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Festival at Penn, syllabus at Princeton maim academic freedom

We have seen in recent years that conspiracy theories prompt real-world events and violence.

A sign on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Credit: Sophia Zengierski/Shutterstock.
A sign on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Credit: Sophia Zengierski/Shutterstock.
Dr. Rachel Fish and Aviva Klompas, co-founders of Boundless. Credit: Courtesy.
Rachel Fish and Aviva Klompas
Rachel Fish, special adviser to the president at Brandeis University, and Aviva Klompas, former director of speechwriting at the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, are co-founders of Boundless, a nonprofit organization that partners with community leaders to support Israel education and combat Jew-hatred.

Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber focused on the virtues of freedom of expression and diversity in his commencement speech earlier this year, denouncing the national proliferation of “educational gag orders” aimed at “enabling politicians to control what professors can teach or publish.”

Sadly, this semester, that sense of inclusion doesn’t appear to extend to all students at Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and other campuses where classes and academic offerings have been introduced that will marginalize Jewish students under the guise of academic freedom.

Let’s be clear: Academic freedom is not a given unless it also aligns with academic integrity. It’s a concept premised on two tenets: true subject-area expertise by faculty and their ability to analyze a topic with detached objectivity. Without these tenets, there is no foundation for academic freedom.

This guiding light didn’t arise from today’s manicured grounds of Ivy League schools. It’s an academic standard dating back centuries.

Unfortunately, there is also a very different campus legacy that dates back centuries that, instead, seems to be on display: hostility towards Jewish students.

At Penn, four departments in the College of Arts and Sciences are among the sponsors of the “Palestine Writes” Literature Festival being held from Sept. 22-24. This is an important and appropriate topic for a university to explore and for students to study.

However, the festival likely won’t just be focused on Palestinian rights and culture. It will feature multiple speakers with long histories peddling antisemitic rhetoric who will almost certainly bring that hate to campus.

They include Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters, who was condemned by the U.S. State Department this year for his “long track record of using antisemitic tropes to denigrate Jewish people”; and writer Susan Albahawa, who called a Jewish American victim of terrorism “human garbage.”

The festival at Penn comes weeks after Princeton launched a course on “Decolonizing Trauma Studies From the Global South,” in which students are required to read a book by Jasbir Puar, a Rutgers University professor who has falsely accused Israeli soldiers of deliberately mutilating Palestinian civilians.

Framing Israel as a kind of Jewish vampire feasting on Palestinians’ bodies is a mainstay on extremist platforms and Iranian media. Rooted in the ancient mythology of rabbis hunting down Christian children to drain their veins for rituals, much real blood has been spilled over the centuries due to this fiction.

Such problems aren’t isolated to these two Ivy League schools 40 miles apart. We have seen a surge in Jew-hatred on campuses across the country in recent years, including many incidents in which discussions about Israel have become outright demonization laden with antisemitic tropes. Too often, these episodes happen as part of academic discourse or even inside the classroom, where Jewish students feel targeted in ways that professors would never tolerate against other groups.

Whether it’s the conference at Penn or the coursework at Princeton, these efforts are not about exploring the underlying issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or exposing students to controversial texts or challenging ideas.

Rather, our finest academic institutions have lost sight of the basic tenets underpinning academia—that scholarly work must be historically credible and factually legitimate. Teaching at these institutions, in person or through authored work, is a privilege that should be measured by those qualifications.

When a curriculum or academic festival includes viewpoints of Israel that read more like horror-fantasy-fan fiction than credible scholarship, it begs the question of academic oversight. Conference panelists and syllabi selection must be transparently validated by subject matter experts adept in conducting rigorous evaluations.

If basic standards of academic integrity are undermined and academic peer review is politicized, students aren’t taught critical thinking; they are taught performative political theater. And those who don’t drink the Kool-Aid on these issues are silenced, ostracized and sometimes even physically attacked.

We have seen too often in recent years that conspiracy theories prompt real-world events and violence.

It would be wise for all universities to practice what President Eisgruber preached in his address at Princeton this spring and “stand up and speak up together for the values of free expression and full inclusivity for people of all identities.”

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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