View from beyond the Tribe

Israel and free speech on America’s campuses


Debates over free speech have deeply immersed themselves into the fabric of our culture over the past few years. Wild and sharp finger-pointing has gone in both directions.

A Cornell University junior accused of posting violently threatening statements against Jewish people on campus was held without bail. While we take some measure of relief in knowing that the alleged author of the vile anti-Semitic posts that threatened our Jewish community is in custody, it was disturbing to learn that he was a Cornell student, Cornell President Martha E. Pollack said in a message to the university community.

On college campuses, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian student groups are weighing in online and in person, with many of their statements and protests provoking strong reactions from the other side.

The truth is that Hamas’ actions on Oct. 7 were nothing short of sadistic and abominable. We must start with this assertion, as everyone must accept this indisputable fact. There is no room for debate here. The consensus must be unanimous.

College campuses are supposed to be forums for the rational examination and exchange of ideas among people with diverse, pluralistic views. However, the current Middle East conflict has resulted in universities morphing into battlegrounds where ideas have been weaponized in a manner that has become more and more acrimonious, leading to an increasingly bellicose inquisition.

This drama is occurring at a time when the public opinion of higher education — always ambiguous at best, especially among conservatives — has reached new depths. According to a Gallup poll earlier this year, just a third of the roughly 1,000 randomly selected people surveyed stated they had confidence in institutions of higher education, down from about half in 2018.

Needless to say, as a professor who has served as a member of academia for more than a quarter of a century, this erosion of public confidence is troubling and disturbing.

Dissension and criticism aside, higher education has (and continues to be) the pathway for upward mobility in American society. Yes, many important jobs do not require a college degree. For those who decide to pursue such careers, great! G-d bless them. Nonetheless, there are many professions where a degree is a prerequisite.

It is essential that we cannot allow any type of conflict — racial, religious, political, or otherwise — to diminish, erode, or nullify an institution as crucial as higher education.

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender at East Tennessee State University.