America’s Campus Witch Hunts Are Only the Second Worst Thing Happening to Professors Right Now 

Make no mistake: There is an ideological witch hunt happening on college campuses right now, the likes of which has not been seen since Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un- American Activities Committee tried to ruin people’s reputations in the middle of the last century. Students and professors are being targeted by university administrators, assaulted by police, and investigated for their politics by Congress.

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And yet, it is only the second worst thing happening to college students and professors right now.

Still, to have your name and reputation dragged in front of the House Committee on Education and Workforce during their hearings on “Calling for Accountability: Stopping Antisemitic College Chaos” is frightening indeed. I should know: It happened to me last month.

In a pre-hearing letter, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina accused me of “breaking the law by resisting and assaulting police officers” at my university, after my colleagues and I formed a faculty line around our students as cops descended upon them while they were in a Gaza solidarity encampment. Foxx made this false claim even though I have been charged with nothing and in spite of that fact that a widely circulated video shows police officers assaulting my colleagues and me as I just take their blows. Rep. Foxx’s letter forced me to retain and work with attorneys in the subsequent weeks to defend myself against her absurd and offensive claims.

Then, on May 23, at the committee’s hearing, Rep. Jim Banks described me as “one of the goons” who tried to protect our students from being assaulted by our campus police. Bizarrely, he also called me “something of a professional prognosticator” even though unlike, say,  groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, I have no ability to see the future. (A Twitter poll voted that Banks probably meant to call me a professional provocateur, as he tried to shame me for having visited Columbia University’s encampment, where I did research for my last Lit Hub essay and forthcoming book The Overseer Class.)

The point of all of this, as I explained to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, is to try to scare everyone into silence about the genocide in Gaza. It won’t work; the people of the world in general and college students in particular are too rightfully angry about seeing Palestinian children take their last breaths on video.

Still, in their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman described the kinds of things which have been happening to professors like me as the fourth filter of their “propaganda model,” where flak or enforcers beat people up in the town square (verbally, politically, or even physically). The point of these spectacular floggings? When academics or journalists are seen being punished publicly, others are meant to get the message that they should keep quiet—or else.

At least 95 university professors have been killed in Gaza since the genocide began,  according to the United Nations.

One of the most violent forms of university flak has been the withholding of degrees, when students have worked towards diplomas for many years and have them stolen for engaging in moral disobedience about genocide. As postcolonial scholar Priyamvada Gopal observed, when university trustees have done this, it is “immoral blackmail, as is overruling faculty on this matter.”

For anyone being threatened by their universities or investigated by Congress, the experience has been stressful, expensive and painful. (My right leg hurt for several weeks after the police roughed us up.) Other professors and students in America have suffered far worse professional and physical consequences than I have for their support of Palestine and protest encampments.

Jairo Fúnez-Flores, an Assistant Professor of Curriculum Studies and Teacher Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas Tech University, was suspended for 40 days for his outspoken Palestinian support before being reinstated. Sami Schalk, author of the book Black Disability Politics, was hospitalized after being brutally attacked by police at the University of Wisconsin-Madison while trying to protect her students. Cops even broke a hand and nine ribs of Southern University of Illinois Edwardsville professor Steve Tamari while he was peacefully protesting at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. And Mohamed Abdou, a visiting professor at Columbia University, was inhumanely alerted he was being fired when president Minouche Shafik threw him under the bus on live TV during a congressional hearing; he received no due process and is being forced to leave the United States.

And still, as horrible as this has been for all of us in America, what we are encountering is not the worst thing happening to professors right now.

Far from it. Our Palestinian colleagues have been experiencing far worse.

At least 95 university professors have been killed in Gaza since the genocide began, according to the United Nations.

Among them were Professor of Immunology and Virology Dr. Muhammed Eid Shubair, former president of Islamic University of Gaza (and the father of my friend Mohaned) who is listed alongside “If I Must Die” poet Refaat Alareer in the International Court of Justice’s January ruling against Israel.

The UN reports that “more than 80 percent of schools in Gaza” have been “damaged or destroyed,” while the ICJ bluntly says that “Israel has targeted everyone one of Gaza’s universities, “including the Islamic University of Gaza, the oldest higher education institution in the territory, which has trained generations of doctors and engineers, amongst others—destroying campuses for education of future generations of Palestinians in Gaza.”

