The War on Education—in Gaza and at Home

The Right is using Palestine to further its assault on higher ed and recruit centrists to its cause.

Alberto Toscano

Photo of a protest showing three people along the bottom of the photo. Two are wearing graduation caps. One in the center is wearing a kufiya over their mouth and nose and is looking at the camera.

People gather to protest the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace at Columbia University on November 20, 2023 in New York City. Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

On January 17, after having first occupied it as a military base and interrogation center, the Israeli army employed scores of landmines to blow up Israa University, the last institution of higher learning then left standing in Gaza. While the terms scholasticide,” educide” and epistemicide” have long been used to describe the assault on Palestinian intellectual life and infrastructure, they have become grimly literal as Israel’s war on Gaza effects what journalist Eman Alhaj Ali calls the erasure of Gaza’s education system. The logic of elimination undergirding Israel’s effort to make Gaza uninhabitable has included the demolition of academic buildings, the lethal targeting of its scholars and intellectuals — from the poet and literature professor Refaat Alareer to the rector of the Islamic University and scientist Sufyan Tayeh — as well as the slaughter of countless students. Genocide, to borrow from literary scholar and Al-Aqsa professor Haidar Eid, has gone hand-in-hand with sociocide and ideocide.

Any discussion of the latest phase in the United States’ so-called campus wars” must start from here, and not just to check the language we use to talk about conflict. Ever since the 1960s, intense fights over political speech, protest and curricula have periodically roiled U.S. universities. But the current war against Palestinian life and culture, which many young people correctly perceive as an Israeli-American war, has marked a new phase in these ideological and discursive conflicts, one whose violence has not just been metaphorical — recall the shooting of three Palestinian students near the University of Vermont in late November. 

Over the last four months, as Israel has ratcheted up its long-term attacks on Palestinian intellectual life, pro-Israel political actors in the United States have tied the silencing of Palestinian solidarity to ongoing campaigns against critical and progressive agendas in education. In so doing, they are also bringing together the political center and far Right in ways that trouble the narrative of a coming battle between a broad liberal front and a proto-fascist Trumpism.

While the terms “scholasticide,” “educide” and “epistemicide” have long been used to describe the assault on Palestinian intellectual life and infrastructure, they have become grimly literal as Israel’s war on Gaza effects the erasure of Gaza’s education system.

The congressional grilling of university presidents over alleged campus antisemitism in December, and the ensuing affair” that led to the ouster of former Harvard University President Claudine Gay, were illustrative of this new alliance. They demonstrated how slandering solidarity as antisemitism can undermine student campaigns against institutional complicity and divert attention from the United States’ pivotal role in enabling mass murder. This is glaringly evident if we compare the attention lavished by the New York Times on Gay’s citational practice with the paper’s consistent unwillingness to probe Israeli propaganda. 

But what the hearings also revealed is how repression of Palestine solidarity helps advance the culture war agenda of the U.S. far Right, enlisting liberal elites in its campaign to purge critical and liberatory perspectives from the curricula and undo the uneven institutional gains made by minoritized groups. As historian and political theorist Nikhil Pal Singh told me, the backlash against pro-Palestinian student movements is triggering a clear rightward movement” in the political mainstream, thanks largely to right-wing operatives who have weaponiz[ed] the type of free speech and colorblind discourse that has always been more effective and appealing to centrist liberals than overtly racist and authoritarian appeals.” Right-wing anti-diversity activist Christopher Rufo’s crude playbook for peeling mainstream liberalism away from an anti-colonial and socialist Left shows he’s not unfamiliar with this insight. As he declared on October 13 on X (formerly Twitter), Conservatives need to create a strong association between Hamas, BLM, DSA, and academic decolonization’ in the public mind. Connect the dots, then attack, delegitimize, and discredit. Make the center-left disavow them. Make them political untouchables.”

