Israel-Hamas war roils US universities

The Middle Eastern conflict is dividing campus communities and pressuring college finances as big donors withdraw funding

Student protest in support of the Palestinians and Gaza at Columbia University; October 12, 2023; New York City.JEENAH MOON (REUTERS)

A battle of ideas has erupted within American universities. In response to the Israel-Hamas war, campuses are abuzz with outraged protestors shouting strident manifestos and angry accusations amplified by social media. The tension quickly intensified to dangerous incidents of harassment and assault. In a move reminiscent of the student mobilizations against the Vietnam and Iraq wars, university trustees and donors are now threatening to suspend or withdraw funding if their interests are not upheld.

The college campus is a vital, intellectual universe deeply embedded in the American social and cultural imagination. However, the war in Gaza has transformed numerous universities into battlegrounds where ideas become weapons in an increasingly bellicose inquisition. These institutions now face the delicate balancing act of shaping measured responses without upsetting any of their stakeholders – students, professors, alumni and donors.

The conflict is “exposing the dividing lines” in universities, places where “you can and should be able to safely disagree, dissent and talk,” said Kristen Shahverdian, who runs PEN America’s free expression program. “It’s a never-ending task, but it’s crucial to establish a safe space for disagreement, even in social media, which can be positive or negative when used to spread misinformation.” In times of crisis, colleges “cannot use evasive or unclear language,” she said, acknowledging that the history and complexity of Middle Eastern conflict makes everything all the more difficult.

Several Ivy League universities have already made a series of corrections to their official statements. After addressing the widespread violence in the Middle East, Indiana University President Pamela Whitten was obliged to clarify her initial message. Harvard’s governing board also revised its statement concerning “the death and destruction resulting from Hamas’s attack on Israeli citizens.” Meanwhile, President Carol Folt of the University of Southern California, home to 3,000 Jewish students, was roundly criticized for her initial message that failed to condemn Hamas terrorism.

On the West Coast, a large Stanford University group, including three Nobel Prize winners, denounced the timid statement issued by university authorities. Downplaying the severity of the October 7 Hamas attack in southern Israel, they used the term “conflict in the Middle East,” conveniently sidestepping the grim reality of over 1,000 deaths and the abduction of more than 200 hostages. Fearing riots, the Stanford law school canceled classes on October 20 and asked its students to connect online.

In New York, a city with nearly 1.5 million Jewish residents (the largest population outside of Israel), the tension is palpable. Columbia University postponed its annual Giving Day fundraiser, which raised $30 million last year, over the growing divisions on campus. University rector Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, who is of Egyptian origin, was denounced for permitting anti-Israel protests that she hoped would encourage “a moral and intellectual debate.” Administrators later criticized the recent “disturbing acts of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia” on campus, which involved intimidation and outright violence. However, no action has been taken against any specific group of students or faculty for expressing their opinions.

Shai Davidai, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, is angry about the lack of strong leadership. “This is not about politics, but more about denouncing terror. I’m actually quite critical of Israel, and I support the Palestinian cause and the two-state solution. However, I also think it’s important for universities to clearly distance themselves from organizations that have been hijacked by a few hundred radicals,” said Davidai about a protest at Columbia by a pro-Palestinian group that has not responded to our request for comment.

“What we are witnessing is not just an issue for Israel, but for the entire world and civilization. We would never tolerate an ISIS march on our campus. We have witnessed the terror of 9/11 and the train bombings in Madrid... It’s not merely a political matter, but a moral one, representing humanity’s battle against terror. If we fail to establish this boundary, we will lose the ability to distinguish right from wrong,” said Davidai. Within just a few hours, a video of his impromptu speech in support of Israel amassed an astonishing one million views on social media. Assuming he could lose his job for his words, Davidai nevertheless openly called out Columbia and Shafik for their cowardice. “We’ve seen it throughout history, like in Germany [in the 1930s], as well as in Russia, Iran and North Korea. If we stay silent, we’re just being complicit.”

The call for a more committed stance has resonated throughout campuses nationwide. “The Palestinian struggle isn’t isolated – it’s connected to the struggles of all people of color,” said Anahit Kirakosian, an American student with Armenian and Mexican roots at Arizona State University (ASU). Supporters of the Arab cause at ASU called off a scheduled demonstration on October 13 due to the tense atmosphere, and held it a week later. The protestors criticized Israel’s “colonialism,” a theme that has struck a chord with American students who are critical of the Netanyahu administration.

Liberal campuses with angry donors

According to a recent AP-NORC poll, college campuses nationwide lean heavily to the liberal side of the free speech debate, while the ongoing war has further inflamed liberal-conservative tensions. At the University of California, Berkeley, a group of law school students calling themselves “Justice for Palestine” has banned speakers with Zionist views from participating in their events. But the war in Gaza has confirmed what many already suspected – university students in the U.S. are mostly pro-Israel.

The ideological friction has reached into university coffers. Major donors are challenging universities for their statements on the Hamas attack, levelling allegations of anti-Semitism. Marc Rowan, CEO of an investment bank and a major contributor to the prestigious Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, has urged donors to withhold funding. He also called for university authorities to resign for their involvement in organizing a Palestinian literary festival in September that allowed anti-Semitic rhetoric. Ron Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics empire, says he is reconsidering his financial support.

Penn donors are also lambasting the university for its inconsistent application of free speech. “Look, it’s not about being woke or antiwoke. It’s about what’s right and what’s wrong. Hamas believes that all Jews must die,” said Rowan in an interview with CNBC. Financier Clifford Asness, another major Wharton donor, recently wrote a letter saying he has “long been dismayed by the move away from genuine freedom of thought.” Asness said he would not consider donating until “he sees significant change.” Shai Davidai believes that any measure, including economic pressure, is valid if it wakes up university leadership.

Some people are not swayed by threats. Faculty members at Penn released a public letter saying that donor demands for the resignation of the president and provost were excessive. “Academic freedom is at the heart of our educational and research missions... and we demand that it continue to be free of internal or external pressure and coercion.”

Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer and Victoria’s Secret founder Leslie Wexner recently ended their association with Harvard. The decision came after student groups signed a statement holding Israel responsible for the Hamas attack. Although the amount is still unknown, the loss in funding is expected to hit hard, despite the substantial endowments of elite American universities. The University of Pennsylvania has a $21 billion endowment, while Harvard boasts an extraordinary $50 billion endowment.

Gone are the days when wealthy donors gave money to secure admission for their children and grandchildren. Now they want to use their leverage to influence fundamental academic principles and even get university leaders fired like they would at a public corporation. The relative autonomy of university administrators in protecting the role of academia is now being jeopardized by financial ultimatums amid a rancorous political discourse.

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