The conflict between Israel and Hamas fuels tension in US universities | International
Something more than a war of ideas has been unleashed in the universities of the United States. In response to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, campuses are bustling with protests and proclamations, manifestos and accusations magnified by social media. The tension leads to threats and, in some cases, attacks. And faced with this unforeseen conflagration - unprecedented since the mobilization of students against the Vietnam or Iraq wars - the boards of trustees and donors threaten to cut off funding on the campuses if their interests are contradicted.
The campus as an institution, as a vital and intellectual universe, is an image rooted in the American social and cultural imagination. The war in Gaza has turned several universities into a battlefield and ideas into weapons in the midst of a growing inquisition: institutions are considering how to respond for fear of angering students, professors, alumni and donors.
The conflict is “bringing to light those dividing lines” in universities, places where “you can and should disagree, dissent, talk,” says Kristen Shahverdian, who directs PEN America's free expression program. “This work never ends, but now it is about, first of all, guaranteeing a safe space for disagreement, also within social networks, which are often positive, but also instruments of great misinformation,” she explains. phone. In times of crisis, schools “cannot use evasive or unclear language,” although the complexity of this conflict makes everything difficult, she emphasizes.
The official statements have undergone successive corrections in the Ivy League, the group of elite universities in the country. The president of Indiana University, Pamela Whitten, had to qualify her initial message after referring to the widespread violence, without affiliation and without sides, in the Middle East. Harvard's governing board also amended a statement regarding "the death and destruction unleashed by Hamas's attack on citizens of Israel." Carol Folt, the president of the University of Southern California, which has 3,000 Jewish students, was harshly attacked for not condemning Hamas terrorism in her first message.
On the West Coast, a large group of Stanford members, including three Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry and Economics, criticized the initial lukewarm message from university authorities. They used the term “conflict in the Middle East” to avoid referring in a first message to the thousand victims and the more than 200 kidnapped by Islamist militants on October 7. The law school of this university canceled classes on October 20 and asked its students to connect electronically for fear of riots.
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In New York, a city that has between 1.1 and 1.5 million Jews, the largest population outside of Israel, the tension is palpable. Columbia has canceled an annual fundraiser scheduled for this Wednesday over growing division on campus. Last year's call raised $30 million [28,4 millones de euros]. The rector, Minouche Shafik, of Egyptian origin, finds herself on the ropes for allowing protests of the opposite nature, for “a moral and intellectual debate.” Administrators have condemned in separate statements the “disturbing anti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts, including intimidation and blatant violence” on campus in recent days, but have not taken specific action against any group of students or faculty for expressing their opinions. .
Shai Davidai, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, decries the leadership's lukewarmness. “This is not a political issue, but rather a question of condemning terror. “I am very critical of Israel, I support the Palestinian cause and the two-state solution, but I also ask that universities draw a clear line against organizations whose narrative has been hijacked by a few hundred radicals,” he says of a protest by a pro-Palestinian group. who has not responded to this newspaper's request for comment.
“What we are seeing is not a problem of Israel, but of the world, of civilization: we would never allow an ISIS march [Estados Islámico] on our campus. We have seen the terror of 9/11, the terror of the trains in Madrid... It is not a political issue, but a moral one, of humanity against terror. If we are not able to draw that line, we will no longer be able to say what is right and what is wrong,” Davidai emphasizes. A video of an improvised speech of his during a protest in favor of Israel received one million views on social networks in a few hours. He assumes that he risks losing his job by openly criticizing Columbia, since he calls Shafik a coward, but he doesn't care. “We have seen it in history, in Germany [en los años treinta]now in Russia, in Iran or North Korea: if we remain silent, we will be complicit,” he points out.
These types of demands for more committed positions have been heard on campuses across the country. “The struggle of the Palestinians is not isolated, it is connected to that of all people of color,” says Anahit Kirakosian, an American student with Armenian and Mexican roots at Arizona State University, one of the largest in the country with more of 40,000 students. Sympathizers with the Arab cause of that center canceled a demonstration called for October 13 due to the tension in the atmosphere. This finally took place last Saturday. At the protest, young people criticized Israel's “colonial policy,” one of the elements that has resonated most among American students critical of the Government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Liberal campuses, millionaire funds
Campuses across the country are more favorable to liberals than conservatives when it comes to free speech, according to an AP-NORC poll released Oct. 2. The armed conflict has strained relationships that were already on the brink. At the University of California Berkeley, for example, the Justice for Palestine law student group devised a statute late last year that prevents Zionist sympathizers from speaking at their events. The war in Gaza adds a new conclusion: the majority of university patrons lean overwhelmingly in favor of Israel.
The ideological tension has reached patronage. Large donors who fund programs or departments have challenged universities for their positions regarding the Hamas attack and accusations of anti-Semitism. Marc Rowan, CEO of an investment bank and a major contributor to the University of Pennsylvania's renowned Wharton School, has asked other donors to turn off the spigot of resources. He is demanding the resignation of university officials for allowing the organization in September of a Palestinian literary festival that he believes included hateful rhetoric against Jews. Ron Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics empire, said he is “reexamining” his financial support.
Donors accuse Penn, as the university is known, of applying free speech inconsistently. “This is not a matter of being woke up either antiwokeis to be good or bad. Hamas is a group that believes that all Jews must die,” Rowan said in an interview with CNBC. Another patron, financier Clifford Asness, wrote this week in a letter to Wharton that he had “long been dismayed by the shift away from true freedom of thought” and would not consider donating until “significant change was evident.” Professor Davidai considers that any measure, including economic pressure, is valid to wake up the university authorities.
Some refuse to be carried away by threats. Penn's faculty argued in a public letter that donors who pushed for the president and provost to resign went too far. “Academic freedom is at the heart of our educational and research missions,” the academics write. “And we demand that it continue to be free of internal or external pressures or coercion.”
At Harvard, Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer and Victoria's Secret founder Leslie Wexner have cut ties with the school after student groups signed a statement blaming Israel for the Hamas attack. The leak of funds, not yet quantified, will in any case be significant, because the endowment of elite universities is enormous: Pennsylvania has a budget of 21 billion dollars and Harvard, 50 billion.
It is no longer a matter of waiting for special treatment for their children or grandchildren to be admitted to the institution: large donors are now trying to modulate essential values of universities and, if necessary, dismiss their leaders as if they were the board of directors of a company. The relative independence of the rectorate to guarantee the academic function is compromised by a political debate, wielded in the form of an economic threat.
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