The UN uses a single, powerful word to describe what is happening to educators and education institutions in Palestine: scholasticide, the willful destruction of a society’s ability to produce knowledge and educate its people. Preventing a population from being able to do research and to teach its citizens literacy, agriculture, medicine, science and culture is an aspect of genocide is to take away the very means of life.

The McCarthyite witch hunts American students and faculty are facing are unacceptable and must stop; but, we are facing these threats in solidarity with our colleagues in Gaza.

As the UN reported in April, professors aren’t the only campus targets in Gaza: “After six months of military assault, more than 5,479 students, 261 teachers [from various school levels]… and over 7,819 students and 756 teachers have been injured—with numbers growing each day. At least 60 percent of educational facilities, including 13 public libraries, have been damaged or destroyed and at least 625,000 students have no access to education.”

Inside Israel, feminist Palestinian scholar Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian has been suspended from her professorship at Hebrew University, reinstated, and then arrested and interrogated for “suspicion of incitement.”

While there are anecdotal accounts of teachers leading informal classes in Rafah and of a master’s student defending their thesis from a tent, systematically, there will be no graduations in Gaza this year. Gaza’s class of 2024 has been robbed—of learning, of education, of their relatives, and of life itself. As the group Academic Solidarity With Palestine, which organizes classes in Gaza taught online by people around the world, recently wrote, “Many Gazan students have to withdraw from our online courses ‘since they can’t guarantee they will be alive by the end of the semester.’”

Last week, dozens of Palestinians published an “Open letter by Gaza academics and university administrators to the world” on Al Jazeera. It is a heartfelt, impassioned letter about what they are facing—“We issue this call from beneath the bombs of the occupation forces across occupied Gaza, in the refugee camps of Rafah, and from the sites of temporary new exile in Egypt and other host countries”—but it is not an admission of defeat. Instead, they

call upon our friends and colleagues around the world to resist the ongoing campaign of scholasticide in occupied Palestine, to work alongside us in rebuilding our demolished universities, and to refuse all plans seeking to bypass, erase, or weaken the integrity of our academic institutions.

As an American university professor, it is inspiring to see that our colleagues in Gaza are not deterred; they write that “it is imperative to swiftly transition to online teaching to mitigate the disruption caused by the destruction of physical infrastructure.” But, they correctly note, this will take money and resources: Thus, “urgent measures must be taken to address the financial crisis now faced by academic institutions, to ensure their very survival.” And the stakes are indeed high: “The future of our young people in Gaza depends upon us, and our ability to remain on our land in order to continue to serve the coming generations of our people.”

The United States is not the whole world, and implying that American professors are facing the worst conditions is to minimize and erase the truly existential threats our colleagues in Gaza (or in Sudan or Congo) are facing. The McCarthyite witch hunts American students and faculty are facing are unacceptable and must stop; but, we are facing these threats in solidarity with our colleagues in Gaza, who are facing even more dangerous conditions.

Though we may be facing professional consequences over even broken bones, a PhD student at the University of Chicago put things in perspective as police descended on their encampment, reminding us all that, “There are things that matter more than my academic future”:

When you’re talking about a genocide visited upon a colonized population of two million people trapped in a ghetto that’s as long as a marathon and six miles wide, when that ghetto is being systematically starved, slaughtered, every hospital bombed, every university bombed, 70 percent of homes destroyed, 40,000 people murdered, 15,000 children murdered, the entire population on the brink of starvation, there comes a point when we say we’re not following orders, and it doesn’t matter what you do to us, because there are principles, and there are human lives that matter more than our careers and our futures.

As our Palestinian colleagues pledge that, “The rebuilding of Gaza’s academic institutions is not just a matter of education; it is a testament to our resilience, determination, and unwavering commitment to securing a future for generations to come” on Palestinian land, they are committing to liberating themselves—and, in giving us the chance to fight for and with them, they are giving us on American campuses the chance to liberate ourselves, too.

For if they can write that, “We built these universities from tents. And from tents, with the support of our friends, we will rebuild them once again,” we can commit to vanquishing the McCarthyism faced by American students and professors—and to forcing our universities to divest from war; ultimately, we must commit to rebuilding academia into an international force for human good.

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