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3 January 2024

The culture war claims Claudine Gay

How the Ivy League hearings on anti-Semitism reveal the wounded American elite.

By Lee Siegel

Editors note: Claudine Gay resigned from her position as Harvard President on January 2nd, after fierce criticism of the University’s response to the Hamas attack on Israel and backlash from her congressional testimony year. This essay was originally published on December 13th, shortly after Gay gave her testimony to Congress.

As tensions escalated over the summer between the US and its rivals, Russia and China, the American media was ablaze with talk, not of nuclear apocalypse, but about the movies Oppenheimer and Barbie, the two blockbusters archly referred to as “Barbenheimer” – as if the creator of the atomic bomb and the child’s doll had anything in common. Now, more than two months after Hamas butchered and raped hundreds of Israeli civilians and took dozens more into a living hell as hostages, and as Israel continues to raze Gaza, turning it into a charnel house, slaughtering thousands of Palestinian civilians while killing, injuring or detaining thousands more in the West Bank, the US media has, for the past week, been consumed with the subject of America’s Ivy League universities. No one is talking about Israel, the Palestinians, or the war between them.

In an America where just about every solid social or political meaning has melted with a late-capitalist liquescence that would have taken even Karl Marx’s breath away, an event is rarely interpreted in its actual context. Like the protagonist of the satirical 1920s Soviet play, The Suicide, whose declared intention of taking his own life is immediately followed by numerous groups requesting that he kindly kill himself on their behalf, singular events are seized upon simultaneously by competing groups as proof of one or another’s assumptions.

So when, on 5 December, the presidents of three elite universities – University of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard – two of them, Penn and Harvard, rarefied Ivies, were summoned to appear at a congressional hearing convened to address the anti-Semitism that seems to have surged on college campuses since the start of war in Israel/Palestine, the result was chaos. Asked by Representative Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican who has expediently converted herself into a Trump stalwart, and is now the fourth-most powerful figure in Congress, if pro-Palestinian students “calling for the genocide of Jews violate[s] Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment”, Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard, replied: “It can be, depending on the context.” Elizabeth Magill, Penn’s president, answered, “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.” Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT: “That would be investigated as harassment if pervasive and severe.”

The college presidents’ clownishly ambiguous and infirm replies were predictably met with howls of execration. For conservatives, this was an instance where, at last, as a headline in the Wall Street Journal put it, “The Ivy League mask falls”, and the so-called woke project of replacing the academic discipline of the humanities with the enforcement of “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI), as the progressive war cry goes, was revealed as the destruction of civilised standards and values that, in conservative eyes, it is. For liberals, the hearing was a cynical stunt. As a New York Times headline stated, “As fury erupts over campus anti-Semitism, conservatives seize the moment”, with the article concluding that, among other things, Stefanik was taking sweet revenge on Harvard, her alma mater, because it removed her from the board of its Institute of Politics for supporting Trump’s false claims of a stolen election in 2020.

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[See also: The new authoritarian personality]

Social media has the effect of reducing language to mere words, empty of context and intention. That is what happened at the hearing. The formative circumstances here, which made the presidents’ replies logical and rational, if not immediately morally coherent, were evidence of the revolution in mores that has occurred since Trump’s election in 2016.

Trump’s catering to the racial and cultural prejudices of his white working-class base, accompanied by bouts of authoritarian blustering, created an equally illiberal response on the part of American progressives, who are to the left of increasingly silent American liberals. The former US president’s appeals to prejudice fostered, on the left, a general policing of social attitudes, particularly around “harmful” speech. Such policing found its fullest expression at the nation’s universities, where many offices devoted to the enforcement of DEI guidelines sprang up. Nowhere, however, were the new DEI guardians more empowered than at private American universities that, unlike America’s publicly funded colleges, are not bound by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

Over several years, one professor after another, mostly at private institutions of higher learning, was accused of saying something that a student or students claimed caused them mental and emotional harm. Such complaints often resulted in a DEI officer – working in a university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action – filing a formal charge of “discriminatory harassment” and beginning a formal investigation. For language to be considered discriminatory harassment, it must, to quote the Supreme Court’s legal definition of the term, be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victim… of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school”. By shrewdly referring to the universities’ “rules on bullying and harassment”, Stefanik abruptly focused the presidents’ attention on the technical language of academic enforcement, and they directed their answers precisely to that language. Kornbluth, the MIT president, quoted virtually verbatim the legal definition of discriminatory harassment.

