Antisemitism is a powerful drug, but the three presidents saw their duty as defending the open market on thought. They upheld, though very badly, the core notion of academic freedom, which is free speech. But when free speech becomes hate speech with the threat of violence, what then?
Can you put conditions on advocating for antisemitism? Maureen Dowd expressed it this way: “Not since Bill Clinton was asked about having sex with Monica Lewinsky and replied, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” has there been such parsing.”
I spent a lot of years in academia, teaching at NYU, City College and the University of Wisconsin. There were things about it that I loved, but not the sense of moral superiority which infected some of the faculty and administration. I finally found academia to be constricting because it was often smug and self-satisfied. Yes, there were other reasons that I left, but I found more freedom outside the ivy-covered walls.
Now we have the spectacle of Ted Cruz and Elise Stefanik accusing the Harvard president of “intentionally fostering an environment that allows rampant and dangerous antisemitism.” We should not be surprised that she and her colleagues are just continuing their regular attack on liberal institutions. The GOP is very good at confounding issues that have no necessary connection—such as linking aid to Ukraine with the border mess.
But of course she was right to go after the three Ivy presidents. I guess they were advised by their lawyers to give legalistic answers, waffling over what should have been an obvious and strong response. The schools ought to be teaching the real and complex history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not defending an abstract standard.
Academia is sometimes guilty of parsing the simple truth.