Gaza Has Exposed Journalistic and Academic “Neutrality” as the Conservative Deflection It Always Was

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, elite liberal institutions had no problem picking a side. After 37,000 Palestinians are killed by Israel—things are now more complicated.

Adam Johnson

TRT Arabi Reporter, Reba Khalid al-Ajami reports from Gaza amid ongoing Israeli attacks in Rafah, Gaza on February 29, 2024. (Photo by Abed Zagout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Suddenly, it seems, taking a stand on oppression by journalistic institutions, universities and prestige nonprofits has fallen out of fashion. So, what changed? It wasn’t the principle of liberal intervention on behalf of the oppressed, but rather the geopolitical utility and racial makeup of those being oppressed. 

In February 2022, virtually the whole of the liberal taste-making and knowledge-production world responded with unequivocal outrage at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, issuing statements of solidarity, condemnations of Russia, and a boycott of Russian cultural products. This conviction of standing up for those under siege officially expired over the past eight months — and it’s worth taking inventory of why and how this happened. 

Last month, the National Writers Union (NWU) released a detailed report tracking 44 cases of retaliation that impacted more than 100 media workers” in response to the perception that they support the Palestinian cause or are critical of the Israeli government.” The survey, which covered the period from October 7, 2023 to February 1, 2024 in North America and Europe, found that workers faced de-platforming, firing, suspension and other forms of discipline, with journalists of Middle Eastern or North African descent and those who identify as Muslim especially impacted. Western media workers have faced a wave of retaliation for speaking up against or critically covering Israel’s war on Gaza — and in particular, for voicing support for Palestinians,” the report summarizes.

The report, of course, did not get much coverage from the same media it was criticizing. But it is an essential document: a real-time, thorough, sober case study on flagrant liberal institutional hypocrisy. 

Compare these findings with how many U.S. media workers, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, were punished for expressing solidarity with Ukrainians or explicitly criticizing Russia. An informal survey conducted by this author of a similar time frame shows that exactly zero were. One never wants to compare tragedies, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a crime and tragedy in its own right. But given that it happened 18 months prior to Israel’s leveling of Gaza, it can serve as a useful A-B test to expose some of the racist, power-serving, and blatantly phony currents in elite liberal discourse. Expressing solidarity with Ukrainians, however sincere or morally urgent, offends essentially no center for power within the United States –  – no wealthy donors, no Congressional subcommittees, no Fox News or CNN pundits — unlike expressions of solidarity with Palestinians, which has thus far cost countless people their jobs, status, reputations and financial security. 

The formula goes like this: Taking a position is okay so long as it doesn’t meaningfully offend the prevailing hegemonic worldview. If it does, then it violates not, explicitly, the prevailing hegemonic worldview, but some abstract virtue of neutrality” or objectivity.” Liberal institutions, run by lawyers and meritocracy-believing strivers, can’t acknowledge that they are instruments of ruling-class ideological disciplining, so they frame their punishment of those who step out of line not on explicitly ideological grounds, but under the selective and dubious auspices of neutrality.” Confronting the real reason for these social and professional pressures would expose how thin their nominal independence is, so instead they frame their punishment not as in support of a particular political stance, but in opposition to politics as such. 

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Another example is that of PEN America, which saw an outright mutiny from many of its staffers over the organization’s unwillingness to meet the most baseline, milquetoast demand of calling for a cease-fire. (Doing so would fall outside the organization’s free expression mandate, PEN said in a statement.) 

Again, the naked hypocrisy did not go unnoticed by both PEN America staffers and high-profile commentators. PEN America had explicitly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and held several events in support of Ukrainian writers and blackballed Russian writers.

After the blowback for refusing to substantively comment on the thousands killed in Gaza, platforming of pro-Israel voices, and balking at calling for a cease-fire, PEN America went into damage control mode, publicly calling for cease-fire and trying to gather high-profile Palestinians to participate in a panel discussion. But the intellectuals they reached out to, namely journalist Rula Jebreal and human rights attorney Noura Erakat, rejected the invitation, refusing to be tokenized. The 180-degree turn taken by PEN America between February 2022 and October 2023 on its nominal stance over matters of war and human rights, again, did not go unnoticed. You went out of your way when Ukraine was under attack,” Jebreal told PEN America, according to her interview with The Intercept, and now when it comes to Palestine, it’s as if we don’t exist,”

The breakneck hypocrisy is not just the purview of Western media and the highbrow literary world — it’s par for the course among elite educational institutions as well. It was announced Tuesday that Harvard University will, according to the New York Times, no longer take positions on matters outside of the university.” 

