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Haverford Students for Peace's Encampment for Board of Managers weekend (Apr. 25 - Apr. 28).

OPINION: On the Attacks on Pro-Palestinian Student Activists

Editor’s Note: This piece was published following unanimous approval by our Editorial Board and careful consideration of our opinions policy, which states that The Clerk will evaluate submissions from Haverford administrators on an individual basis.


If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that college administrators do have options when it comes to dealing with “the problem” of pro-Palestinian campus activism. At Brown, at Rutgers, here at Haverford and other institutions, students have exercised their academic freedom to protest without having to face wide-scale political repression. In place of police brutality there has been dialogue with administrators which has led to a variety of non-violent outcomes.

It’s unclear if the willingness to talk to students will translate into the realization of student demands – particularly for divestment – and certainly individual students on these campuses have faced chilling pushback and disciplinary measures, but at least they haven’t been beaten and arrested en masse. And, in this current climate, given what has transpired at places like Columbia and UCLA and many other institutions, that is definitely something.

The decision to bring in police is rooted in a particular way of thinking about student activism, and students, that is directly opposed to the general values of higher education. The path of brutality is paved by the view – voiced proudly by business, media, and political figures on the left and right – that students are not simply wrong for standing up in support of Palestine, they are idiots and morons who know nothing about the situation at hand.  Now, obviously, students are young people whose education is in progress, and who have different levels of knowledge about the history of Israel and Palestine. Participating in political activism is a powerful way of becoming more informed, and that is amply demonstrated by the educational activity – debate and discussion, teach-ins, and individual study – that has been a major component of student activism now and in the past. But none of that really matters in the face of the argument that students are totally ignorant, a position whose tendentious power relies on the vagueness of the standard it suggests. Because how much would one have to know to be in a position to speak out, and who would decide if the standard has been met? It’s evident that we’re dealing not with a genuine, good-faith argument, but a smear to discredit and diminish student activists.

But the students, as the Zionist position goes (or at least this current, hardline version of Zionism), are not just ignorant, they are also dangerous, and so it is not enough to dismiss and malign them. In the wake of the NYPD violently clearing student encampments at Columbia, NYU, and CUNY – at the invitation of college presidents – the supposed danger and ignorance of the activists have been fused together to forward the really insidious notion that there is someone nefarious who is coordinating student activity. When it became clear that 99% of protesters arrested at Columbia were students, the “outside agitator” image was further refined by the notion that, as voiced by the NYPD Chief of Patrol, “there is an unknown entity who is radicalizing our vulnerable students.” As this idea has gained some steam, it is both shocking and very predictable that George Soros has emerged as a primary culprit.

If you are a Jew, you are well aware that such blatant examples of antisemitism, suggesting a malign conspiratorial influence on world events, have been used to foment and justify the material expropriation – of opportunities, jobs, homes and lives – that Jewish people have faced throughout our history. Antisemitism is a real force in the world and its manifestations must be fiercely combatted. Over the last seven months there have been isolated incidents of antisemitic speech acts among pro-Palestinian protestors but it has to be emphasized that within any large-scale social protest movement it’s possible to find evidence for all kinds of speech that does not represent the thrust of protest or the students engaging in it. But ultimately such incidents – which hardly amount to a “surge/wave/explosion” – are not the basis for the claim that college campuses are enshrouded in an atmosphere of antisemitism. Rather, the Zionist position is rooted in the chilling logic that it is antisemitic to protest in support of peace and Palestine. Pro-Palestinian teach-ins, rallies, slogans, and general political activity are thus seen as meaningful only as manifestations of hate. The very means of protest, in other words, are declared to be intolerable. As support for this view, Zionism defines “safety on campus” in a notably capacious way so that it encompasses freedom from being exposed to the public expression of support for Palestine. Even the basic call for a ceasefire is considered as beyond the pale and capable of inflicting harm.

It is not surprising, then, that in this atmosphere prominent figures at all levels of society (including within colleges and universities) feel no compunction in maligning students by calling them terrorists for supporting a political view that they don’t agree with. When it comes to such overheated rhetoric, the point is not to express disagreement but rather to identify a problem population that society needs to do away with. In a recent article in Jewish Currents, Adam Haber and Matylda Figlerowicz insightfully frame this rhetorical strategy (and the repressive actions it has warranted) in terms of the structure of a moral panic. Students are a threat, in this thinking, not just for the “violence” they are committing now but also because of “the greater violence to come,” and so the offenders must be shut down.

But what exactly is being shut down? The capacity for students to use their academic freedom to voice support for Palestine and Palestinians and to convince their institutions to at least consider the connections (financial and otherwise) they have with the state of Israel. Student activists are not the only ones who argue that Israel is conducting genocide in Gaza as many prominent, good-faith actors and institutions across the world have described Israel’s actions in this way. Perhaps they are wrong, the question can certainly be debated, but to argue that the position is antisemitic as such and that anyone who expresses it should be disciplined is ultimately an ideological ploy for shutting down speech.

