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1. Making Political Hay Out of a University Debacle
Shock waves from last Tuesday’s congressional hearing are still reverberating across the academic and political establishments. A two-minute exchange between Republican Elise Stefanik of New York and the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania exposed how deeply detached the leaders of America’s top academic institutions are from mainstream public opinion, and opened the door for an onslaught of criticism and calls for course correction.
The resignations of UPenn president Liz Magill and chairman of the board of trustees Scott Bok were the latest, but probably not the last, steps taken to try and rectify the calamity brought upon these prestigious universities by their presidents’ refusal to state that calling for genocide against the Jewish people constitutes a violation of their codes of conduct.
The congressional hearing could mark a turning point for the way American higher education conducts its discourse about Israel. After last week’s hearing, college leaders have been forced to reckon with the sentiment—shared by many Americans—that their complacency toward anti-Israel actions and statements veers at times into antisemitism, which causes fear and concern among Jewish students and their parents. Nor can they continue to hide behind the overarching arguments of freedom of speech as a catch-all excuse for dismissing charges of antisemitism.
And what may come as the biggest surprise is that it was a House committee that has forced this change. While efforts by students, donors, Jewish organizational leaders and civil society groups to address the spike in campus antisemitism since October 7 are commendable and have done a lot to raise awareness of the problem, at the end of the day it was a strong, bipartisan voice coming from Congress that tipped the balance.
2. Elise Stefanik’s Moment
Befitting this unlikely moment is its unlikely heroine.
New York Republican Elise Stefanik is not the first name that would come to mind as a defender of American Jews. While starting off her political career as a moderate Republican in the Bush administration, Stefanik moved on to embrace Donald Trump and many of the conspiracy theories promoted by some of his followers. A self-proclaimed “ultra MAGA” Republican, Stefanik has helped spread extreme nativist anti-immigration rhetoric, including echoing the false “great replacement theory,” a mainstay of white supremacy conspiracy thinking that claims that liberal elites led by a Jewish cabal are seeking to replace white Americans voters with immigrants in order to ensure Democratic control of the political system.
These views have put her at odds with many Jewish groups. In 2022, the Anti-Defamation League said that Stefanik’s ads promoting the replacement theory “strategically play on extremist rhetoric to stoke growing fears that white Americans are under attack and minorities seek to eject them.”
But last week, Stefanik found some redemption. For many Jewish Americans, frustrated with the messages they’ve been hearing from the academic elites, Stefanik’s merciless attack on the three university leaders was a needed moment of catharsis.
Stefanik’s question, to be clear, was a trap. Had the university presidents responded that calls for genocide are indeed a violation of their schools’ code of conduct, that would have led to a follow-up accusation that they did not take action against students voicing these calls. But answering that it was not a breach of university rules would raise the obvious question of why these academic institutions are not outlawing calls for the killing of Jews. Stefanik, herself a Harvard graduate, knew very well that there was no good answer to her questions, and the presidents of Harvard, MIT and UPenn walked right into the trap she set.
3. A Rare Cause for Bipartisanship
It is safe to say that antisemitism is universally deplored in the political sphere, regardless of party affiliation. American Jews have been living in a comparably golden era in which voicing antisemitic views is no longer acceptable and holding such positions comes with a personal and political price. Yes, there are of course politicians from either side who have made antisemitic comments and who have associated with antisemites with no disruption to their political career, but these are few and far apart.
But what transformed this broad pro-Jewish sentiment into an effective coalition was a rare unity of interest by right and left, Republicans and Democrats.
On the Democratic side, the mainstream leadership has long been troubled by the rise of anti-Israel voices on the left and by the threat that at times these voices include antisemitic messages. Taking on the powerful academic establishment, and by extension taking on the progressive wing of the party, could help recenter the Democrats’ positions on Israel, and perhaps even more important, could help fend off claims that Dems have turned their back on Israel or are in the process of doing so.
For Republicans, this hearing and the entire debate over the threat of antisemitism on college campuses hit all the right buttons: not only a chance to fight for a good cause that Jews care about and that doesn’t anger any base within the party, but also an opportunity to slam the academic elites who have long been in the crosshairs of Republicans. And an extra bonus: By (rightly) amplifying awareness of the current wave of antisemitism from the left, Republicans may cause some to forget about antisemitism from the right and the embrace of white supremacists by individuals on the Republican side.
4. But What About the Aid?
The heated hearing about antisemitism at American universities overshadowed some other big news coming out of Congress last week: another failed attempt to pass the foreign aid package that includes wartime assistance for Israel.
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked an attempt to pass legislation on the Biden administration’s $110 billion special aid package, which includes $14 million in emergency military assistance to Israel, as well as more than $50 billion to help Ukraine’s military efforts against Russia, and several other border enforcement and foreign aid items.
While the package bundles together aid to Ukraine and Israel, the two countries’ needs for American assistance do not share the same urgency. Ukraine, as the Biden administration has been saying for the past several weeks and as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will likely say when he visits Washington Tuesday, must have the aid right away, or else it risks running out of necessary arms and munitions on the battlefield.
Israel, though in the midst of a high-intensity war, is less desperate for immediate American help. The flow of equipment from existing U.S. stockpiles since the beginning of the Gaza war meets the country’s current needs. In addition, the State Department this week decided to bypass Congress and push through the sale of 14,000 tank shells to replenish Israel’s dwindling supplies. This move, alongside a larger request for 45,000 tank shells, ensures that Israel will not run out of necessary ammunition while waiting for the full special foreign aid package to overcome the many hurdles it faces in Congress.
5. ‘Tis the Season
War or peace, rain or shine, Washington is not about to give up its tradition of Hanukkah celebrations. It’s a great way of showing the Jewish community that politicians care about them, especially during these trying times when war is raging in Israel and antisemitism at home is on the rise. It’s also good election-year politics. So look out for gushing accounts of latkes at the White House, candle-lighting at the vice president’s residence, bipartisan schmoozing at Congressional Hanukkah events and politicians trying their hand at spinning dreidels.
Top Image: Chensiyuan (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Madcoverboy at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)