Vol. CLIII, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

OP-ED: Never Solidarity Before Criticism

In an email recently forwarded to the Whitman student body, six faculty members condemned Hamas’s actions in Southern Israel. While Hamas’ killing of civilians is clearly a tragic crime, the email is primarily interested in stoking fear to control student speech. “October 7, 2023”, says the email, “marked the greatest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the Holocaust.” While technically factual, this statement is a moral simplification; it harnesses the genuine trauma of the Holocaust and declares it the single most significant piece of historical context relevant to the State of Israel (as differentiated from the Jewish people). In doing so, this comparison preemptively shuts down criticism of Israel by positioning it solely as a victim of genocide rather than as a perpetrator of it, obliterating some 75 years of Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinian people. 

The email begins with devastating, but ultimately false, descriptions of Hamas’s beheading of children and closes with an appeal for unity on campus: “Across all of those differences, [Jews] can support each other in the shared aspects of our identities, and in grieving.” Between these inflammatory emotional appeals lies the email’s true demand: policing of speech.

The email then insinuates that Whitman is facing a crisis of morality that hinges on students’ and faculty’s failure to publicly condemn Hamas, creating a community-wide “justification of Hamas’ actions.” The email also implies an existing status quo, which is not perfect (“Jews on this campus have grown accustomed to a subtle but pervasive antisemitism”), but which nonetheless represents an established moral decency that is apparently degenerating: “Decent people of all religions and political views should unequivocally condemn [Hamas].”

The email is not forthright in its demand for student silence: it doesn’t outright tell us to shut up. Rather, it attempts to police speech through shame, demanding that students use their voices publicly to condemn Hamas. Yet condemning Hamas differs from acknowledging Hamas’ crimes; to condemn is to blame. Blaming Hamas fails to acknowledge Israel’s power over Palestinians. The email also denies Israel’s culpability by using passive voice when referring to Israel’s crimes. “We profoundly ache for the Palestinian lives that are being lost…” implies that Israel is not responsible for the murder of Palestinians. I too profoundly ache for the Israeli lives lost, but unlike the writers of the email, I am willing to acknowledge that it is Hamas who has taken those lives. However, I also refuse to forget that Israel, as an apartheid regime, is responsible for generating the violence which led to Hamas’s attacks. 

While the email explicitly compares the Holocaust to the actions of Hamas, the email goes on to implicitly label the liberatory speech of students and faculty as genocidal. This implied crisis of speech (“failure to condemn”) is equated with a crisis of life: campus is “unlivable” for Jewish students. The phrase: “We see our Jewish students who have gone underground, who have fled campus…” comes directly after numerous comparisons of current events in Israel to the Holocaust. According to the email, Jewish faculty and students are the victims of a rhetorical Holocaust; they are forced to metaphorically “go underground” as they are silenced by the speech of those in support of Palestine.

While the email makes no explicit demands, it is nonetheless demanding: If you do not condemn Hamas, you are supposedly complicit in a material genocide occurring in Israel and in a cultural one occurring on Whitman campus. And yet there is no mention of the potential actual genocide of the Palestinian people, nor of the 19 Palestinian journalists murdered by Israel since October 7th, nor of the numerous threats to free speech on US college campuses.

Free speech in academia is under attack, but not as the email indicates. Here at Whitman, 14 students signed, “A Message from Jewish Students” in response to the first email, expressing their solidarity with Palestine. This response was blocked from the student listserv.

At Harvard, billionaire and longtime donor William Ackman has called for the creation of a “no-hire list” comprised of student organizers who wrote letters attributing the State of Israel with full responsibility for Hamas’ attacks. A New York Post Editorial called these letters proof of “how low US higher education has sunk” and a “sickness in academia.” Like the “Message from Jewish Faculty,” this is yet another instance of manufactured fear being used to justify academic censorship.

Academia and Palestinian scholars are critical in raising awareness of the plight of the Palestine. Take the impact of Edward Said, who coined the term Orientalism and has a tremendous impact on the perception of the Middle East in the world. Since the large majority of US media is and has been prejudiced in Israel’s favor, academia is a vital space for fostering discourse. 

It is wonderful that both “A Message from Jewish Faculty” and another email, “Statement on Palestine,” which was signed by roughly 40 professors, were able to be shared with students on campus. Professors should absolutely be able to use their voices however they see fit, barring hate speech or criminal action. However, it is paramount to the function of academia that students be given an opportunity to respond. Academia has incredible power; not only is it filled with potentially powerful people, but it informs those people’s worldviews and how they go on to wield said power. Donor alumni clearly understand this. They are interested in college students’ public stances on Palestinian liberation precisely because they know that discourse at their alma mater had the power to shape their later actions.

We cannot, and will not, surrender this power. 

“The dictum ‘solidarity before criticism,’” says Edward Said, “means the end of criticism … I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the very midst of a battle in which one is unmistakably on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for.”

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    John DoeOct 26, 2023 at 12:52 pm

    From the river to the sea Palestine will be free