The rhetoric that has been deployed against student activists is meant to frame them as an active threat that must be monitored, disciplined, and policed. This is wrong for many reasons but in closing I want to focus especially on the way it denies a student the opportunity to be a student. Colleges, we hear frequently, are places of learning and growth, where students come in contact with different ideas, and think about how the world is structured and how it can become more just. For students, these are not just words in some flashy marketing campaign; rather, they constitute a promise, a promise that institutions of higher learning are on the side of the student. This can, regrettably, take the form of easy pandering, but when it is serious it means a real commitment to student education both within and beyond the classroom. This commitment has been broken by institutions that have prohibited student political activism by inviting the police to campus. Not only is this action shameful, it is also profoundly unnecessary (the protests have been peaceful) and counterproductive (every escalation on the part of administrators has just added fuel to the fire). It transforms a young engaged person on a college campus into a terrorist who must be repressed. I hope it’s not too controversial to say that that has nothing to do with education.

10 Comments

  1. Asya Sigelman May 15, 2024

    Dr. Khokhlov,

    You seek to exonerate college students from the charge of ignorance and stupidity. Unfortunately, you do so by demonstrating your own astounding (but perhaps willful?) ignorance of what is actually transpiring on college campuses, and, more specifically, in our very own BiCo. How can you not know that pro-Palestinian students at Haverford and Bryn Mawr are routinely using the slogans “Global Intifada” and “From the river to the sea” – explicit calls for Jewish pogroms and the annihilation of the Jewish State? Or perhaps you are not aware that, this past November, the HC administration pulled a last-minute cancellation of (an originally college-sanctioned) student-led project, where a Jewish member of the Haverford women’s basketball team intended to dedicate a game to Antisemitism Awareness, because this might come across as too antagonistic toward pro-Palestinian students? Or perhaps you care to comment on the Haverford professor who publicly, on Twitter, celebrated the Hamas-perpetrated atrocities of October 7th as “imprisoned people breaking free from their chains.” So, I ask, how exactly do these trends conform to your utopian vision of “a few bad apples” in a crowd of peaceful and idealistic students? And what do you want to say to our Jewish students who, daily, must take courses from faculty, and socialize with peers, who are actively, persistently rooting for the destruction of the Jewish State while exonerating and glorifying Hamas rapists and murderers?
    Yours,
    Asya Sigelman, Associate Professor of Ancient Greek at Bryn Mawr College and proud Zionist.

    • HC Alum ('21) May 15, 2024

      100% agree. To add, though: not only did a Haverford professor make the “breaking free from their chains” comment — the Haverford president literally said this, too (according to the lawsuit filed this morning). Direct quote from the lawsuit:

      “Jewish Haverford students … asked President Raymond what she thought of the picture a Haverford professor publicly posted and wildly applauded of a bulldozer smashing through a barrier from Gaza into Israel so that the driver and others could murder, mutilate, and rape Israelis. President Raymond’s response was that the post ‘could be perceived in many ways,’ and when pressed about what she perceived, President Raymond responded to the Jewish students that she ‘heard people breaking free from their chains.'”

      The whole institution is a mess. So ashamed of my alma mater.

      • Gus Stadler May 16, 2024

        Can you provide a source for that Wendy Raymond quotation? Seems odd that there is not a single reference to it on the internet that isn’t a report on this very recent lawsuit, nor have I or anyone else I know at the College heard it before.

        • HC Alum ('21) May 17, 2024

          It’s a direct quote from page 68 of the complaint. The entire 143-page complaint is publicly available–if you Google “deborah project haverford lawsuit,” the first result has a direct link to it.

          Is it possible the students misquoted her? Sure. That’s why my comment said “according to the lawsuit.”

          • Gus Stadler May 17, 2024

            No one I know at Haverford has ever heard it. This document is the only source for it, which is highly suspicious. This entire thing is very shady and cynical–“Jews at Haverford” is a made up entity and the suit certainly doesn’t represent the views and wishes of Jewish students and faculty in general. The org sponsoring the suit is run by an attorney who for a time represented the Trump campaign in its attempt to overturn the electoral count in PA in 2020. I guess President “Good People on Both Sides” gets a pass from them on anti-Semitism, for some reason.

  2. HC Alum ('21) May 15, 2024

    “…to protest in support of peace and Palestine. ”

    lmao

    Yeah, students chanting “globalize the intifada” and waving around “decolonize Israel” signs are definitely protesting “in support of peace.”

    Good one!

  3. Michelle May 16, 2024

    Let me be as simplistic as I can be in explaining why Zionists, and no, not “current hardline zionists,” I mean run of the mill, totally left wing Zionists, find these protesters DEEPLY REPULSIVE AND OFFENSIVE.

