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What conservatives get wrong about anti-Israel campus protests

I don't really believe that professors nowadays shape the Gen Z worldview in the first place.
Yale Bulldogs students protest for Palestine during the game as the Harvard Crimson take on the Yale Bulldogs
Yale Bulldogs students protest for Palestine during the game as the Harvard Crimson take on the Yale Bulldogs on Nov. 18 in New Haven, Conn.Williams Paul / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Anti-Israel protests at American universities have made headlines in the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. And almost simultaneously, many conservative critics — including GOP presidential candidates — have used those protests as an opportunity to ramp up their assault on higher education, eagerly yoking them to their long-standing accusations of “liberal indoctrination.” Eliminationist chants, partisan DEI officers, angry mobs hey-hey, ho-ho-ing their support for terrorists — in terms of Republican's favorite straw men, the “woke,” liberal campus of 2023 has them all!

Institutions of higher education, conservatives charge, are complicit in fostering an atmosphere of intimidation and even violence against Jews. Such allegations gained a little traction last week when the Education Department opened a civil rights investigation into antisemitic and Islamophobic harassment at seven colleges and universities (Islamophobia, of course, is not an overriding concern for conservatives).

Conservatives don’t seem to understand that liberals aren’t the ones who are contesting Israel’s right to exist.

Given their increasing dalliance with white supremacist voting blocs, it’s hard to view the concern for campus antisemitism expressed by many in the GOP as sincere. Even if it were, their critique of “liberal indoctrination” widely misses the mark. In their zeal to "own the libs," conservatives don’t seem to understand that liberals aren’t the ones who are contesting Israel’s right to exist.

Conservatives assume that colleges and universities are pervaded by liberal professors who impart their extreme agenda to impressionable co-eds. Some polling organizations that study the political leanings of scholars perpetuate this myth as well. But this is more a reflection of the pollsters’ own limited understanding, as they often ask scholars to place themselves in one of only two boxes: liberal or conservative.

Anyone who teaches on an American college campus knows this framing is incorrect. Politically, American academia is nothing like American politics. The latter is generally divided between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, blue and red, etc. But a college faculty, generally speaking, is not sliced in two, but into three antagonistic columns of unequal size and influence.

First, the conservatives, few in number and justifiably peeved about their marginality. Good luck finding a conservative in an English or sociology department! You’ll likely discover them clustered in the business schools and science and technology disciplines, in fields like economics and theology.

Then there is the graying cohort of true liberals. In the post–World War II “golden era” of American higher education, these liberals were indeed in the majority. The stereotypical image of the professoriate — the wine and cheese, the Volvo ownership, the existential dread in the faculty lounge — was set in place half a century ago by professors whose core political assumptions were liberal (albeit very eclectic).

Post-colonial scholars blast away not at conservatism, but liberalism.

Since the 1980s, however, liberals’ dominance has been diluted by the slow, steady growth of a third column. Some refer to them as the “far left,” the “post-colonial left” or what I call POCOFO, an acronym for "post-colonial, post-Foucault" (Michel Foucault being one of the most influential philosophers of the past half-century). To describe succinctly what they believe is difficult, not only because they are intellectually diverse but because they render their thought in academic prose of staggering complexity.

Post-colonial scholars blast away not at conservatism, but liberalism. The majority view the European Enlightenment — the foundational moment for liberal political thought — with the same dismay that Christians regard original sin. The Enlightenment, in their telling, spawned the nation-state, constitutionalism, secularism, individual rights, religious freedom, freedom of speech, the rules-based international order, etc.

For most, these innovations are the glorious staples of liberal democracy. But to many POCOFO scholars, these developments can also be linked to every atrocity of modernity, from the North Atlantic slave trade, to European settler colonialism, to modern genocides, including the Holocaust.

As for the Holocaust, POCOFO scholars usually reflect upon its magnitude quite seriously. And while these professors are not antisemitic per se, many are vehemently anti-Zionist: Israel stands, glowering, at the intersection of all global oppressions. It follows that “Palestine is the moral litmus test for the world,” to quote professor Angela Davis.

For the far left, anti-Zionism is something like a default setting. Even if a scholar’s expertise might have nothing to do with Israel/Palestine, the conflict can often figure prominently in their scholarship, conference lectures and so forth (Howard Jacobson’s comedic novel The Finkler Question explores this obsession). The magnitude of POCOFO’s anti-Zionism is so intense that, inadvertently or not, it can bleed into antisemitism.

Actual liberals, meanwhile, are usually deeply critical of Netanyahu-ism and of Israel’s right-wing government, with its creep toward theocracy and its repugnant disdain for Palestinian autonomy. But liberals rarely contest Israel’s right to exist. For many liberals, Israel is a flawed but correctable democracy. And it’s nowhere near as concerning to them as militant Islamist governments and non-state actors.

At many top-tier universities especially, POCOFO scholars have displaced liberals and achieved near-hegemony. But to the extent that this group might be a problem on campus, it is not their presence so much as the scale of their presence — they’re usually serious researchers and good to “think with” (I routinely assign them in my courses on global free speech controversies, secularism, etc., for precisely that reason).

So one might concede that Republicans are correct that “viewpoint diversity” is indeed limited. Yet they don’t seem to recognize whose viewpoints are overrepresented or whom they are beefing with. The speech (and acts) they abhor tend to emanate from the far left, which, ironically, shares their animus toward liberalism.

The indoctrination, then, that is occurring on campus is not liberal. Truth be told, I’m skeptical that professors of any political persuasion could successfully “indoctrinate” their students if they wanted to. I don’t doubt that there is a general vibe of intellectual anti-Zionism in some college lecture halls. But my sense is that professors nowadays don’t really shape the Gen Z worldview.

I’m skeptical that professors of any political persuasion could successfully “indoctrinate” their students if they wanted to.

This generation of college students gets its facts from Google. It forges its politics via TikTok, YouTube/Twitch, Reddit, Telegram, BreadTube and Instagram. Any professor who wants to be a political influencer should abandon the classroom and log on to these platforms.

This may be due to the fact that the neoliberal university has stopped investing in college teaching. Administrators devise ever more ingenious ways to pay professors less and to casualize our labor. It’s no surprise then that students would rarely look to their overworked, underpaid and unmotivated instructors for mentorship, let alone hot takes.

Conservatives have found an ace issue to demagogue. Public distrust in higher education is peaking. The optics emanating from campuses are unsightly. University administrations seem confused as to how to distinguish free speech from hate speech, or from expert speech — the very type of speech universities are built to disseminate and defend.

Republicans were once all for “the free and open exchange of ideas,” to quote Sen. Tim Scott back in 2021. Naturally, a few weeks ago he called for deporting foreign students who make antisemitic remarks. The conservative critique of higher education is neither principled nor accurate; it’s just another canard to justify the continued evisceration of a cornerstone of democratic society.