The Gaza conflict is playing out on campuses worldwide

The Israel-Palestine conflict has challenged higher education institutions to think carefully about the way they handle themselves in the context of strongly opposing views and when important freedoms – of expression and association – come up against security concerns and fears of alienating sections of their community.

In Ireland, more than 600 academics published an open letter in The Irish Times on 4 November, condemning Israel’s attacks in Gaza as a “campaign of ethnic cleansing and, according to many experts, genocidal violence”.

In the United States, Professor Minouche Shafik, the president of Columbia University, was accused of bias for only speaking out about the 7 October attack by Hamas on Israel in her 9 October message to alumni.

Her critics included the South African journalist Zubeida Jaffer. On 12 October, tensions ran high at competing pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations at the university, which led administrators to restrict access to its campus in Morningside Heights, New York City.

On 18 October, Shafik issued a follow-up statement to the Columbia community, in which she also addressed the crisis in Gaza. In addition, she said she was “disheartened” that “abhorrent rhetoric” had come from some members of the university community, including faculty and staff, and decried the fact that “some are using this moment to spread antisemitism, Islamophobia, bigotry against Palestinians and Israelis, and various other forms of hate”.

Suspension of student groups

On 10 November, citing incidents in which both the Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace had violated rules by which officially sanctioned student clubs must function, Columbia suspended these two student groups.

Columbia’s decision followed similar bans of SJP at Florida’s state universities and Brandeis University in Boston.

On 31 October, Laura Sparks, president of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York, and Ron Vogel, president of the Cooper Union Alumni Association, responded to a video showing four Orthodox Jewish students taking shelter in the library to escape a large number of students chanting “Free Palestine” and trying to break down the door. The statement said that the Cooper Union was investigating the incident.

The statement also tried to allay alumni concerns by saying, in part, that New York Police Department Chief of Patrol John Chell had reported that police were present throughout the protest and that “there was no direct threat, there was no damage and there was no danger to any students in the school. The students were not barricaded; a school administrator thought it was prudent to close the doors.”

On 16 October, in a statement responding to recorded comments by Associate Professor of History Russell Rickford (but without naming him), Martha E Pollack, president of Cornell University in Ithaca, said in part: “The intentional targeting and killing of innocent civilians is the very definition of terrorism. I am sickened by statements glorifying the evilness of Hamas terrorism. Any members of our community who have made such statements do not speak for Cornell; in fact, they speak in direct opposition to all we stand for at Cornell. There is no justification for or moral equivalent to these violent and abhorrent acts.”

At an off-campus rally that was caught on video and uploaded, Rickford had said he found Hamas’s attack on Israel “exhilarating” and “energising”.

On 15 November, speaking to the Committee on Ways and Means of the US House of Representatives, Cornell student Talia Dror testified to the fact that “students, professors and administrators on Cornell’s campus celebrat[ed] the brutal massacre of innocent civilians” and that five days later “the Cornell Student Assembly introduced a resolution justifying Hamas’ actions and placing full blame on Israel”.

She strongly criticised Cornell’s first statement which, she claimed, “compared the ‘loss of life in the Middle East’ to deaths caused by natural disasters”.

On 29 October, she told the American legislators that Cornell University Provost Michael I Kotlikoff told Jewish parents that he understood their concerns, but they should not be worried.

“Not seven hours later,” she said, “Jewish students on campus received threats that said: ‘If I see another Jew on campus, I will stab you and slit your throat. If I see another pig female jew i [sic] I will drag you away, rape you and throw you off a cliff. Jews are human animals and deserve pigs’ death. Liberation by any means, from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’.”

Suspension of academic staff

On 16 November, Johns Hopkins University placed the director of paediatric cardiac critical care, Dr Darren Klugman, on leave while the university investigated anti-Palestinian social media posts that, according to the screen shots circulating on social media, call Palestinians “blood-thirsty, morally depraved animals” and another that appears to call for all Palestinians to be massacred.

In an e-mailed statement published by the Baltimore Banner, Kim Hoppe, vice-president of communications at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said: “We at Johns Hopkins share the concern of many about the deeply disturbing social media posts made by a faculty member in the School of Medicine regarding the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. The faculty member who made these statements has been placed on leave, and thus will have no interaction with students or patients while we conduct a thorough investigation under our policies and procedures.”

In Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Professor Mark Scott, vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, wrote to staff and students on 26 October, saying the institution “will not tolerate any pro-terrorist statements or commentary, including support for Hamas’s recent terrorist attacks”.

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong cancelled a student-organised talk on the Gaza crisis at short notice, raising concerns over freedom of speech, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

Canada protests

In Canada, on 9 November, Université de Montréal suspended Yanise Arab, a lecturer in the university’s history department, who had been caught on video hurling insults, including “Go back to Poland”, at the group Jews on Campus who were holding a peaceful demonstration inside one of Concordia University’s buildings. The protest against Jews on Campus turned violent and police were called.

Referring to this and other incidents on Concordia’s campus, President Graham Carr wrote that they “violate our values, our Code of Rights and Responsibilities and, in certain cases, are unlawful”.

He referred specifically to a social media post issued by a student group, “that could reasonably be construed as inciting violence”.

Carr said a “violent altercation involving some students and some individuals external to our community occurred on the mezzanine of the Hall building. Police were called after two members of our Campus Safety and Prevention Services team who had tried to intervene were physically attacked and an ambulance had to be called. A student was also injured.”

He said swastikas were discovered in one of the campus buildings. “The university unreservedly condemns these deplorable acts and will make every effort to identify and bring those responsible to account for their behaviour.”

CBC News reported that students from three universities in Montreal – Concordia, McGill and Université de Montréal – held walk-outs on 9 November to show solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

And in Italy, People’s Dispatch reported that students occupied the University of Naples on 6 November to demand a ceasefire and an end to cooperation between their institution and Israel.

Bringing the temperature down

How the higher education sector should handle a situation like the Israel-Palestine conflict, contested by opposing sides, each with strong views, is a thorny issue. Academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association are often weighed up against security concerns and institutions’ fear of offending or alienating any particular section of their community.

On 10 November, journalist, lawyer and author Jill Filipovic wrote an opinion piece in Slate with the subheading: “The motivation for open letters is understandable. But they’ve done more harm than good.”

On the same day, in an editorial headlined “For universities, the less said about controversial issues, the better”, The Washington Post urged America’s colleges and universities – most of which are outspoken on climate change and were supportive of Black Lives Matter protests following the police murder of George Floyd – to recommit to the principles in the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report of 1967, which was drafted during the upheaval on campuses because of the Vietnam War.

The Kalven Report says: “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. … It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.”

When a university takes a “collective position”, the report says, this inhibits the “full freedom of dissent on which [the university] thrives”.

In addition to the University of Chicago, some 82 colleges and universities have signed on to what’s become known as the ‘Chicago Principles’, which are a guide to free speech.

Gasant Abarder, media manager at the University of the Western Cape, told University World News that “part of what universities do is to contest ideas in an academic space, but also to facilitate conversations and dialogues that can hopefully lead to solutions”.

“There is a lot of anger out there at the moment. So, university researchers and academics have to be thought leaders and help us make sense of complex situations like Palestine and Israel, but they should also bring temperatures down.”