From the Newsletter | Is Context Everything?

By | Feb 05, 2024
From the Newsletter, Israel, Latest
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When I started doing interviews for the winter issue’s “Moment Debate” on the question “Should students be disciplined for chanting, ‘From the river to the sea’?,” I figured it would be pretty easy to find prominent players to argue both the “Yes” and the “No” sides.  

After all, we’d chosen the question only a week or two before that infamous Capitol Hill hearing turned campus speech and antisemitism into Topic A. After the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania all declined to say categorically that a call for genocide against Jews would be a violation of their universities’ policies, condemnation rained down on them from all sides. Within hours, they were memes. (One image I saw, far from the most extreme, showed “It Depends on the Context” emblazoned over the gates of Auschwitz in place of “Arbeit Macht Frei.”) Within a day, Liz Magill of Penn had resigned her presidency, and Harvard’s Claudine Gay, faced with additional charges of plagiarism, soon followed. Though some observers pointed out that the presidents had been describing their schools’ policies correctly—that the line between protected political speech and culpable harassment of fellow students can be tricky to draw in practice—virtually none suggested that their appearance had been anything but a disaster.         

So the idea that students should face consequences for chants deemed genocidal or threatening—as the “river to the sea” slogan is often described—seemed like, if not a universal view, at least one that was widely held, strongly felt and easily argued. 

Then, midway through an interview with a distinguished professor who’d started out arguing “Yes,” I asked what, exactly, should happen to students who chanted this slogan. The professor’s response: “I’d want to talk to them first. I mean, I’m an educator.” He thought a little more, then said he’d rather not argue “Yes,” after all: “You can put me down as conflicted.”        

I was surprised—but not as surprised as I became when several more exploratory calls to people I’d been sure were on the “Yes” side ended the same way. Even a couple of lawyers with extensive practices filing antisemitism-related complaints against universities told me they weren’t comfortable publicly taking a categorical position that any particular chant should lead to discipline in every case.        

In other words, it depends on the context. Who’d have thought it?        

Far be it from me to complain when an educator, or anyone, takes a nuanced view of a complex matter. And we ended up with excellent debaters on both sides, with more to be added soon. But it’s worth remembering, as always, that there’s more to this issue than the gleeful gotchas being lobbed at academe.  In our “Opinion” section, veteran columnist and law professor Marshall Breger mines the complexity from another angle, offering five questions that clarify but don’t overly simplify: Are calls for genocide actually occurring? Are campuses unsafe? Does context matter? Does hypocrisy matter? What is to be done? 

The question of when free speech morphs into punishable action won’t be resolved on the ground anytime soon. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that a Minnesota school district did suspend students for chanting “From the river to the sea”—and is now under federal investigation for Islamophobia. And for more on campus antisemitism and general unrest, see our previous  “Moment Debate” on whether DEI programs are harmful to Jews.        

Lest we forget, there’s far more to be said about Israel, Palestine and the war in Gaza than what students are shouting (or posting) on college campuses. Our columnists Fania Oz-Salzberger and Letty Cottin Pogrebin both offer heartfelt and insightful essays. Oz-Salzberger’s brilliant piece “A Quick Guide to Zionism in Hard Times: Or, Why in Spite of Everything I Am a Humanist Zionist” has been shared more than anything we’ve ever published, including in several foreign languages; plainly, there’s a hunger out there among many, many Jews (and non-Jews, too) for arguments that encompass their feelings about Israel along with their other cherished values.

Pogrebin, for her part, tells a tale that should resonate widely among those whose world views, like hers, were formed by the feminist slogan “The personal is political” and who now find, with anguish, that the reverse is also true.

It’s tough out there! For those finding the long slog through war, winter and competing hatreds a lot to deal with, the rabbis take on the question, “Does Jewish wisdom offer help in coping with depression?” Rabbis are seasoned witnesses to pain of all kinds, and while they remind us to seek professional help when indicated, they also know of a wide range of psalms, passages and practices that can shed light in the darkness. (As Rabbi Amy Wallk says, “The daily minyan may be the original ‘support group.'”) We hope you’ll find something that resonates. And for all our readers, whether you’re out protesting, home doomscrolling or otherwise struggling to navigate, stay safe, stay hopeful and try to leave a little room for complexity. 

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