From left: Harvard president Claudine Gay; Penn’s Liz Magill; Pamela Nadell, a professor of history and Jewish
studies at American University; and Sally Kornbluth, president of MIT. Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images.

We need to be clear-eyed about the hidden agenda of the grilling of three university presidents in December—Elizabeth Magill (U of Pennsylvania), Claudine Gay (Harvard), and Sally Kornbluth (MIT)—that has led to the resignations of presidents Magill and Gay as well as an acceleration of increasingly virulent attacks on higher education across the country. Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce committee used the hearing (“antisemitism on college campuses”) as a weapon aimed at delegitimizing higher education, obscuring the Republican party’s own far-right agenda, and furthering its increasingly anti-democratic project. The House members leveraged the rise of antisemitism as a way of creating the appearance of righteousness at the moment that their own party is promoting white nationalist, anti-immigrant policies, and ideas that promote the rise of antisemitism. And they champion their leader, Donald Trump, whose language has been a significant catalyst for the rise of antisemitism.

The vitriol exhibited by the representatives revealed their deeper aim: to discredit the presidents and depict universities as corrupt citadels of hate. The three women presidents were scolded, treated contemptuously, and constantly interrupted, and were told that they were there to “atone” for antisemitism at their universities. Harvard, Penn, and MIT were characterized as “illiberal sewers of intolerance and bigotry” (Wilson) “infected by this moral and intellectual rot” (Foxx). The representatives claimed that the sources of this bigotry, moral rot, and antisemitism were courses at Harvard such as “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States” and “Social and Racial Justice.” Campus programs on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, supposedly linked to the growth of Antifa, Marxists, Black Lives Matter, and Pro-Hamas groups (all treated on an equal footing), were blamed as nefarious antisemitic sources. Jews were thus pitted against other minorities in the service of denigrating higher education for the so called corrupting influence of its racial pluralism. To use the rise of antisemitism in order to obscure one’s own party’s racist and anti-democratic values is a cynical and dangerous ploy. In her testimony, the specialist on antisemitism among the witnesses, Dr. Pamela Nadell, suggested that in the history of antisemitism, “Whatever the role the Jews are needed for, well, that’s the part they are forced to play.”

Behind these tactics lies a long history of anti-intellectualism in American life that has recently been fostered in the Republican party through the disparaging of professionals and elites as subversives and do-nothings or academics as agents of new ideas who are to be feared or detested. In his remarks at the hearing, Rep. Rick Allen revealed a fundamentalist strain of this contempt for higher education as he proclaimed the real problem of education in the workforce to be “Biblical illiteracy,” warned the university presidents about the Biblical curses on those who curse Israel, and, just before turning to the (Jewish) university president Kornbluth, instructed her that “our church, the American church,” was founded by a Jew (Jesus). John Grothman (R. Wis.) expressed a different form of contempt with a gesture that underscored some of the startling tone toward these three women: “OK. I get one more question, because I want to go to the gal from Penn.”

These attacks also have a very concrete political party goal. These MAGA supporting representatives berated the presidents for what they called a lack of true, political diversity on campus, which they tied to a lack of faculty and student support for Trump. According to Rep. Scott, antisemitism has arisen from the lack of conservatives among faculty and students on campuses, and this also means it appears, a lack of Trump voters on campuses. Such hypocrisy is shocking. In reality, it is their party that houses the nativists groups that are driving real anti-Semitism across this nation. “Jews will not replace us,” chanted the white supremacists at Charlottesville in 2017—and Trump affirmed them. Trump’s right-wing followers espouse White replacement theory and White genocide theory—ideas essential to the new wave of Trump era Anti-Semitism—ideas that have been promoted by Tucker Carlson and others on Fox News. The murder of eleven Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue by a man who embraces these conspiracy theories is the face of this new extremism. Recently, Trump’s statement that “immigrants are poisoning the blood of our country” echoes notions of racial supremacy in Hitler’s Mein Kampf—a core idea that led to the genocide of six million Jews and other ethnic groups that the Nazis targeted. About these offensive comments the central players on the committee, such as Elise Stefanik, who has endorsed White replacement theory, have remained silent. Are these legislators trying to convince us that they are not aware of who the leader of their party is?

Beyond this breathtaking hypocrisy, the disgraceful performances at the Hearing continued the Trumpian culture of lies and denial that have defined Trump from his Big Election Lie to the thousands of falsehoods he has promoted in public. The representatives were attempting to invert reality by smearing their opponents with the bigotry they are in fact supporting. This lying, denial, and undermining of truth continues to assault and unravel democratic institutions and norms as the party pursues the installation of an authoritarian leader. Many of the Republican representatives on this committee have participated in active election denialism and continue to undermine all attempts to reveal the truth behind the attempt to overturn the 2020 election and to hold Trump and his supporters accountable for it.

These legislators, like other MAGA conservatives, are creating culture wars as political weapons to divide Americans. Using the issue of anti-Semitism to denounce campus culture and curricula, they show little interest in education which is rooted in critical thinking of the kind that Presidents Magill, Gay, and Kornbluth demonstrated during the sessions. As professors who have taught in the academy for decades, we note that there are no institutions in any society that are perfect. Academia—like any professional sector—practices self-critique and institutional problem-solving. But we want to underscore that American higher education is a bedrock of democracy. It is the arena in which social change, new ideas, and the transmission of various traditions occurs; colleges and universities train America’s professionals and educate its citizenry. Universities house dozens of academic disciplines and fields of study, producing knowledge essential for the existence of our society. One need only compile lists of the nation’s leaders past and present to see how institutions of higher learning have taught and shaped those leaders and hence shaped the most powerful nation in the world. Universities are cultures of remarkable diversity comprised of ethnic groups from across the globe and around the nation. And in affirming intellectual and social diversity higher education is a major defense against authoritarianism.

Peter Balakian

Peter is the author of eight books of poems including Ozone Journal, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and the recently published No Sign (2022). His memoir Black Dog of Fate won the PEN/Albrand Award; and The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response was a New York Times Best Seller. He is Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English at Colgate University.

Cathy Caruth

Cathy Caruth is the Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell University and is a leading scholar on trauma whose books include Literature In the Ashes of History, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, and Trauma: Explorations In Memory.

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