By A Concerned College Student
As a college student, I feel a great deal of discomfort writing this article about what’s happening on campuses over these last weeks, expressing my feelings about the current state of affairs in American colleges. For one thing, writing about this topic forces me to reveal the embarrassing truth that my kippah has been replaced by a baseball cap, borne out of a fear which I wish I did not experience.
But I am writing nonetheless, because I cannot remain silent, and because I believe there remains some untrodden ground regarding this conversation. Yes, everyone has talked about the Harvard Student Group letter which begins with the outrageous declaration, “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Everyone has also seen the shocking footage of Cooper Union students locked inside a library, and the frightening student-organized protests held in NYU and a few of the CUNYs.
Much has been made over what happened thus far, the current state of events, but far less has been said about how things like this were allowed to unfold. How could these types of statements – so blatantly false – be sanctioned, or even tolerated, by these schools? Why is no disciplinary action being taken against those who support Hamas terrorism?
It is imperative, in my view, for us to address these questions in order to more precisely formulate our criticism of the academic institutions which are failing their Jewish students. We need to be very specific in stating which actions or inactions we disapprove of. And, secondly, our sages teach us in Pirkeh Avot, “Eizehu hacham? Halomed mikol adam – Who is wise? He who learns from all people.” Clearly understanding the blunders made by others allows us to learn how to avoid those same blunders, both individually and collectively, as a community.
The “They Do Not Speak for Us” Fallacy
Allow me to begin with a point that should be obvious to all.
Harvard President Claudine Gray issued this statement after the publication of the outrageous letter by the student groups blaming Israel for the October 7th atrocities:
Let me also state, on this matter as on others, that while our students have the right to speak for themselves, no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership.
This statement is an attempt to separate the leadership of Harvard – or rather, Harvard’s official stance on the situation in Israel – from the stance of the student clubs which signed the letter casting the blame on Israel. This is not acceptable. The reason, quite simply, is because student groups speak for the university from which they operate. If the Harvard Music Club, for example, puts their heads together and releases something big, that would be a reflection on the university where the club is based. If the admirable actions of student groups represent the university, then the condemnable actions of student groups do, too.
Moreover, the student groups who signed the letter which solely blamed Israel for everything are built with Harvard’s funding, Harvard’s backing, and Harvard’s approval. Hence, these groups’ official statements are very much part – and an exceedingly damaging part – of the university’s public communication. The university cannot allow itself the luxury of conveniently dissociating itself from their outlandish statements.
This is an illustration of the first problem, one which I believe many universities do not understand – the fallacy of “they do not speak for us.” President Gray said this explicitly in her statement: “…no student group — not even 30 student groups — speaks for Harvard University or its leadership. Another example is the statement issued by CUNY Chancellor Felix Rodriguez:
And we wholeheartedly reject the participation of organizations affiliated with CUNY in demonstrations that glorify Saturday’s violence and celebrate the killings, injuries and capture of innocent people. We respect their right to free speech but condemn their support of these crimes against humanity. We want to be clear that students or anyone from CUNY who chooses to organize or attend these events are in no way speaking for or representing our University or its 25 campuses.
CUNY sought to excuse itself by claiming that organizations affiliated with CUNY are not speaking for them. But it doesn’t work that way.
Making a Kiddush Hashem
If the letter is coming from within an organization you sanctioned, or an event is held on campus by a pro-Palestinian group that you funded, then you absolutely bear responsibility for what they say or do. As long as student clubs and groups are active, they speak for whichever university they find themselves in. Any one of them can speak for Harvard, since those groups are sanctioned by Harvard. That’s the way these things work.
But if we hold universities accountable for their official student groups – as we of course should – then we must also assume responsibility for those who speak on our behalf. We need to be very careful when choosing whom we allow to represent us.
If you’re running a company and something goes public for all the wrong reasons, this will damage the company; conversely, if a heartwarming, impressive story comes out of whatever organization you are a part of, the incident positively reflects on your organization’s work. We, as Jews, must always look to create a kiddush Hashem, to bring respect and esteem to our nation. People are always watching us, and are forming opinions about the Jewish People based on their impression of our conduct. Accordingly, it behooves us to choose our spokespeople carefully, to ensure that Jews who step onto the public stage represent us nobly. We cannot allow ourselves to do what the aforementioned universities do, to conveniently distance ourselves from those speaking on our behalf.
Where are the Consequences?
There is also a second, especially troubling, aspect of the universities’ response, and that is a crucial element which is alarmingly absent from their statement: consequences.
Nowhere in either statement (and in several more; I read them so you don’t have to…) is there any mention of consequences for the students’ actions. No disciplinary action has been taken against the CUNY students for what Chancellor Rodriguez called “their support of crimes against humanity.” Nor has anything been done about the 30 student groups at Harvard who solely blamed Israel for Hamas’ inhumane atrocities on October 7th.
Even if we would concede that these student groups do not represent the views of the institution, should we not expect the school to actually do something instead of just trying to distance itself from these groups’ outrageous statements? Why not cut their funding, or threaten to ban these groups, if they are celebrating the murder, torture, violation and kidnapping of some 1,400 people?
Imagine a baseball team just lost their first game of the season, and in the post-game interview, the losing pitcher says that he loves losing more than anything else, and that he hopes his team loses every single game going forward. The public is dumbfounded by the pitcher’s shocking remarks, and everyone eagerly awaits a response by the team’s leadership and front office. Several days later, the general manager, the manager, the team’s president, and the owner convene a press conference. The manager stands at the podium and announces, “We condemn the pitcher’s statement about wanting to lose every game going forward. This does not reflect the views of the leadership.”
How would the public react? They would of course excoriate the organization for failing to hold the pitcher accountable, for continuing to pay his salary and to allow him to pitch more games. Does it make any sense for the leadership to simply distance themselves from the pitcher’s statement, and say that this doesn’t reflect their attitude, so everything is fine?
This is precisely what the universities’ leaders are doing. The student clubs that run under their auspices are making appalling remarks that go against the institutions’ official position, and they are facing no consequences. The universities are simply letting them continue their activities, and letting them continue to embarrass the institutions.
Importantly, this is something from which we can learn, as well. Sometimes, unfortunately, punishments must be given. Punishing is unpleasant, but we need to realize that it is occasionally necessary in order to teach a lesson and inspire better behavior. Misconduct must have repercussions, or else it will continue.
In conclusion, I would advise youngsters planning to go to college to stay close to home if you can. Times are getting tough on campuses. The community is more important now than ever not only for our spiritual safety, but even for our physical wellbeing.
In the meantime, we need to call out the failures of American colleges, and urge them to step up to the challenge and do what needs to be done to make their campuses welcoming for Jewish, pro-Israel students.