In the event a university does find a professor guilty of discriminatory harassment and takes punitive action, the professor can threaten to cross over to the parallel universe of actual American law, where they could then sue on various grounds of discrimination themselves. As a result, private American higher education institutions have been quietly paying significant sums of money out in negotiated settlements for years. In many instances, DEI investigators are the bane of university lawyers.

Considering the issues of legal jeopardy and conservative accusations of a war on free speech, those three university presidents were no doubt grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate that they do not suppress free speech on their campuses. Here was the proof they had not: even the most disturbing pro-Palestinian slogans were protected so long as those uttering them did not cross over into actionable conduct. But in creating a vacuum of legal terminology, a moral emptiness in which, after all, DEI often thrives, the presidents robotically missed the opportunity to speak clearly and definitively about the actual issue of campus anti-Semitism. It was muddled language for muddled times, and the muddled and muddling right-wing Republicans are having themselves a feast.

The presidents most likely did not even register Stefanik’s use of the term “genocide” since not once, to my knowledge, has any pro-Palestinian group on an American campus publicly called for the genocide of Jews or Israelis – on the contrary, Jews have been enraged by accusations that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians. When MIT’s Kornbluth said that she had not heard anyone call for the genocide of Jews, Stefanik smoothly exchanged “intifada” for “genocide”, thus flustering Kornbluth into inanely responding: “I’ve heard chants which can be anti-Semitic depending on the context when calling for the elimination of the Jewish people.” But, again, there have been no calls for “the elimination of the Jewish people”. The chant, “Palestine free from the river to the sea,” understandably disturbing as it is to some Jews, is not a call for a second Holocaust; its intention about the physical fate of Israelis is ambiguous. The slogan is certainly not genocidal in the mouth of a 17-year-old freshman in the first flush of political engagement, as they cross the campus on their way from a lecture about, say, “On the boil: post-colonial cooking as resistance” or “Oy Vey This: the semiotics of Jewish-American comedy”.

The whole thing was like the Marx Brothers meeting the psychiatric experiment The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, the account in which three patients think they’re Christ: Stefanik, every bit the polished Ivy Leaguer, trimmed her political sails right past the real issues at stake, and as the polished Ivy League presidents – far too polished to ever publicly countenance an anti-Semitic sentiment – looked right past what Stefanik was actually saying to their own public relations. Currently the outcome is unfolding along the lines of the new social justice algorithm. As I write, Magill, the white president has resigned; Gay, the black president, has so far survived efforts to remove her; and Kornbluth, the Jewish president, has emerged unscathed from charges that she was enabling anti-Semitism.

Only the media, it seems, is obsessed with the incident, especially with Harvard, since much of the elite media is composed of Ivy League graduates – especially Harvard. Not much attention, if any at all, has been paid to the countless pro-Palestinian demonstrations at smaller state schools. And who, after all, but someone who self-flatteringly treasures Harvard as the perfect symbol of status and achievement could think that Stefanik was animated by revenge for being shunned by Harvard rather than by cold political calculation? The rest of the country – for whom Harvard is, if they have any sense of the place at all, either an expensive finishing school dedicated to the high-minded production of high-functioning sociopaths or a perpetual rash on the ageing skin of American meritocracy – really couldn’t care less about what happens there.

The true significance of the congressional hearing lies beyond the ships-passing-in-the-night myopias of either the three presidents or their inquisitor. It lies in the perpetual scrimmage among America’s social groups for status and power, of which the woke revolution is the latest iteration.

Even as the Hamas attack was a mindlessly brutal revenge for Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians, and the Israeli response a mindlessly brutal revenge for the attack, the backlash against the presidents might have partially served as an outlet for people dismayed by the recent marginalising of Jews, particularly at the universities. To put it another way, after the Second World War, Jewish academics and intellectuals began to push aside an earlier generation of mostly Wasp academics who were steeped more in philology than literature. Now, broadly speaking, Jews are being elbowed out by new social groups. There is, fundamentally, nothing ideological about this at all, despite the process developing under the cover of ideology. It is, as Michael Corleone says in The Godfather, strictly business.

