The university’s FDR Dilemma: Why campus leaders cannot confront antisemitism

The university’s FDR Dilemma: Why campus leaders cannot confront antisemitism

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Early in World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt learned of Nazi plans to systematically murder European Jews. Later, advisors urged him to order the bombing rail lines leading to Auschwitz. He rejected their pleas. Actions to prevent these murders, he responded, would turn the war into a campaign to save Jews, and in so doing undermine American’s support for the war. 

So, information about the systematic destruction of European Jewry was suppressed. Military intelligence shelved reports. The New York Times buried articles. Prominent people kept quiet. 

On Oct. 7, we witnessed the most deadly pogrom, excepting the Holocaust, against Jews in modern history, and thousands of people danced in the streets, not only in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran, but also on campuses in Philadelphia, New York, Cambridge, Ithaca, and Berkeley. At the time, no university official on a major U.S. campus that I know of unequivocally denounced this action as a pogrom against Jews and excoriated their students and faculty for celebrating the occasion.  

Two months later, on Dec. 5, presidents of three major universities at which celebrations of the pogroms took place — Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania — were questioned at a hearing of the House Education and Workforce Committee. Their collective responses were even feebler than those issued immediately after the pogrom. When called upon to say that the calls for the support of the pogrom of Oct. 7 were antithetical to Harvard’s institutional values, President Claudine Gay could only say, “I personally oppose this,” and then parse the speech/action distinction, defend speech, and announce that Harvard had beefed up security for its Jewish students. Nowhere did she say such views had no place on Harvard’s campus, and that she was ashamed to have such students and faculty at Harvard. President Sally Kornbluth of MIT and President Elizabeth Magill of Penn, fared only slightly better. All reacted defensively. None showed moral clarity, or demonstrated leadership. All obfuscated. At best, they seemed managers trying to cope rather than inspired leaders of noble institutions. At these universities, where almost all the students receive A’s, these educators failed. 

This is not because they are anti-Semites or embrace the cause of Hamas. Rather, I think it is because they face the FDR dilemma: If they single out, and in no uncertain terms condemn, anti-Semites on their campuses, they run the risk of alienating a significant portion of the social justice constituency that they have helped to create and in part to whom they owe their positions. 

These social justice programs, especially at elite universities, champion the weak over the strong, and the have-nots over the haves. They apply their lazar sharp theories of injustice that valorize the struggles of the oppressed and efforts to crush the oppressor. Their magical theories can render entire populations — Uyghurs, Rwandans, Somalis, Syrian refugees, ISIS, the Taliban, women in Southern Israel, Iran, and elsewhere — all but invisible. At the same time, the theories, like malignant dowsing rods, can locate and diagnose other problems with exquisite precision and intensity.

One of these theories is that power corrupts and in this case, Jewish power corrupts absolutely. Perhaps students who enthusiastically called Hamas liberators did not know Hamas’ philosophy and turned a blind eye to the debasement on Oct. 7. Perhaps they did not know the meaning of the menacing chant, “from the River to the Sea” (a poll by a colleague at Berkeley found that 47 percent of the respondents did not know which river and which sea), or the clarion call, “by any means necessary.” Still, the contribution of more than a trivial few to the means necessary includes scrawling swastikas on doors and sidewalks, ripping up signs of kidnaped Jews, denying that the obscenities of Oct. 7 occurred, using class time to lecture about Jewish power, signing petitions justifying the Hamas-led pogrom, and calling the Israeli response to Oct. 7, a “genocide.”  

Of course, university officials are better informed. They know about the founding Charter of Hamas (1988). They know it calls for the destruction of Israel — and still more, the killing of all Jews. The mantra, “from the River to the Sea,” outlines only a first step. This end game, the Charter explains, is necessary to counter the quest of Jewish world hegemony as laid out in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Like Hitler in “Mein Kampf,” Hamas clearly proclaims its aim. The pogrom on Oct. 7 and the promise of a second and third and fourth flow directly from this objective. 

University administrators know all this, and they are in the business of taking words seriously. Like Roosevelt, university administrators are good people who wish antisemitism would go away. And, like Roosevelt, they are torn between their grand mission and the unfortunate truths that complicate it. They condemn anti-semitism in the abstract. But, I doubt that any of them thought about calling those who signed letters or held signs celebrating the Oct. 7 pogrom into their offices for a dressing down. Getting personal would run the risk of alienating the very faculties and programs they have assiduously cultivated over the years. Consider how deeply Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement are ensconced on campuses across the United States. These are initiatives for the down trodden. Campus-run DEI programs have no use for Jews. And, the supporters of BDS, like the UN Commission on Human Rights, appear to believe that the Jewish state is the world’s worst abuser of human rights.  

Caught in this dilemma, university officials obfuscate. Department chairs plead for civility. Deans issue insipid statements. University presidents remind Jewish students about free and robust speech, even as they muzzle their own powers of expression. All appoint task forces.

There is no reason to believe that this mixture of responses will amount to much. If something significant occurs, it will probably be due to deep-pocket donors. However, what administrators do know is that whatever serious steps they take to quell anti-semitism will fan the flames of grievance and distrust among their own constituencies on campus.

Franklin Roosevelt betrayed the Jews and won the war. So too, our university leaders may ride out this latest spate of anti-semitism, and continue to realize their objectives for more robust social justice programs. But, the cost will be the further politicization of American universities, and the deeper entrenchment of anti-semitism on campuses. And, all this without narrowing the social justice gap.     

Malcolm M. Feeley is the Claire Sanders Clements Professor Emeritus at the University of California School of Law.

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