The strategy has been simple but effective. The demonization of critical race theory (CRT) that marked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s efforts to bring Orbánism to the Sunshine State has more recently pivoted to a systematic campaign against diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in universities, public administration and business. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor astutely observed, DEI has proved a better target than CRT, bypassing academic abstractions and appealing to core claims of unfairness” that mobilize a Right organized around grievance politics. The Right’s recent work to associate diversity with antisemitism only draws more people into the tent, including those who have always been quick to berate anti-Zionist activists of color for betraying” Jewish allies. 

Photo of about 40 protestors on the steps of a Harvard building. All students are holding their hands up with their palms painted red. Two large banners read "THERE ARE NO UNIVERSITIES LEFT IN GAZA" and "STOP THE GENOCIDE IN GAZA."
Harvard students take part in a demonstration in support of Palestinians on the steps of the Widener Library in January. Photo by Josh Reynolds for for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The history of tarring anti-Zionism with the brush of antisemitism to target and undermine liberation politics — from SNCC and Black Power all the way to queer thought—is long and repetitious. As the journalism scholar A.J. Bauer recently noted, the Palestine Scare,” like the anti-communist Red Scares” before it, allows the Right to police the borders of liberalism, and to conscript centrists into its anti-emancipatory project. 

At Harvard, with Bill Ackman, as at the University of Pennsylvania, with Marc Rowan, the open interference of donors has played no small role in recent events. Gloating over his role in Gay’s unseating, Rufo proclaimed that his own narrative leverage” required not just the political leverage” of those like Rep. Elise Stefanik — the New York Republican who led the congressional interrogation of Gay and two other university presidents — but also the financial leverage” of the Ackmans. In the past few years, red” states have used the public purse to coerce state universities into quashing diversity initiatives and curbing the teaching of divisive concepts” like race. But as NYU professor Rebecca Karl told me, the fact that this pressure is now being replicated at private universities through donor and trustee influence represents a huge intensification, deepening and widening of the incursions” into academic freedom. 

The repression of Palestine solidarity is at the heart of this shift. As Harvard historian Walter Johnson noted, in a reflection tellingly titled Living Inside a Psyop,” the interlocked campaign of financial, political, and reputational attacks on dissidents in American universities is seemingly designed to secure the inter-generational transfer of unquestioned support for Israel by producing object lessons illustrating the costs of speaking out.” 

It’s ironic, if unsurprising, that this is taking place through the targeting of administrative diversity initiatives that critical scholars have long diagnosed not as Trojan horses for Marxist subversion but as devices for the elite capture” of the radical movements. When diversity programs emerged within U.S. colleges and universities, explains Roderick Ferguson, author of the 2017 book We Demand: The University and Student Protests, it was amid an era of economic expansion, wherein corporations sought to refashion themselves” according to the pressures of social movements: to present as diversity-friendly” without supporting redistributive politics that could actually correct social inequalities. Now, however, diversity is falling out of fashion among certain sectors of the capitalist elite. And, as in Gay’s high-profile case, university diversity officers and administrators whose remit was not at all radical are now being maligned, often in racist and sexist terms, for betraying the vocation of their elite institutions. 

Rufo’s invidious association of BLM and Hamas indicates that the culture war Right’s aim is to opportunistically fuse backlash against Palestine solidarity with its preexisting campaigns against anti-racist and anti-colonial movements. It’s an economical strategy, given both the genuine and longstanding links between these movements for liberation, and the ease with which centrist elites can be drawn into the unqualified defense of Zionism.

We are witnessing the emergence of an ideologically incoherent but politically effective bloc around the repression of Palestine solidarity on North American campuses, straddling the militant Right and the liberal center.

Crucial in recruiting centrists into these twin campaigns is a deep vein of anti-intellectualism. For the Right it takes the conspiratorial form of jeremiads — frequently antisemitic themselves — against Cultural Marxism” and its American offspring, from gender ideology” to intersectionality, which former Republican Senator and now University of Florida President Ben Sasse has improbably depicted as a religious cult that’s dominated higher education for nearly a decade with the shallow but certain idea that power structures are everything.” 

