“[T]here are moments in this life… when… pure, unadulterated evil is unleashed on this world.” That is how President Biden first described Hamas’s gruesome premeditated attack on Israeli civilians.
Compare the reaction on college campuses. In a “Day of Resistance” toolkit, National Students for Justice in Palestine, an organization with hundreds of campus chapters, called the slaughter of Israeli Jews “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance.” The toolkit went on to describe the “heightened stage of the Palestinian struggle” as a “resistance” that will “bring dignity and honor to the Palestinian people.”
In the weeks since, student groups on U.S. campuses have celebrated the atrocity — both in public statements and boisterous campus rallies. A statement endorsed by more than 30 student groups at Harvard University professing to hold “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” is only the highest profile among many examples. Two weeks ago, 57 people — many of them calling for Israel’s destruction — were arrested for trespassing at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Faculty, too, are on record cheering Hamas. A Cornell professor called the slaughter “exhilarating,” while a professor of climate science at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago called Israelis “pigs” and “savages.” An American Studies professor at the University of California–Davis encouraged violence targeting “Zionist journalists” (and their families) in a public Tweet.
And yet, few university presidents have condemned expressions of hatred on their campuses with the moral clarity the moment demands. Many could not even muster the fortitude to condemn Hamas’s massacre without equivocating. Emboldened, pro-Hamas students are now crossing the line from protected (hateful) speech to harassment and violence. With menacing mobs chanting eliminationist slogans, how could a Jewish student feel truly safe on an elite campus?
All this against a backdrop that will sear October 7 into our historical memory for generations: more than 1,400 confirmed dead; thousands injured; more than 200 hostages taken by terrorists who fantasize about wiping Israel from the face of the Earth; ISIS-level displays of cruelty and barbarism; and dead children discovered in pieces.
What is going on? Why are privileged students on elite campuses, tomorrow’s public leaders, cheering evil and blaming the victims of a heinous terrorist attack? Why such cowardice from academic administrators?
Three aspects of the contemporary campus environment, trends that have been building for decades, help to explain a reaction that ordinary Americans rightly find appalling and incomprehensible.
First, today’s “social justice” movements crudely sort individuals into groups based on whether they can be viewed as oppressors or the oppressed. Jews are labeled oppressors by virtue of their political and economic success — even though their suffering, as a people, is unparalleled in modern history.
This lazy way of understanding the world — common to postcolonial studies, critical race theory, intersectionality, campus DEI, and a host of far-left intellectual frameworks — has rotted the academy. It teaches adherents to embrace primitive tribalism, one that sees the world exclusively in terms of virtuous victims and evil oppressors. And it teaches students to make simple, uncompromising judgments: Jews are oppressors in Israel. White interests systematically discriminate against minorities in this country.
As a result, students leave campus primed to judge others based on group identity or skin color, not individual character or merit. Thus, critical deliberation is sacrificed to a feverous, anti-intellectual imperative: cheer for the group the Left says is marginalized—and against Western Civilization, which is alleged to be inherently oppressive. This is how the new campus ideologies obliterate students’ capacity for moral judgment.
It also explains why campus activists can fly into an indignant rage over “microaggressions” — literally, an alleged harm that is microscopic — if the “victim” claims a favored group identity while at the same time, blaming Israel when barbaric Hamas terrorists burn Jewish babies to death. The mindset forged on campus migrates with graduates into our schools, the media, and the halls of Congress.
Second, it is possible to hold such a simplistic, fanatical worldview in part because students lack the historical understanding that would help them appreciate the magnitude and moral significance of October 7. It should be the role of universities to instill this.
Unfortunately, general education (the course of study common to all students at a university) has deteriorated beyond recognition. Instead of taking courses designed to acquaint students with their civilizational inheritance — courses in politics, history, foreign languages, philosophy, religion, etc. — students today choose from menus of disjointed electives, many of them designed to advance a social justice ideology.
As a result, few students learn much about the Middle East and its complicated history — or even their own country. It is easier to cling to a propagandistic distortion when you lack the perspective that would call it into question, for example, the reasons Israel’s borders changed after its 20th-century wars, the fact Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, awareness that eradicating Israel is written into Hamas’s very charter, etc., etc., etc.
Third, elite university campuses are the one place in American society where making the intellectual case for antisemitism is fashionable. Faculty in radical “Studies” disciplines, some of them funded by federal tax dollars under Title VI of the Higher Education Act (others, by foreign gifts from Gulf states), run biased and imbalanced programs. Some even advocate for the abolition of Israel and platform the professors who have been cheering Hamas’s massacre. No university would hire faculty whose “academic research” made similar claims about any other people.
Antisemitic professors and student groups, even in small numbers, warp the campus conversation. Their presence conveys to students that this one hatred is respectable. Indeed, researchers have established that the presence on campus of faculty who express anti-Zionist views “is associated with a significant increase in…. incidents that target Jewish students for harm, including assault, harassment, destruction of property and suppression of speech.”
The result is a campus environment broadly hostile to Jewish students and is quickly getting worse. We knew this before Hamas’s killing spree. A 2022 survey found that 55% of Jewish students said that they have personally experienced antisemitism on their campus. Only 28% said they think that school administrators take antisemitism seriously.
The specter of students cheering an evil massacre at elite universities while cowardly administrators convey indifference reveals a profound sickness in the places that are supposed to preserve (and perpetuate) our civilizational inheritance.
Campus pathologies spread. Academic ideologies reshape society as they ripple beyond the university’s walls. That is what they are designed to do. Combating campus antisemitism is, therefore, not just a moral imperative. It is an urgent priority in the battle to save higher education, which will profoundly shape the society in which our children and grandchildren grow up.
Jonathan Pidluzny, Ph.D., is the Director of the Higher Education Reform Initiative at the America First Policy Institute.