Colleges are struggling to balance campus safety for their students and free speech concerns amid the hostile rhetoric around the Israel-Hamas war.
As GOP presidential candidates call for the removal of foreign students supportive of Hamas, colleges have been lambasted after some groups on their campuses made statements in support of the terrorist group.
But free speech concerns cloud the problem of campus security as debates arise over certain language used by pro-Palestinian students, with some arguing the phrasings support the Palestinian people while others describe them as antisemitic or a call for the genocide of Israelis.
At George Washington University, pro-Palestinian students lit up the school’s library with phrases including “Free Palestine from the River to the Sea” and “Glory to our Martyrs.”
“There’s nothing wrong with supporting Palestinian identity. There is something deeply wrong when that happens in the context of calls to ‘confront and dismantle Zionism’ or other kinds of clearly, indisputably, antisemitic rhetoric,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
Much of the debate over protest language is rooted in the definition of antisemitism, which itself has long been debated in academia, according to American University professor Lara Schwartz, who specializes in dialogue across differences.
“The vocabulary is extremely contested here,” Schwartz said. “What constitutes antisemitism, and when critiques of Israel as a country and a government crosses over into antisemitism, is a highly contested area. And it was before Oct. 7.”
GOP presidential candidate and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is advocating for the U.S. government to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which includes anti-Zionism — directly tying criticism of the state of Israel to anti-Jewish bigotry.
Haley also says the U.S. should take away the nonprofit status of colleges and universities that do not do enough to act against antisemitism, using that IHRA definition.
But Schwartz, who is Jewish, said Haley’s proposals are overly broad and attempt to police antisemitism to an extent that is not reasonable.
“This just sounds to me like a person doing the politically expedient thing within her party and in our moment,” she said. “A cheap play of attacking universities.”
Other candidates have more directly threatened college students who criticize Israel, especially those who show support for Hamas. One of the largest pro-Palestinian student organizations, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), has celebrated Hamas’s attacks.
“Any campus group that characterizes terrorism against Israeli civilians as ‘a historic win’ or calls for ‘armed confrontation’ or calls rape ‘a form of resistance’ — I don’t think I should have to say it, but I believe that such organizations making such claims should not be welcome on any college campus, that they create a hostile environment for Jewish students, or Israeli students,” Greenblatt said.
The ADL and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law sent a letter to college and university presidents calling for them to investigate the activities of SJP chapters on campuses.
“There is no more solemn obligation than securing the safety and well-being of your student body. Currently, Jews across campus are under attack, and for no other reason than the fact that they are Jews. We need University leaders to come together, and state loudly and clearly, ‘Not on our campus,’” the letter reads. “We are asking University Presidents to lead — we must protect Jewish life on campus and ensure that there is no material support being provided to terrorist organizations.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), another 2024 White House hopeful, said the U.S. should “deport” foreign students who support Hamas, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has sought to shut down SJP chapters in colleges in his state.
Those actions have raised concerns about free speech; DeSantis’s move specifically claims that students who have voiced support for the Hamas attacks are illegally aiding the group.
“It is important to understand that as a matter of the First Amendment, having an idea is very different than taking an action, and having an idea is generally protected and conduct is not,” Schwartz said, adding that DeSantis is intentionally misusing laws around terrorism to hinder the speech of students.
“[The politicians] have done a little sleight of hand where they take statutes that we have around material support to terrorist organizations and try to twist them into something that might apply to expression, such as agreeing with the existence of an organization,” she continued.
Others argue such speech qualifies as incitement of violence and is therefore not allowed under the First Amendment.
“We’re a civil rights organization,” Greenblatt said. “We deeply believe in free speech, but my free speech, it’s not free speech when I’m intentionally endangering other people, and that’s what’s happening here. And the idea that this is somehow free speech is just wrong. It’s factually incorrect. And so the people making these arguments don’t have a leg to stand on. They really don’t.”
On campuses, while some professors choose to discuss the conflict with their students — both in an effort to educate and support them through traumatic situations — others have chosen to avoid the topic altogether.
“I have chosen to not get directly involved, for better or for worse, but I know for other faculty who are having these conversations they might seem essential in certain classes,” said Steven White, a Syracuse University political science professor.
“I think it’s especially tough for people who are junior, because you don’t want to say anything that will get the higher-ups in the administration mad at you,” he added.
Controversial debates in college classrooms are not new, but efforts to regulate them generally are, White said, pointing out criticism from Republicans of higher education regarding LGBTQ issues and race in recent years.
As politicians push college administrators to better regulate their student’s actions, the pressure has forced students into difficult situations, Schwartz said.
“What I’m seeing among my students is, they’re being thoughtful. They’re being conscious of how hard this is. They’re being responsible,” she said. “Some of the students will be flatly wrong. Some of the students will be provocative. But what I’d like to see as an institutional response is real conversation that can lead to actual education.”
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