Yesterday the presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn – three of the most renowned universities in the world – testified before the US Congress on the surge in antisemitism that has sprung up on campus since the October 7 massacre.
The recording of their testimony – which I urge you to watch, here - is one of the most shocking – albeit entirely unsurprising – three minutes I have ever seen on the subject of antisemitism.
The three presidents were asked a simple question by Rep Elise Stefanik, under oath: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [your university’s] code of conduct or rules regarding bullying or harassment?” It’s not a complicated question, is it? It’s not a “When did you stop committing adultery?” question. It’s a question to which the answer is surely a clear and obvious, “Yes”.
Not one of them answered straightforwardly, “Yes”. Each gave instead a variation of, “It depends on the context” and “Whether the speech turns into actual conduct against specific individuals”.
They weren’t the victim of a grandstanding politician trying to trap them. Rep Stefanik kept repeating the question, giving them every opportunity to realise what they were – or rather were not – saying. But not one of them could accept the notion that calling for the genocide of Jews was in itself a form of harassment of Jews.
That short clip tells you all you really need to know about the poison that has infected academia in recent decades. The climate for Jews on campus has deteriorated, from an already low base.
Books could – and should – be written on what has happened, and why. But at root, it is a product of what Allan Bloom identified back in 1987 in his classic The Closing of the American Mind, which looks at how moral relativism took over academia, an outlook that is antithetical to ideas of truth, critical thinking and actual knowledge. Taking students’ own declared priority of overcoming prejudice at face value, Bloom showed how the necessary intellectual tools of logic and critical thinking had been replaced with simple instinct: "Prejudices, strong prejudices, are visions about the way things are. ... Error is indeed our enemy, but it alone points to the truth and therefore deserves our respectful treatment. The mind that has no prejudices at the outset is empty."
Vitally, this is not an intellectual model that sits alongside the old model as a competing vision: it must destroy the previously existing ideas of intellect and inquiry, through such notions as “de-platforming”, “safe spaces” and an obsession with “diversity”.
This has had many consequences – such as the attacks on the ‘Western canon’ of books – but it also leads inexorably to what we saw at Congress yesterday.
From a British perspective, the only thing that is in any way different is that the faces would be different. Since October 7 we, too, have seen an explosion in Jew hate on campus – such as last week at Cardiff students’ union, when a Jewish speaker was shouted down for daring to speak against a resolution on “How to spot lies and propaganda from the state of Israel”. He had to be escorted out of the building for his safety. Similar scenes are happening on campus almost everywhere, with students experiencing a year’s worth of attacks in recent weeks.
Three weeks after the massacre, UCL’s branch of the University and College Union (UCU), voted for a motion supporting “Intifada until victory”. Dr Alex Pillen, an associate professor of anthropology at UCL, said at one of the “Free Palestine” rallies that “What is happening in Gaza today is worse than Auschwitz”. She is far from alone. Across the country Jewish students report academics making similar comments in lectures and seminars – and hostile groups of fellow students chanting antisemitic slogans and making life intolerable for them.
As in the US, very few university authorities are doing anything about it – which is no surprise given that they come from the same intellectual pool as those harassing Jewish students. And we have, of course, been here long before, as the case of David Miller at Bristol University shows all too well.
In one of the rare instances of university authorities acting to protect the rights of its Jewish students, London Business School has imposed a month-long suspension on a student over an allegedly antisemitic social media post. In response, a petition demanding his reinstatement has been signed by over 420 students and alumni. The petition states that, “Due to…the gravity of the situation in Gaza, comparisons between the actions of the state of Israel and actions of Nazi Germany have emerged in public discourse”, and it attacks “the extraordinary pressure being brought to bear upon critics of the State of Israel and advocates of the Palestinian people, and indicating that there can be no tolerance for a “Palestine exception” to free speech”. It demands the creation of “an advisory group on Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism.”
Shocking as this all is, none of it is remotely new. But the reaction to October 7 has brought it into even greater focus. Now it is clear to everyone what has happened to academia, and how deep the rot now is.
Which brings us to what needs to be done about it…