When it was Russia invading Ukraine, the university did not hesitate to express empathy and explicitly take a side. Then-President Lawrence Bacow made it clear where the institution stood: Now is a time for all voices to be raised. The deplorable actions of Vladimir Putin put at risk the lives of millions of people and undermine the concept of sovereignty. Institutions devoted to the perpetuation of democratic ideals and to the articulation of human rights have a responsibility to condemn such wanton aggression.” 

But as the carnage in Gaza became increasingly obscene and difficult to defend, moral stances became trapped in a fog of liberal equivocation and above-the-fray appeals to high-minded neutrality. The New York Times dutifully frames this pivot as a response to some organic fraughtness of the topic at hand, without commenting on the obvious power structures that make it fraught in the first place. Perhaps unlike any other issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict split university communities, and clarified the downsides of such statements on highly contested topics,” the Times notes.

Yes, the downsides” are pressure from the U.S. government and wealthy donors. University presidents have been pushed out, adjuncts have been fired for merely mentioning suffering in Gaza and countless other educators have been disciplined or fired. The Israel-Palestine issue is surely charged within the campus itself, but one would have to be wilfully naive to think that the split” among students and faculty is what is driving Harvard’s newfound love of saying less.” Rather, it’s because the obvious stance they ought to be taking now — and one reflected in near-universal opinion outside the corridors of Washington and Tel Aviv — is that Israel’s wholesale destruction of Gaza is bad and should stop at once. But this position offends people in power in the United States, because our bipartisan institutions are backing, funding and arming Israel’s deadly campaign. 

Now we are eight months into a brutal assault on Gaza that Aryeh Neier, Holocaust survivor and founder of Human Rights Watch, describes as a genocide. Harvard likely realizes how conspicuous their silence on the body count is, how images of charred children that emerged this week make liberal institutions’ indifference seem cruel and deeply hypocritical. Alas, they have a solution: Suddenly, political stances are a no-no. As global outrage intensifies and Israel is condemned in increasingly harsh terms by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Harvard has suddenly, and mysteriously, determined that it’s going to check out of the political statement business. 

To build off the old adage of murky origins, “News is what those in power seek to suppress, everything else is public relations,” only issuing political statements when they offend no one in power, no one in Congress, and no big donors, is not an expression of true solidarity.

Other universities, such as Northwestern — that also unequivocally condemned Russia’s invasionfound their tongues tied as civilian deaths began to pile up in Gaza. Saying something would offend those in power, upset donors, call into question the university’s investments in the U.S. war machine or get its president hauled up before Congress. So now, it’s all very messy and complex. 

To build off the old adage of murky origins, News is what those in power seek to suppress, everything else is public relations,” only issuing political statements when they offend no one in power, no one in Congress, and no big donors, is not an expression of true solidarity. Such statements serve as little more than pledges of fidelity to the existing order. Liberal institutions that expressed solidarity with both Ukraine and Gaza are indeed earnest and should be praised for their consistency, but this was a rare move, and typically came from those organizations with little institutional power.

In general, over the past eight months, major liberal institutions — from universities to legacy media to the large philanthropic nonprofits — have shown themselves to be cowardly fair-weather political actors whose solidarity is conditioned on not offending too many powerful people or institutions. Which is to say: it’s not solidarity at all. Pointing this out is not about scoring a hypocrisy dunk, it’s about opening up new modes of understanding of what it means to be neutral” in a world of increasingly acute class, ecological and colonial crises. Now that Gaza has exposed these high-minded appeals to political independence” and neutrality” as morally vacuous conflict-avoidance, it raises the urgent question of what liberal norms can be built in its place. 

Why is taking explicitly political — and genuinely subversive — stances associated with sloppy journalism or research? Who decided that was the case, since this assumption has little empirical basis? How can we disassociate the concepts of ideology and dishonesty, neutrality and fairness? Who benefits from institutions’ selective positions”? And what systems that exist outside of top-down leadership roles can emerge to speak on behalf of liberal institutions, since Harvard or the New York Times are not going anywhere anytime soon. 

The muted response to Israel’s war on Gaza by elite liberal institutions has illustrated their severe lack of cred​i​bil​i​ty​.In response, we should ask ourselves if something can be built in their place that’s more democratic, more accountable, less prone to punish those who fall out-of-line — and something that’s, just maybe, the least bit consistent.

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Adam H. Johnson is a media analyst and co-host of the Citations Needed podcast.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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