Jewish representative, Randy Fine, who told the press that Jews, not only in Israel, but in Florida as well, do not feel safe. Randy demanded that students participating in pro-Palestinian rallies as well as “anti-Semitic” faculty members should be punished by expulsion.
“Clarifying the facts is a difficult task in any political, social or cultural conflict, and the Middle East is no exception,” Khouri said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 26 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly