In September 1944, as the genocide of European Jews was ongoing and the violence of World War II was at its peak, Max Horkheimer, co-founder of the Institute for Social Research – aka the Frankfurt School – and the methodology of “critical theory” it developed, declared that “wittingly or unwittingly, the Jews have become the martyrs of civilization. … To protect the Jews has come to be a symbol of everything that mankind stands for. Their survival is the survival of culture itself.”
It is telling that 80 years later with the forced resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay, so many of the same issues that occupied the Frankfurt School then are at the centre of a culture war that, with the 2024 presidential election looming, could determine the fate of democracy in the United States – just as the founders of critical theory predicted. Only now it’s Palestinians and not Jews who are the martyrs and symbols, whose survival as a national community on their land has become, more than any other contemporary conflict, a bellwether of the possibility to address the increasingly intractable problems facing humanity.
Critics of Gay’s forced resignation, even when accounting for her admittedly sloppy citation practices, point to her race; advocacy of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies; and mostly, her overly lawyered response to questions about “calling for genocide of Jews” during the now infamous December 5 congressional hearing on anti-Semitism on campus as the reasons for her departure. But her position was doomed, and deservedly so, before she fumbled her context-dependent answer to Representative Elise Stefanik’s question about whether calls for genocide on campus would be considered hate speech.
It was Gay’s moral cowardice in the face of Stefanik’s unmistakably mendacious set-up to the genocide question that revealed not only Gay’s unsuitability for leadership of the world’s premier research university but also the deeper intellectual and political rot at the highest echelons of American academia.
The congresswoman claimed that merely by chanting the phrases “river to the sea” and “globalize the intifada”, protesters are in fact calling for “violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews”. “Are you aware of that?” Stefanik asked Gay.
Here Stefanik was brazenly deploying the well-worn fascist tactic most recently resuscitated by Donald Trump to great effect: the “big lie”. It couldn’t have worked better; before Stefanik could even finish her accusation, Gay interjected that she found those phrases “hateful, reckless, offensive speech [that] is personally abhorrent to me”. Soon-to-be-fired University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, who only a few months before had worked overtime to prevent the Palestine Writers Literature Festival from taking place at UPenn, similarly bent the knee to Stefanik’s concocted allegations about rabid anti-Semitism on her campus.
Gay might have a problem citing colleagues, but it’s simply inconceivable that the now former president of Harvard is so ignorant and ill-informed as to believe that those two phrases are tantamount to a call for genocide (it is worth noting that “river to the sea” has been used by Zionists for over a century, most recently by Netanyahu to declare that there will be “no Palestinian state from the river to the sea”). Her rush to second Stefanik’s racist accusation in the most “personal” way possible represented both a complete disavowal of what she and her colleagues must know to be reality and the kind of grovelling by academic leaders to state officials that characterise totalitarian systems, not functioning democracies.
If there was ever a moment for academic integrity to show its face, it was then. If there was ever an inflection point in the struggle against fascist propaganda in the halls of Congress, it was then. The only ethical response to Stefanik’s deployment of such brazen falsehoods in the service of repressive politics was the one another Harvard alum, Joseph Nye Welch, famously gave to Senator Joseph McCarthy some 70 years ago after McCarthy, during a nationally televised hearing, accused a young colleague from Welch’s law firm of being a communist and suggested that the man should be fired. “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Welch had said before refusing to answer any more questions on the matter.
Only clear courage and harsh truth can defeat “the big lie”. Welch’s shaming of McCarthy’s “cruelty and recklessness” turned public and media opinion about McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade against him overnight. It has inspired congressional witnesses ever since, although clearly not Gay and her colleagues. And the price of their cowardice arrived directly with the punchline of Stefanik’s interrogation: her demand they declare whether chanting to “genocide the Jews” would be permissible speech on their campuses.
The question flummoxed the three Ivy League presidents precisely because no such phrase has been chanted on their or any other campuses. Instead, in another deployment of big lie tactics, chants accusing Israel – plausibly, it must be stressed – of genocide in Gaza have been deliberately and falsely transformed by Israel’s long-formidable hasbara, or propaganda, machine into chants calling for the genocide of Jews, circulated virally on social media and then taken up by Stefanik on cue as the basis for her self-righteous inquisition of Gay, Magill and MIT President Sally Kornbluth.
Perhaps a generation ago, the three university presidents could have been forgiven for having no ready response to such a fantastical accusation since it existed outside the reality-based universe academics are used to functioning in. Back then, as Karl Rove famously declared in the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq (another big lie that shaped American politics for a generation), the imperial United States was so powerful “we create our own reality.” But at least scholars and journalists were still allowed “to study that reality … judiciously, as you will.”
Today, even that courtesy is no longer afforded the intellectual class as the empire moves closer to ruin and its realities become harder to maintain. The “reality-based community” in academia, journalism and social media is under unprecedented assault, not just by hardcore conservatives but also by the gatekeepers of mainstream political, economic and cultural power – especially when it comes to criticism of Israel.
Whether it’s Columbia University banning both Students for Justice and Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, Harvard and UPenn fighting Palestine solidarity at every turn, the University of California pushing for “viewpoint-neutral history” while its campuses increase pressure on Palestine solidarity activities, or the outright criminalising and unrelenting threats, harassment, (self-)censoring and punishment of professors, students and staff, the campaign against Palestine solidarity is inseparable from and indeed the spearhead for conservative attacks on allegedly “woke” academic disciplines and their attempts to increase the measure of justice and societal power for long marginalised communities.
In that regard, it’s worth highlighting that despite their obsequious fealty towards Israel, Magill and Gay were sacrificed the moment doing so served the interests of the system they were protecting, in this case by demonstrating the power of even a junior congresswoman to impose a demonstrably false narrative on the leaders of America’s elite centres of knowledge production. Tony Soprano would approve.
For more than half a century, the strange alchemy known as Israeli hasbara has produced such political gold and with it unprecedented power for the Israel lobby and carte blanche for Israel to dig in ever deeper as the world’s last active settler colonial occupation. But that transmutation of money and connections into political power has poisoned American domestic politics and foreign policy in equal measure, derailing a truly progressive agenda for the benefit of global empire and settler colonialism which, with the arrival of the neoliberal order, has fed back ever more harmfully into an increasingly militarised domestic sphere.
Today, the idea that supporting Israeli colonialism can coexist with racial, economic, gender or climate justice rings hollow to a generation that sees through the propaganda to the massive violence and injustices it has long obscured. Palestinians may not enjoy the cultural, economic and political prominence that Jews achieved before the Shoah and thus their “survival” or “martyrdom” might not seem to some as globally consequential as the Frankfurt School saw the fate of the Jews, but Palestine has long “bridged the gap” between progressive youth rebellion in the West and liberation movements in the Global South, precisely the coalition that has reformed through the burgeoning global movements for climate, racial, economic, gender and other forms of social justice.
Universities, the news media, the culture industries – the institutions that were at the centre of critical theory’s analytical gaze and practices a century ago – are, like the Frankfurt School itself, once again at the centre of culture, and through it, political warfare. While leaders remain ensnared by the system, artists and academics, journalists as well as students and even government officials are creating unprecedentedly broad networks of solidarity that can withstand the intense pressure by power holders to enforce fealty and silence dissent.
Through these webs of solidarity, the struggle over the future of the university will be increasingly bound up with campus struggles for Palestine.