My Jewish ancestors were murdered in the 1905 pogrom in Odesa, and then years later by the SS, also in modern-day Ukraine, and I am highly attuned to anti-Semitism. I am equally attuned to the shifting position of Jews in American culture and society. It is hardly a coincidence, for example, that the most virulent demonstrations against Israel, which sometimes spilled over into rhetoric against Jews, took place at the nation’s elite universities. Jewish students have historically been over-represented at these schools, and thus have been the objects of special resentment. The demonstrations may, in part, be another form of revenge.

Likewise, when the Jewish senior partners of prestigious “white-shoe” law firms threatened to not hire Harvard graduates after some Harvard students demonstrated for Palestinians after 7 October, followed by Jewish donors at Harvard, Penn and elsewhere threatening to cut off the large amounts of money they had pledged to their former universities, their responses were not simply about protests or rhetoric.

The roots of these disputes lay partly in the history of affirmative action. Jews especially, who suffered greatly from prejudice and exclusion in America, made their way, as did other earlier immigrant groups, up through American society by dint of their own efforts, without the assistance of government mandates. It was not until the mid-20th century that the notorious numerus clausus, which limited the number of Jews admitted to elite universities, was abolished. Affirmative action was often experienced by Jews as an affront to strong Jewish feelings about fair play.

The idea of equity, however, which is the heart of wokeness, rather than ensuring a level playing field that might lead to a fair outcome, guarantees a fair outcome itself. This is affirmative action on steroids. The result has been a reduction in the number of Jewish students, among other white groups, attending Ivy League schools they had, until recently, attended in disproportionate numbers.

Add to that sea-change in social relations the fact that many of the most prominent men brought down by #MeToo in the US happened to be Jewish – Harvey Weinstein, Leslie Moonves, Eric Schneiderman, Mark Halperin, Lorin Stein, among others – and what you have is a previously ascendant social group watching its status yield to newer groups, as the new paradigms of systemic racism and intersectionality seek to nudge aside erstwhile Jewish underdogs who have become elites, to acquire the status of elites themselves. The Jewish financial and University of Pennsylvania donor Marc Rowan threatened to withdraw contributions to his former college. He explained why in an opinion piece he submitted to the college newspaper: “The academic, moral and objective truth of our elite institution was traded for a poorly organised pursuit of social justice and politically correct speech.” As a critique of what happened at the hearing, this was not accurate. As a condemnation of the upheaval in social consciousness and social policy over the past several years, it was dead on.

The irony behind all these ulterior forces is just as layered. While some prominent American Jews excoriated the elite universities for being complicit with anti-Semitism, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was warmly welcoming to Israel Elon Musk, who had recently embraced a tweet that accused Jews of working to “replace” American whites with people of colour – it was a charge as absurd as it was hateful and dangerous, as Musk himself admitted when he called it the “dumbest post that I’ve ever done”. Not only that, but the uneasy spectacle of Jewish bankers using their wealth to bend universities to their will, regardless of the moral justification behind it, has the twisted effect of making the rabid lies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion look like a report from the Pew Foundation. This at the same time as Netanyahu’s politically expedient slaughter of innocent Palestinians puts “diasporic” (how I resent that term) Jews in the West under the greatest danger they have been in since the Holocaust.

The biggest irony of all is that, as the American media obsesses over the Three Presidents of Ypsilanti, Netanyahu continues to whip up American support by recklessly bellowing about the “deeply rooted anti-Semitism” in the US. As if America, the one country in the world where Jews have, until now, felt the safest – Israel having recreated for itself the situation of Jews in the Russian Pale, but with nuclear weapons – was in fact no different from tsarist Russia. But then, even as the American culture war takes precedence over the death and destruction in Israel and Palestine, Netanyahu is planting the cyclical revenge seeds of Israel’s destruction as well as of a new anti-Semitism in the West; that is to say, Netanyahu is proving to be the single-most lethal enemy of Zion for nearly two millennia, when the Zealots defied Jewish religious authorities and overplayed their hand with the Romans, which led to the first Jewish genocide.

Meanwhile, as I write, hate crimes against Jews that do not occur on an Ivy League campus, or on any campus, continue to soar, as the salivating Republicans, in thrall to a presumptive presidential nominee facing four criminal indictments, strive desperately to ferret out every moral failing that they can find on the other side.

[See also: Capitalism and culture wars won’t save Tories or Republicans]

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