College campuses across the country have seen a spike in antisemitism and university leaders are fielding requests from donors, the Biden administration, as well as top Israeli officials, to address the rhetoric directed toward the Jewish community.
Ron Robin, president of Israel’s University of Haifa visited Harvard, Stanford, The City University of New York (CUNY), New York University (NYU), the University of California (UC) Berkeley and UC San Diego last week to meet with university presidents, administrators, faculty and student groups to discuss anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiments that have been seen on college campuses since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. Robin spoke with Fox News Digital about the cross-section between freedom of speech and how he believes it has been used to legitimize hate speech and justify violence.
“You cannot say everything on a campus,” he said. “You cannot make derogatory statements about ethnic minorities that fall into the rubric of hate speech. There is a very clear difference between expressing opinions, freedom of expression and hate speech. I can’t understand, and I think this is erroneous to allow full freedom of expression. Educational institutions, we’re there to provide our students with tools and knowledge to live a better life and to be better citizens.”
The university of Haifa is Israel’s most diverse campus with Arab students making up 40% of the student body. Robin is also a graduate of UC Berkeley and spent 12 years at NYU serving as Senior Vice Provost, which he said has afforded him a unique perspective with both the U.S. and Israeli higher education systems.
“I know both the Israeli system, I know the U.S. system, I know its faults, I know its great advantages,” he said. “I think I have a perspective that I have been sharing with my colleagues wherever I go … I was there to help them think these issues through rather than preach to them.”
Last week, Columbia University and Brandeis University both suspended their campus’ chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) over its actions and statements in support of Hamas, the terrorist group responsible for the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. SJP has been at the forefront of pro-Palestinian demonstrations on college campuses across the country, where they often chant the controversial phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
A rally at the University of Maryland organized by SJP is under investigation after witnesses told a local outlet that messages like “Holocaust 2.0” were written in chalk on campus walkways near where the rally was held. Massachusetts Institute of Technology administrators are facing backlash after walking back statements that they would suspend students who participated in an anti-Israel protest after learning some of them would be deported because they are studying in the country on student visas.
Robin said “antisemitism is a given,” but he broke down why antisemitism specifically has taken hold in higher education.
“We talk about the other, the Jew is the ultimate other and people are always suspicious of the other,” he said. “Hate and we’ve seen a lot of hate, it’s like a river, all forms of hate come from the same source. What we see right now because of these incidents, it’s a terrible tragedy … is this slumbering hate, which is part of every society.”
“We all look up to American academia,” he said. “It is the most powerful system in the world, and we have expectations that I don’t have from the system in any other country. When I say we, I mean every academic that I know. We have expectations that they will show us the way… in providing foundations for the type of education that our kids deserve. So this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an American problem, it is a global problem.”
In other examples of on-campus antisemitism, students at New York University and across New York City have been caught on camera tearing down posters of kidnapped Israeli hostages and Cornell University’s Jewish population faced violent online threats that prompted an FBI investigation.
In addition, donors to the University of Pennsylvania have announced the end of their financial support following the October 7 attacks. One prominent University of Pennsylvania donor sent his alma mater a $1 check with an annual pledge for the same amount as long as Magill remains at the school, joining several other major donors who share similar sentiments.
The Ivy League university was in hot water after it held a “Palestine Writes” festival on campus in September that featured speakers who had a history of antisemitic comments. UPenn President Liz Magill has faced calls by donors to resign, because they don’t believe she has done enough to combat antisemitism on campus.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog penned a stern letter to American universities on Tuesday, calling on campus presidents to take action on antisemitism that has marred the reputations of the “temples of scholarship.” He said he has been alarmed by ugly incidents of antisemitism and far-left fervor on college campuses over the past month.
“All of this is happening not on the fringes of society but in the very temples of scholarship, in halls meant to be beacons of humanism, progress and rigorous inquiry,” he added. “And it is happening not in Europe a century ago, but in the United States in 2023.”
“This conflict is far more than a clash between Israel and Hamas: At stake is whether the enlightened world will defend the basic norms of humanity, or choose to accept, even support their violation,” he added. “This will either be a teaching moment that moves us toward constructive action – or a moment of irreversible decline.”
The Biden administration also warned U.S. schools and universities to take immediate action to stop antisemitism and Islamophobia on their campuses, citing an “alarming rise” in threats and harassment. The Education Department said there is “renewed urgency” to fight discrimination against students during the Israel-Hamas war reminding schools of their duty to protect students from harassment that disrupts their education.
Robin explained how elite universities have undergone a “tremendous transformation” over the last 15 years. Previously, he argued, people attended college to receive an education, learn how to think, address difficult issues, stretch one’s mind and attack preconceptions, but now, universities have moved from “the business of education to the business of providing a profession.”
Money and resources have been poured into business and economics, he said, which “has come at the expense of the departments that were responsible for the educational part.” Because there has been no focus on the humanities departments, scholarship has become a “secondary concern” and under those circumstances, departments have prioritized advocacy over scholarship, which is always a bad idea irrespective of what you’re advocating for, Robin argued.
“Universities should not be places of advocacy, they’re places to challenge you to just think in a way that you never thought before, to experience issues and come up with solutions for society’s major issues,” he said. “Instead, they’ve become the haven of advocates … the level of scholarship has dropped.”
“Because universities have changed their vision or changed the way of doing business, it was easy for this particular crisis to elicit the type of response that happened,” Robin added.
As a result, he explained the issue is not with students, but “who they are exposed to.”
“When you’re exposed in this matter to a very limited way of thinking, in a very unscholarly way… they are very narrow in their understanding, they only have black and white, there’s no sense of gradations within these fields,” he said. “You’re either an oppressor or of the oppressed, you can’t be anything else. That’s the only thing you can be, so that is what students are exposed to and that’s what they, of course, express.”
In addition, because universities have become corporations, they are controlled by “layers and layers of administration” that include people who don’t come from academic backgrounds, Robin said.
“A typical president will spend, I’m going to be generous now, 50% of his or her time on fundraising rather than on issues of education,” he said. “In my mind, a president should always come from academia [and] should never be a president for life, I think that’s bad. It should always come from the faculty and return to the faculty, and should be a beacon of moral values and integrity. This has changed as American universities have become incorporated.”
Robin explained that there are two ways to approach political issues at the university level.
“Hewitt, Chicago, Northwestern … there are a few other schools like this who have never, ever made statements on political issues, either domestic or foreign. They don’t,” he said. “They say ‘We are an island, we provide education, we don’t have a foreign policy, we’re not a country, and we don’t make statements.'”
Robin said he advises every university to stress the importance of standing for a basic set of principles that serve as the underpinning of Western society.
“The moment you have expressed opinions about any egregious social, political, economic issue… the floodgates open, and you have to address them, and you have to be very clear,” he added. “There’s a difference between right and wrong, there is a difference between good and evil. Those terms are not ambiguous. They’re very clear.”
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