The outsized place of the U.S. university in the current struggle

On October 26, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a condemnation of so-called “campus antisemitism” (in line with the State Department’s capacious understanding of that term). In its wake, administrators at Columbia University have suspended their campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, as announced by their ominous special committee on campus safety. Brandeis, for its part, has withdrawn recognition of its SJP branch, and when protest continued there nonetheless, seven protesters were forcefully arrested (plus more at Brown University and the University of Michigan).

The President of the University of California has since announced that it is “time for action” against the “hateful and repugnant” viewpoints recently expressed on his ten campuses. University instructors and journalists, meanwhile, risk their jobs and legal action even for modest expressions of sympathy for Palestinians. U.S. campuses seem to occupy even the minds of Israelis, at least judging from this insipid and homophobic skit. Their newspapers are covering U.S. campus activism, and opining upon it.

Those of us employed at universities in the U.S. cannot fail to observe the outsized fascination the political class has, in this moment, with university campuses. As broad popular support for the Palestinian cause swells seemingly everywhere, across from us are our politicians, various directly Zionist organizations, mainstream media, and, with curious prominence, the administrators of major universities. (In the U.S., perhaps unexpectedly, the police have so far largely sought to de-escalate at protests, at least by comparison to other countries, although this may be starting to shift.) 

That U.S. universities are a venue for contestation over Palestine is nothing new. But it deserves our attention that this should concern so much public discourse, and even the Senate, while millions gather in major cities and others seek to block ports and weapons manufacturers or sabotage pro-Zionist events.

It is hard to avoid seeing this within the broader anti-intellectual panic about the university’s status as a “woke mind virus factory,” whose discursive production (its “critical race theory” and “gender ideology”) is said to be “more terrifying than the Hamas attack” itself. We ought, then, to be alert to the wider denigration of intellectual life and freedom in this country, where concentrated attacks on higher education, most notably in Ron DeSantis’s Florida, have become staples of a distinctly authoritarian right-wing, which, despite organizational setbacks, will surely have noticed the increasing proximity of the liberal establishment on this issue.

We might hear, then, in the letter of UC President Michael Drake, an echo of DeSantis’s campaign promise to “Make America Florida.” We might detect, in the repression of campus activism and academic freedom where it concerns Palestine, the reassertion of white supremacy in U.S. politics. (That dyed-in-the-wool antisemites in the U.S. have long supported Israel is widely known. Now, as though dovetailing this apparent contradiction and meanwhile proving the affinity, Zionists have begun demonstrating a perverse sympathy with Nazis, at least by comparison with Palestinians, and hosting prominent antisemites at major rallies. To borrow a take, it seems increasingly that the line is less that anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism, but that only anti-Zionism qualifies as antisemitism.) 

In this context, the fight on campuses, both in their public squares and their classrooms and labs, begins to assume a role beyond its otherwise modest reach. It becomes a venue to confront the very worst enemies of the left and of freedom generally. This is necessarily defensive, on the one hand — asserting the university as a place for genuine inquiry, for the freedom to challenge establishment interests and narratives. It refers not only to student rights to protest but to the rights of educators to determine the content of their own classes, free from the imposition of management dictates, such as Drake’s two-million-dollar “viewpoint-neutral history of the Middle East.” We must see, in the latter, a workplace struggle, a matter of worker control, and therefore adapt labor strategies to the challenge, as is being attempted at the University of Florida. This means, most particularly, the collective action necessary to defend anyone who is targeted and to assert the rights of trained educators to teach as they see fit. 

Campuses, moreover, and unlike many other workplaces in the U.S., have direct dealings with the US military, hosting significant investments of the Department of Defense in research and development. The workers in these labs, increasingly unionized, are in a position to take material action in protest of the pivotal role of the U.S. military in the atrocities perpetrated in Gaza. If student activists are in a position to reprise the Vietnam War protests at MIT and elsewhere, a significant difference today is the recent experience of lab researchers and technicians in taking sustained labor action. This may open up novel directions for struggle.

Much has been written recently about the higher education labor movement in the U.S.. Its expansion, depth, and material gains, particularly for graduate workers, have impressed many. The capacity of these unions and associations — specifically, those of grads, lecturers, and faculty — to defend, in the first instance, their own members against administrative retaliation will surely be tested in the coming weeks and months. But they have perhaps been appointed a positive role in the strange balance of domestic forces: to assert the freedoms of workers and students to advance a truly international cause; to contest the integration of the US military in university research; and to fight head-on the arraying forces of fascism in their racist, anti-trans, and Zionist guises.

Just weeks ago, none of these elevated roles appeared within the reach of these organizations. This only further demonstrates how the Palestinian liberation struggle propels everyone on the side of the oppressed. The ability of the U.S. higher ed labor movement to rise quickly and effectively to the task remains to be seen, but it possesses significant leverage in the fight against an enemy from which none of us are safe. 

I wrote recently of the political opening that Palestinian heroism has placed in front of leftists in the U.S. and elsewhere, paraphrasing an Egyptian comrade. This points to the ways that the urgent fight for Palestinian freedom uplifts us all and compels us to courageously confront those who rule over us. It’s equally true that this is a moment of danger.

At Mondoweiss, we understand the power of telling Palestinian stories. For 17 years, we have pushed back when the mainstream media published lies or echoed politicians’ hateful rhetoric. Now, Palestinian voices are more important than ever.

Our traffic has increased ten times since October 7, and we need your help to cover our increased expenses.

Support our journalists with a donation today.


You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress | Designed by: Premium WordPress Themes | Thanks to Themes Gallery, Bromoney and Wordpress Themes