    1- the protests are NOT anti-war or pro-peace. They are clearly pro-eliminating Israel. The slogans, the accusations of genocide, the demand to divest, all amount to ridding the land of the Jews. If you can’t understand that, then yes, “ignorant” is the right word to describe the protestors.

    2- if these protest were actually peace protests, they would be full of Jews (not your token Jews) who advocate for real peace, coexistence for Israel and Palestine, yes an end to the war with the return of all hostages. Yes for end to the occupation. Yes for the end of the garbage dump that is the current Israeli government in power. And yes, for the removal of Hamas as the governing body of Gaza. So EVERYONE from the river to the sea is SAFE and free.

    3- Anyone with an ounce of knowledge understands that Hamas governing Gaza is not a “free free Palestine” and the current PA is corrupt and brutal. These are facts. I don’t know how you envision a free Palestine, but Israelis and Israeli Arabs have NO desire to live under Hamas or the PA. Thanks but no thanks.

    So Dear Protestors,
    Of course you don’t want innocent civilians to die. NO ONE DOES. But your way of protesting this war, plain and simple, whether you mean to or not, you are advocating for an end to the one and only teeny tiny little state where the Jews are indigenous.

    If you’re not out there advocating for coexistence and real peace, you do not deserve the support of your administration.

    If you are not advocating for inclusion and acceptance of your fellow Jewish classmates who are terrified to tell you that they are actually Zionists, you don’t deserve their support.

    Try reworking your PR. Try not being the soundboard of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
    Please.

    Try to understand that most Jews in this country are actually Zionists. Try understanding what Zionism really means.

    Try being Pro-Peace.

  4. michelle May 16, 2024

    Also…
    Dr. KHOKHLOV,
    Your statement “the Zionist position is rooted in the chilling logic that it is antisemitic to protest in support of peace and Palestine.” is just pure brainwashing PROPAGANDA!

    Let me explain the Zionist position to you: it is rooted in the logic that it is antisemitic to call for the eradication of the state of Israel – the indigenous homeland of the Jewish people.
    Jews as in the nationality, not the religion. When it comes to peace and Palestine, Zionists have all kinds of opinions, as Jews we are a complicated people who thrive on challenging each others beliefs and we have very many differing beliefs.

    We agree on one thing – Israel has a right to exist. Israel has a right to defend itself. Israel has a right to protect its citizens, including the 20% who are not Jewish.

  5. Mimi Kirk '96 May 18, 2024

    Thank you for this brave piece, Dr. Khokhlov. The student protestors’ voices of conscience give me hope for our collective future. Their calls for decolonization are not to be feared but embraced. Indeed, they are calling for an end to a political, economic, and social system based on the supremacy of one people over another, a system that has resulted in apartheid, war crimes (including October 7), and genocide. This is not antisemitic but is quite simply the only way forward to establish safety for all – Jews and Palestinians – between the river and the sea.

    • Michelle Komatsu May 21, 2024

      Mimi,
      You’ve been sold a bucket of propaganda. Try learning some history about the land.

      The oldest anti colonial movement is the return of the indigenous people of Israel to its land. Peace and a two state solution have been offered up THREE times to the Palestinian people. There is nothing more that Israelis want, than to live in peace and safety with their neighbors.

      Israel proper is a democracy and non Jews have equal right. They 100% have more rights than the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. No one on the progressive left likes to admit this fact.

      If the West Bank and Gaza weren’t terrorist havens, funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran then maybe Palestinians would have their own country.

      You claim to want Jews and Palestinians to be free from the river to the sea, but you have NO clue what it would mean for the Jews living there if Hamas remain in power.
      And what it would mean for Palestinians living there who want to live in a real democracy. They’d be thrown off rooftops and executed like they were in Gaza when they had a civil war. Did you know this?

      Last I checked the USA was not a perfect democracy either. I don’t see these protestors calling for the decolonization of the USA. “The calls for decolonization are not to be feared?” What….what would you like to decolonize exactly? Every shred of archeological evidence points to Jews on that land.

      The fact remains that Jews are a nation. Not a religion as you’ve been brainwashed to believe. Many of us are actually atheists.

      I was at graduation. I watched these despicable, selfish and totally unacceptable disruptors. The graduation should have been a happy occasion, instead these disrupters made it all about themselves and spewing their propaganda.

      As if what they were doing changed anyone’s mind, as if it educated anyone, as if earned them any respect. Nope. It did not.

      When you behave like selfish toddlers you get zero respect. No one wants to listen to you when all you do is scream at the top of your lungs and hold up your silly signs. Not even your fellow classmates. They might have been silent because they understand the meaning of respect but they do not respect you for turning their graduation ceremony into your own little crapfest. Nothing brave about any of their actions.

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