College campuses have historically been at the heart of protest movements and larger political battles, including free speech in the United States. This has especially been the case with Israel’s war on Gaza over the past two months.
Amidst the roiling of pro-Palestinian protests on US college and university campuses, institutions of higher education have also been swept up in a ferocious debate around anti-Semitism, with some conservatives trying to make a direct link between liberal campus culture and anti-Israel rhetoric.
The debate reached what may be its zenith after Republicans in the House Education Committee decided to hold a congressional hearing on 5 December titled “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism.”
They invited the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to testify before the Committee on how their institutions have “handled a rise in anti-Semitism incidents on their campuses since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.”
Despite demonstrations nationwide from many lesser-known institutions, why these three schools were selected is unclear but seems attributed to their high-profile status and the Republican desire to use the moment for political gain.
While the testimony lasted five hours, it was a single line of questioning from New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik that drew the most controversy.
“Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct, yes or no?” Stefanik grilled Liz Magill, then-president of the University of Pennsylvania, referring, among other things, to phrases such as: “There’s only one solution: Intifada revolution.”
Only Magill’s response— that the answer was “context-dependent”— went viral, but her words echoed those of her peers. Commentators argued that the president’s failure to directly state that the genocide of Jews was wrong resulted from foolish legalese.
University leaders merely applied a legal framework to the question, stating that hateful speech not directed at individuals is often protected, rather than challenging the question’s basic ridiculous premise that intifada — or any of the well-known pro-Palestine political chants on US college campuses for that matter — equates to Jewish genocide.
To Arabic speakers, intifada has nothing to do with hatred of Jews. It means an uprising, has been used even in revolts against Arab governments, and can also take non-violent forms, such as in the case of much of the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993).
“It was disturbing to watch the pride Rep. Stefanik took in willfully denying Palestinians their own understanding of what an Arabic word means to them,” Gabriella Martini, a graduate student in a group called MIT Jews for Ceasefire, told Al Majalla.
“To claim some superior understanding of the Arabic itself as well as the historical and cultural context in which calls for intifada exist is a form of Palestinian erasure.”