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A specter haunting the university

The emphasis on feelings over facts is undermining the legitimacy of academia.

A rally at Tulane University in New Orleans got violent after a pro-Palestinian supporter hit a Jewish student in the face on Oct. 26, 2023. Photo by Pnina Sasson.
A rally at Tulane University in New Orleans got violent after a pro-Palestinian supporter hit a Jewish student in the face on Oct. 26, 2023. Photo by Pnina Sasson.
Donna Robinson Devine
Donna Robinson Divine
Donna Robinson Divine is the Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government Emerita at Smith College's Department of Government.

That Hamas’s Oct. 7 rampage of barbaric atrocities has become a symbol of “Palestinian liberation” on campus is unsurprising. The pro-Palestinian movement and its ideology have long been a specter haunting the university.

This moral descent of academia has resulted in proposals to reinvigorate protections for free speech and appeals to university presidents to ensure safety and respectful interactions. These are laudable goals but insufficient. They cannot change a dynamic that is anchored in the university’s dedication to a radical vision of social justice, which compromises and corrupts what was once taken for granted as the core principle of higher education: the advancement of knowledge.

A progressive ideological vision has acquired sacred status on campus. It has taken command of the very words spoken in classrooms and lecture halls. A colonization of language has permeated every scholarly discipline, with a particularly degrading effect on the study of the Middle East. As a result, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer seen as a struggle to be resolved by compromises on tangible goods, such as land or holy sites. It is propagandized as a battle over a past in which, according to the permitted vocabulary, the “wrong side of history” prevailed.

An age of atonement for the sins of colonialism has entombed Palestinians in the iconography of radical social change. On campus, the Palestinians are placed comfortably on the fault line dividing the old “oppressive” order from the messianic vision of a just “progressive” world. Enveloped by a narrative of catastrophic defeat (nakba), the Palestinians have become the enduring icon of the victim and, in the social justice lexicon, the open wound and unfinished history. Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 is understood less in terms of its military outcome than as a “first cause” of infinite suffering, a dislocation that, in totalitarian fashion, defines politics anywhere and everywhere. Palestinian identity has become a symbol of displacement, alienation and indignity.

Consumed by a proclaimed compassion for the downtrodden and oppressed, supposedly wronged by the twin evils of colonialism and racism, campus activism is driven by a presumed moral imperative to convert the curriculum into an instrument for redeeming those downtrodden and oppressed. This, it is held, requires totalitarian measures. If speech in the classroom “triggers” trauma or discomfort, it must be controlled or suppressed. Thus, nuanced conversations, the exchange of diverse views and engagement with different ideas are no longer the goals of education. The goal is the weaponization of feelings, which demands constraints on reason and critical thinking.

This transforms the university into nothing more than a mechanism for addressing trauma. But sensitivity to emotions cannot grant intellectual legitimacy without at least the appearance of a theoretical architecture. So, emotions have become the foundation of an all-encompassing “social justice” narrative that mangles historical analysis into a tale of good and evil shaping public discourse and, on the most basic level, how people think and talk.

This vocabulary has not been invented to deepen understanding of Israel or the Palestinians. It has evolved as an echo chamber that imposes an indelible stamp of guilt on Zionism and Israel while infusing the Palestinians with a brooding pessimism and passivity. The Palestinians are told that because they are confronting an enemy so implacable and evil in character, they cannot control their own destiny through ordinary politics. They must rely on international mobilization and terrorism for deliverance.

The once solid liberal embrace of Israel is thus undermined, not only because the public consciousness of 20th century Jewish history has been deliberately suppressed, but also because of the way ideas circulate. Digital remarks can deliver instant validation akin to a dopamine hit. Adding up “likes” requires much less time than logical analysis. Thus, the Middle East conflict becomes a soap opera, a narrative of smoldering inevitability akin to the ancient tragedies, in which grievances can never be rescinded. It imposes on students a false understanding of the past by permitting them to view it only through the lens of oppression and victimhood.

To say that this is an obstacle to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an understatement. To consider it a viable approach to the study of politics and history is absurd. To believe it will sustain the legitimacy of an academy that once emphasized analytical skills and the acquisition of knowledge is delusional.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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