Universities under far-right attack

January 26, 2024

The “resignations” of presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, M. Elizabeth Magill, and of Harvard, Claudine Gay, revealed the philosophical failings in academia, which is under attack by the far right. Universities appeared to be in shock from the Oct. 7 horrific Hamas murders of 1,200 and hostage kidnapping of 240 Israeli civilians, and the large numbers in pro-Palestinian protest, where not a few cries of “death to all Jews!” were heard.

At Harvard 33 student organizations signed a letter asserting that Israel was totally to blame for both the Hamas massacre and Israel’s brutal bombing and siege of Gaza. They rightly cited Israel’s 75-year oppression, but did not condemn Hamas’ Oct. 7 brutality.

Not until  Oct. 10 did Harvard’s President email students and staff: “We write to you today heartbroken by the death and destruction unleashed by the attack by Hamas that targeted citizens in Israel this weekend, and by the war in Israel and Gaza now under way…”

Why couldn’t Harvard quickly condemn both Hamas and Israel? Or recognize its own biased uncritical support for the state of Israel since 1947? Why can’t academia lead in thinking through this challenge?


Claudine Gay, Harvard’s first Black president. Photo: Charlotte Hysen/Governor’s Press Office, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED

The Harvard Corporation had resisted pressure to fire Gay, but yielded to intensified accusations of plagiarism by “conservative activist” Christopher Rufo. Rufo works closely with Rep. Elise Stefanik, who grilled three women college presidents in a Congressional hearing on Dec. 10. Gay’s “resignation is a symptom of Harvard being almost entirely beholden to external pressure,” said Sanaa Kahloon, a junior and pro-Palestinian activist who added, “These allegations of plagiarism have been weaponized by right-wing actors to suppress free speech in higher education, and to continue to suppress free speech with respect to Palestine.”

Dr. Gay was Harvard’s first Black president. Her non-traditional research and teaching methods value collaboration between faculty and students across separate disciplines, drawing upon her own Haitian origins. Passionately committed to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Justice (DEIJ), she took office the day the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Harvard’s affirmative action admissions policy, in which race is one factor.


Both universities are under heavy pressure from conservative donors who began withdrawing support after pro-Palestinian demonstrations and cracks in uncritical support for the state of Israel. Billionaire Harvard alumnus Bill Ackman, CEO of a hedge fund and major donor, called for Harvard to release the names of students who signed the Oct. 7 letter, “so that none of us [Wall Street CEO’s] inadvertently hire any of them…”

Over the summer, donors had asked Dr. Magill to cancel a planned Palestinian literary conference on Penn’s campus. Magill, citing free speech, said that the conference would go on as planned in September.

Turmoil at Harvard continues.

  • Lawsuits were filed by Jewish campus organizations.
  • A video billboard truck sponsored by conservative group Accuracy in Media drove around Harvard Square showing the faces and names of pro-Palestinian students.
  • Canary Mission is “a massive blacklisting and doxxing operation directed from Israel…” It targeted both the students on the Harvard Crimson editorial board, and organizations and students who signed a letter supporting Palestinians—in some cases people and groups barely connected to it.

Dr. Gay wrote in a New York Times guest essay in December: “My character and intelligence have been impugned. My commitment to fighting antisemitism has been questioned. … I’ve been called the N-word more times than I care to count… This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society.”


With all the scholarship at Harvard, was no one able to develop a deep historical view of the realities which led to Oct. 7 and Israel’s war? Surely someone on that campus could have explained the post-World War II disposition of Palestine by Britain, France and the Arab countries, the growth of Zionism as the world refused to admit Holocaust survivors, the defeat of socialist ideals for the new state as Israel’s Far Right dominance led to today’s occupation of Palestinian lands and livelihood? Likewise, how does Hamas’ massacre and hostage kidnapping on Oct. 7, and continued philosophy of permanent war with Israel support the people of Palestine? And why is no one firmly distinguishing the anti-Semitism of “death to all Jews” with legitimate criticism of Israel’s war? Or pointing out the hypocrisy of Hamas leaders vowing they proudly “sacrifice martyrs” with tens of thousands of dead and starving Gazans?

Hope for solution lies in growing worldwide protests against Israel’s war, including more and more Jewish voices refusing to accept the state of Israel’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Whether or not universities hold teach-ins, thousands of young people are doing so, and marching in support of the Palestinian people and those within Israel demanding an end to the war and genocide, and support for those who are striving for revolutionary social relations towards a new future.

 –Susan Van Gelder

3 thoughts on “Universities under far-right attack

  1. This is a really good article. Missed opportunity for scholarship to accurately frame the terrorist attack and now-occurring genocide. The hearings in the House of Representatives were a trap that university presidents fell into. They all seemed to give legalistic jargon answers that seemed to shield the university itself from lawsuits or just bad PR. Then the Republicans had a field day with the presidents’ seeming lack of compassion, while an opportunity was missed to turn the hearings back around against Stefanik and her ilk, who have the least compassion of all. Even if the presidents were tried for contempt for speaking out of turn, they could have exposed the politicians’ hypocrisy, and they could have retained an upper hand in the rhetorical struggle (if the media covered it at all).

  2. Education is under attack from the far right everywhere. In India the ruling Hindu right is practically running bulldozers in universities and academic institutions to silence any voice of dissent.

  3. This article focuses on events at Harvard. Hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide are undergoing the same pressures. Understanding the US complicity in today’s realities in Israel & Palestine, and a factual historical view is essential.
    Therefore, it is important to note that Christopher Rufo was not the one “grilling” the 3 college presidents. It was Trump sychophant Congressional Representative Elise Stefanik, at the Congressional hearings December 5, 2023. [Editor’s note: the article has been slightly edited to clarify this point.]

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