White supremacist, antisemitic Congress targets colleges over Palestine

Rally for Palestine at UPenn campus, Oct. 16, 2023.

In response to the U.S. Congressional Committee hearing, “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Anti Semitism,” held Dec. 5, seven campus organizations issued a joint statement on Instagram Dec. 10. The groups, representing students at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), called out the U.S. Congress as an institution “built upon — and [that] has long upheld — values of white supremacy and antisemitism.”

The students raised that Congress, suddenly concerned about protecting Jewish students on college campuses where pro-Palestine protests are taking place, “refused to hold hearings on antisemitism following the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacists marched through the streets chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ in a flagrant display of antisemitism.”

In Charlottesville, a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi drove his car into a gathering of counter protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 35 others. At the time, then President Donald Trump described anti-Jewish participants in the violent rally as “very fine people.”

The House education committee summoned the presidents of Harvard, UPenn and MIT to this recent hearing to grill them on their institutions’ response to allegations of antisemitism. Its earlier Nov. 14 hearing blamed college diversity, equity, and inclusion programs for being at fault for “the scourge of antisemitism on campus.” Despite reports from Muslim students facing a rise in Islamophobia, Congress has not held any hearings to address their concerns.

The three university presidents summoned before Congress were women, all with        little time on their jobs. UPenn President Liz Magill started in July 2022 and has been the object of student protests ever since. The university recently threatened disciplinary action against progressive Jewish students from Penn Chavurah who defied an administrative ban against their screening the anti-Zionist documentary “Israelism.” 

Claudine Gay, the first Black woman president at Harvard, took office this summer. Under pressure from alumni and billionaire donors Harvard has targeted and attempted to silence students for speaking out against the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Sally Kornbluth became MIT’s 18th president in January 2023. MIT recently canceled a Palestine 101 teach-in. 

Since the hearings concluded, Magill, and Scott Bok, chair of the UPenn board of trustees resigned.  Kornbluth is under pressure to follow suit. The ink wasn’t dry on the UPenn resignation letters, when the university announced Dec. 9 that Julie Platt, currently chair of the Jewish Federation of North America, will step in as interim UPenn board chair. In October, the Federation launched a $500 million fundraising campaign for Israel.

None of the Congress members conducting the hearing were concerned about the  actions these college presidents took to silence students’ dissent.

In a classic act of gaslighting, Magill chose to focus on a false claim circulating on Instagram that pro-Palestine activists at UPenn and UCLA were chanting, “We want Jewish genocide.” She went so far as to defend this alleged chant as something protected under the First Amendment. Magill was wrong on both counts. 

Associated Press fact checker Philip Marcelo disputed Magill’s claim. (Oct. 31)  The actual chant is, “Israel, Israel, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” And no progressive should ever support calls for genocide against Jewish or any other people.

UPenn officials have also called for federal investigations into other slogans expressed by student activists, particularly, “From the river, to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

The moving force behind the attacks on pro-Palestine student activists and these congressional hearings are wealthy members of university boards of trustees and billionaire donors threatening to withdraw millions of dollars in endowments. At UPenn, one such donor is billionaire Ronald Lauder, an heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics company, listed by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement as a company with extensive business and political relationships with Israel.

Members of the U.S. Congress, with the power over the government’s purse strings, can halt the genocidal slaughter of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza by refusing to fund weapons for Israel. But instead, they pass legislation conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism and use hearings to criticize universities for the times they do allow free expression of divergent thoughts, including the voices of anti-Zionist Jewish students. 

Student groups which issued the Instagram posts include the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee, Harvard African and African-American Resistance Organization, Harvard Jews for Palestine, MIT Coalition for Palestine, MIT Jews for Cease-fire, Penn Against the Occupation and Penn Chavurah. Their demands include the protection of free speech with regard to Palestine on college campuses and an end to the dangerous, disingenuous conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism. 

Their joint statement ends: “We know that we are on the right side of history, and we will continue to build our strength and fight until Palestine is free.”

 

Betsey Piette

Betsey.Piette@workers.org

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Betsey Piette

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