We should not underestimate how much a phobia of theory” serves to cement the convergence between the far Right and the center when it comes to the politics of academic life. The attack on DEI is not just a thinly veiled vehicle for historic resentments against affirmative action and the political legacies animating Black, ethnic or gender studies departments. DEI is now explicitly presented as the enabler of anti-Zionist and pro-Palestine agitation on campuses (what Stefanik grotesquely misrepresented as calls for genocide) through the mediation of curriculum. 

This narrative draws on older liberal ideologies while ultimately doing the work of the culture war Right. Witness an editorial penned by former Harvard Dean Harry R. Lewis, pointedly titled Reaping What We Have Taught.” Lewis claims that unapologetic antisemitism” (by which I presume he means calls for Palestinian freedom and an end to Israeli violence) is the result of how faculty teachings are exploited by malign actors.” His evidence? Online searches revealing that the words decolonize,” oppression,” liberation,” intersectionality,” social justice” and so on appear in the titles of numerous Harvard courses, testifying to a corruption of the curriculum by the recent fashions of the progressive left.” 

It’s revealing that ideas stemming from liberation and decolonization struggles more than half a century old should be declared recent fashions,” when one might ask instead why they took so long to receive a scholarly hearing. But the right-wing perception that critical theory has corrupted elite universities is now echoed by centrist media as well, with The Atlantic blaming the academic jargon” of settler colonialism” for popularizing comparisons between the oppression of indigenous people in Palestine and North America. 

Photo of a closeup of protest signs amongst a large crowd of protestors, outside at night. The focus is on a sign that has a Columbia university graduation certificate with a red handprint on top. In the background, a yellow sign reads "FREE PALESTINE."
People march to protest the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace at Columbia University on November 20, 2023 in New York City. Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Frameworks like settler colonialism and intersectionality — which are not holy writ on the anti-racist and anti-colonial Left — have served, at their best, to bridge the demands of scholarship and the energies of activism. Conveniently ignoring their own politicization of academia, militant conservatives and their liberal allies denounce the scholar-activist as a dangerous chimera. As the communication theorist Moira Weigel has irreverently shown, right and center can come together not by developing theories about their adversaries but by condemning theory altogether. If we think of the ways in which superficial or misleading references to settler colonialism, intersectionality or decolonization have been enlisted in the conjoined campaigns against DEI and Palestine solidarity, Weigel’s conclusions resonate: Theory is good to hate with because the performance of hating theory defines the community engaging in it as empirical or natural, beyond debate, a fact.” This community” is now bringing together liberals and conservatives who might otherwise not see themselves as sharing common ground.

We are witnessing the emergence of an ideologically incoherent but politically effective bloc around the repression of Palestine solidarity on North American campuses, straddling the militant Right and the liberal center. It disproportionately targets people of color and anti-Zionist Jews. It reveals the powerful uses to which anti-intellectualism can be put; how reactionary alliances can be built around the idea that institutions of higher learning are breeding grounds of seditious conduct. It’s no surprise that the emergence of broad coalitions of young people refusing complicity with imperialism, dispossession and genocide are being met with a reconfiguration in the actions and discourses of power elites toward universities; half a century after the student revolts of the 1960s and 70s, higher ed institutions remain crucial ideological battlefields. It seems that from Wall Street to Congress many are still muttering, like Richard Nixon on the Watergate tapes, The professors are the enemy.” 

In the shadow of the ongoing scholasticide in Palestine, these new coalitions between right-wingers and centrists will require that progressive forces use both analytical vigilance and strategic intelligence, as the terms of the liberal order fray and contentious politics takes centerstage in academic life and beyond. 

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ALBERTO TOSCANO teaches at the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. He recently published Late Fascism: Race, Capitalism and the Politics of Crisis (Verso) and Terms of Disorder: Keywords for an Interregnum (Seagull).

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