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Academic freedom for me but not for thee

Authorities and institutions are trampling upon free speech and academic freedom, mistaking a call for life for its opposite

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman RightsEducationSocial Movements

A scene of the reinstated campus encampment at Columbia University in New York City, several days after the NYPD arrested students and removed the first encampment. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The irony is palpable. This past week’s wave of student protests on college campuses across the United States, Europe, and Australia have, among other things, allowed the double standards for freedom of expression to swim clearly into focus. The same self-appointed arbiters of academic freedom and free speech who insisted on unfettered access to college campuses for the purposes of peddling transphobia, misogyny, and white supremacy, are now keen to suppress student expression at any cost, no matter how brutal or contradictory. They do so under the guise of combatting antisemitism and at the behest of a foreign government that has itself now razed each of Gaza’s universities in full or in part in the midst of a seven-month-old campaign that saw drone strikes targeting children at play, mass graves dug into the grounds of occupied hospitals, a massacre in a flour line, and the indiscriminate murder of untold thousands upon thousands of civilians while their homes are bulldozed to the ground in the service of a supposed rescue operation. Meanwhile, in an area far from Hamas control, Palestinians of the West Bank continue to endure dispossession, displacement, and violence at the hands of Israeli settlers.

Certainly, October 7 was horrific. So shocking were the reports of Hamas’ and linked groups’ atrocities that they gave pause even to those who would celebrate resistance, and for others provided further justification for the catastrophic assault on the people of Gaza that followed. This staggering violence visited upon civilians is the culmination of a 76-year-long occupation that has gone on so long that in the West many turn away in exasperation or indifference, citing “complexity,” terrorism, incivility, Iran, or prior claims to the land. Although we may live comfortably with orientalism, students pay attention. And none of the old narratives are sticking. What is new is the willingness of people to speak out en masse, knowing full well the costs of protest: blackballing, accusations of antisemitism and sympathy with terrorism, expulsion, and now police violence and incarceration. While American police in riot gear batter students and wrestle economics professors to the ground, the fact that large numbers of protestors are Jewish makes no difference. Neo-Nazis receive better treatment when they come to campus.

Closer to home, the keffiyeh is banned from the Ontario legislature while the provincial government scrambles to pass a bill that, in the name of student wellness, will almost certainly quash student speech. Those who feel threatened by appeals to international law and human rights will feel protected, no doubt. Fear is not something most of us would wish upon those with differing views, especially when it is a residue of Holocaust trauma. While it is important not to dismiss these concerns, we must also think of our students, friends, and colleagues expected to watch this massacre of their people unfold in silence because of the century-long debasement of Palestinian and Arab lives that settlers in North America tacitly accept.

A transformer box spray-painted with the plea “Save Gaza Now.” Photo supplied by the author.

Across a transformer box outside the public library of a smallish eastern Ontario town, someone has spray-painted the plea “Save Gaza Now” in large red capitals, one of many such statements emblazoned on concrete surfaces around the city and up on campus. It is a starkly simple appeal to the dire humanitarian crisis engulfing the region. Yet, for some, “Save Gaza Now” is sufficiently threatening that they have seen fit to interpolate their own sharpie-scrawled message between the original words: “Save the Jewish Hostages from Gaza and Hamas Terrorists Now.” In this conflation of Israeli and Jewish identity and Gazans with terrorists, the sharpied revision subscribes to the same distortions driving Western governments’ complicity with state violence and suppression of dissent. Leaving aside the ethonationalist messaging, one wonders why the two statements, “Save Gaza” and “Save the Hostages,” are mutually exclusive. This false binary reflects the Manichaeism of American policy that twists the students’ calls for Palestinian freedom into genocidal speech. There is an ideological violence at work here more effective than billy clubs or zip ties that makes one question the very foundation of one’s activism and beliefs and ensures the silence of those who typically speak out when the rights of marginalized peoples are at stake. What is the red line for academics? Surely in the brutalizing of their colleagues across the border?

Within this transformer box graffiti one sees a microcosm of opposing world views playing out in clashes between police and professors and their students across American college campuses. It is a harbinger of encampments that have already started to sprout here. Let us hope that authorities and institutions do not see fit to trample upon free speech and academic freedom, mistaking a call for life for its opposite.

Kelly McGuire is an Associate Professor in the departments of English and Gender & Social Justice and Trent University.

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