The ongoing and acute crisis in Israel/Palestine has sharpened political and moral debate in the United States and heightened emotions. It has also led to a distressing spike in antisemitism, anti-Muslim racism, and anti-Palestinian animus. These are dangerous times, not only in geopolitical terms but also in terms of the internal functioning of both our democracy and our academic institutions. We are gravely concerned that within the legal academy broadly speaking, legitimate, important political speech is being chilled and even punished. Institutional leaders must affirm that advocacy for Palestinian rights, as well as concern for and celebration of Palestinian lives, is squarely within the sphere of legitimate discourse.
This suppression of specific political speech poses immediate risks for our students as well as for colleagues; it also underscores how the governance of the workplace shapes the “foundations of our free institutions.” The economic organization of smaller units within society — including universities —profoundly impacts the broader collective experience of democracy. And decision-making hierarchies in these units — as well as who has economic security within them and who does not — means that untenured academics and even more vulnerable faculty and staff are deeply susceptible to economic and social sanction for speech. As for law students, precisely because they are aiming to enter the labor market, economic threats are especially powerful in influencing their behavior. Indeed, students are typically near the beginning of their lives as political citizens, and thus particularly prone to learning formative lessons about the openness of our civil and democratic institutions, not to mention their place in them. Is the lesson we, as educators, wish for the next generation of legal professionals and academics to take away that their heartfelt, sincere attempts to positively influence the world in a moment of acute crisis are not only futile, but also personally disastrous?
To avoid this, institutional leaders must show fortitude (as many have quietly done) in standing up for their students, for the faculty and staff who do the labor of the university, and for our broader democracy. Leaders certainly face a series of intense pressures — from financial cuts to eroding public support for higher education. These pressures have affected decision-making processes, and university administrators may see their choices as increasingly limited. On this matter and others, though, they likely have more agency than assumed.
Our times may be different, but examples from earlier periods of suppression underscore this point. In 1970, the president of Yale University, Kingman Brewster, released public statements in support of the rights of numerous Black Panther activists put on trial for alleged involvement in the murder of a suspected informant. This issue had gripped the campus, becoming the focus of a May Day rally in support of the Panthers, while much public and elite opinion constellated against them. Brewster did not add to the public condemnations, and in fact he stood up for the Panthers and for the student activists, remarking “I am appalled and ashamed that things should have to come to such a pass that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.” Then, as now, Yale as an institution was embedded in elite social and economic networks, yet this leader exercised his agency in a meaningful way.
In the last several weeks, meanwhile, white-shoe law firms, some government officials, and advocacy organizations have placed worrisome pressure on the internal governance of our institutions and workplaces. These interventions inappropriately seek to label legitimate political speech and advocacy as out of bounds or even hateful. These views about the bounds of legitimate speech are moreover being enforced by coercive economic and political sanctions, ranging from loss of employment to doxxing and smear campaigns, and even potential criminalization. Some university leaders have also displayed a troubling reluctance to protect those facing institutional sanction.
Students and colleagues emphasizing issues of Palestinian rights have been subject to intimidation and overt targeting by, as Michelle Goldberg has written in the New York Times, “powerful outside institutions, including the state.” It is, specifically, speech in favor of Palestinian rights that is being singled out for scrutiny by market-leader firms and government actors, and in turn by some universities. While those speaking out in support of Palestinians come from all backgrounds, this differential impact is being borne disproportionately by people of color, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, and those of Arab descent. As administrators confront the resulting governance questions, it is essential that they clarify that advocacy for the rights of Palestinians is a welcome part of constructive dialogue within our communities.
The controversy around student and faculty speech is difficult to resolve absent some engagement with the substantive positions that are — often vaguely and by implication — being cast as morally illegitimate. A central example of this stigmatization concerns advocacy for, as Peter Beinart describes it, a scenario in which Israelis and Palestinians would “enjoy equal rights” within a single state. Advocacy for such a position is not fringe, immoral, or hateful, as many of the actors seeking to influence university governance have implicitly or explicitly suggested. To the contrary, it is one potential, if hopeful, resolution to a plainly untenable situation. As Adam Serwer argued recently in The Atlantic, “You may think it impossible. You may prefer a different outcome. You may think it is dangerous. But the vision itself is not an expression of anti-Jewish hatred and should not be treated as such.”
This stigmatization of advocacy for a Jewish/Palestinian state is also bound up with a disturbing pattern of interpretative uncharity exhibited toward pro-Palestinian activists. As of this writing, a number of prominent university administrators, subject to the intense pressures mentioned above, are increasingly treating protest speech as hate speech, seemingly regardless of the speakers’ intentions or declared positions. The meaning of protest speech, like all resonant political rhetoric, is inherently a site of ongoing contestation, with more progressive and more reactionary interpretations put forward by different camps. Advocates for Palestinian rights on U.S. campuses overwhelmingly see themselves as part of a longer emancipatory tradition, rooted in student protest against the Vietnam war and in contemporary struggles for Indigenous sovereignty and racial justice. Despite this, many prominent university leaders have privileged reactionary and plainly abhorrent readings of protest speech, making it increasingly difficult for proponents of inclusive solutions to even articulate their visions.
This demonization of protest speech also has the effect of projecting unhelpful binaries onto the intensely practical question of mapping a just future, when creative thinking in this area, for instance various “confederal” proposals, often transcends them. That said, we are not evaluating, here, the merits of any particular long-term approach for Israel and Palestine. We believe that those are questions about which reasonable, moral, and humane people can and do disagree. Nor could we hope to resolve ongoing contests over the best or most historically accurate understandings of contested protest speech. Rather, we ask institutional leaders for basic fairness: to ascribe to all members of their communities an assumption of good faith, instead of systematically reading advocacy for Palestinians in the least charitable light and selectively making unfavorable inferences from tenuous associations with the views of others.
Antisemitism’s horrific legacy underscores the evils that come from the invidious singling out of a vulnerable minority. In the current moment, we are deeply troubled by antisemitic acts, including on campuses. We take this issue extremely seriously, not despite our concern about the chilling of advocacy for Palestinian human rights, but for the same reasons of collective, shared humanity. We are committed to working with our institutions to help root out antisemitism within the social fabric as we raise our voices to affirm the humanity and rights of Palestinian people. We write out of an essential belief and hope that “everyone for everyone” can become a reality, not only in the resolution of the current crisis in Israel/Palestine, but also much more broadly.