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Harvard President’s Ouster Makes Visible the Rising Power of the Far Right

The same forces targeting Palestine solidarity work are trying to end all campus discussions of anticolonial politics.

A truck calling the president of Harvard a "national disgrace" drives around Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 12, 2023.

Part of the Series

The recent resignation of Harvard’s first African American president, Claudine Gay, which was brought on by an orchestrated campaign mobilized by the far right, made visible the threat of organized fascism on university campuses. Claiming victory, the far right propagandist Christopher Rufo posted on social media: “SCAPLED: Harvard President Claudine Gay Resigns” (and quickly clarified that he meant to write “SCALPED”).

Antisemitism across the U.S., including at universities, is a critical concern. But attempts to identify and counter actual antisemitism are now being muddied by a disingenuous Zionist campaign to suppress all who express solidarity with Palestine by falsely labelling any criticism of the settler-colonial state of Israel and its policies as antisemitism. The organizing logic of this far right project is to surveil, silence and discipline those on university campuses across the U.S. who are speaking up against Zionist settler colonialism and witnessing the violence carried out by Israel. This is done by threatening students and faculty and by targeting their current or prospective employment. Students and faculty who express solidarity with Palestinians have been consistently doxxed and harassed, turned into objects of far right and Zionist hate campaigns.

On October 7, 2023, fighters from Gaza took control of Beit Hanoun crossing and breached the wall Israel had erected alongside the Gaza Strip to keep its 2.3 million residents under permanent imprisonment. Israel responded by bombarding Gaza, and protests emerged across the globe in solidarity with Palestine. Across university campuses, student protests sought to draw attention to the apartheid conditions imposed by Israel’s colonial occupation, outlined the role of colonization as the foundational driver of violence, and called for a ceasefire. In a statement authored by the Harvard University Palestine Solidarity Committee and signed by 33 other student organizations, Israeli settler colonialism has been described as the root cause of the violence. This analysis is aligned with the analysis of the violence offered by Amnesty International: “The root causes of these repeated cycles of violence must be addressed as a matter of urgency. This requires upholding international law and ending Israel’s 16-year-long illegal blockade on Gaza, and all other aspects of Israel’s system of apartheid imposed on all Palestinians.”

An organized campaign by Zionists, working alongside far right propagandists, has targeted protests that stood in solidarity with Palestine and critiqued Israeli settler colonialism, manufacturing a campus crisis. At the City University of New York (CUNY), the chancellor deployed additional security on campus in spaces where Arab, Muslim and Jewish students gather, and several events expressing solidarity with Palestine were cancelled. The chancellor’s letter to the campus community noted, “University property and platforms, including CUNY computers and email addresses, cannot be used to promote political activities or agendas.”

Frank Wu, the president of Queens College at CUNY flagged a social media post by the school’s Muslim Student Association to the New York City Police Department. At Columbia, the student chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and local Students for Justice in Palestine group were both suspended.

It is critical to note here that a range of students, organizations and activists speaking in solidarity with Palestine have issued statements challenging the disinformation crafted around them. For instance, they have debunked the lies that have circulated falsely alleging that Palestine protest groups have called for genocide of Jews. Devoid of facts, however, the disinformation campaign waged by Zionists has continued to amplify affect to create a moral panic, mobilizing the organizing forces of Zionists alongside the repressive tactics of the far right to target academic freedom, police organizing and crush dissent.

Responding to the protests, the hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman wrote a post on X calling on Harvard to release the names of the student members of the organizations that had signed onto the statement, building a campaign of fear by threatening their career prospects.

Zionist donors are driving efforts to target students and faculty who express support for Palestine, exerting pressure on universities by pulling funding or threating to pull their funding for allowing pro-Palestine protests. Consider the role of the Wexner Foundation in pulling funding from Harvard. The foundation produced the “Wexner Analysis: Israeli Communication Priorities 2003” as a strategic blueprint for pro-Israel activists seeking to covertly influence U.S. public opinion around Israel, working in conjunction with the public relations firm the Luntz Research Companies and The Israel Project.

The Zionist billionaire donor Seth Klarman, owner of the investment company The Bauman Group, with a building on Harvard’s campus named after him, wrote an open letter with Mitt Romney criticizing the Harvard leadership. The letter noted: “The expressions of hate and vitriol against Jews have continued and strengthened over the last week on Harvard’s campuses. The threatening, violent protests by pro-Palestinian groups on Harvard campuses become more heinous with each passing day.”

Klarman runs the Klarman Family Foundation, and is the co-founder and chair of the right-wing Israeli newspaper, The Times of Israel. The Klarman Foundation donates to a range of pro-Israel and Zionist advocacy organizations including The Israel Project, The David Project, Anti-Defamation League, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, the Jewish National Fund, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Stand With Us, the United Israel Appeal and the Zionist Organization of America. He was one of the largest donors to the 2020 Biden campaign.

For the far right, a crisis is an opportunity. Over the last three years, the GOP has been organizing a repressive campaign across university campuses targeting the teaching of critical race theory, starting with Donald Trump’s memo ordering the Office of Management and Budget to stop funding training for federal employees. According to CRT Forward (an initiative launched by the UCLA School of Law Critical Race Studies Program), since September 2020, across 44 states in the United States, far right extremist politicians have been running campaigns seeking to censor the teaching of critical race theory, having introduced 783 “anti-Critical Race Theory bills, resolutions, executive orders, opinion letters, statements, and other measures.”

Far right propagandists are trying to broaden the current repression of Palestine solidarity activists to escalate the repression of all scholars and activists who discuss postcolonial and anti-colonial politics, arguing that calls for Palestinian sovereignty on Western university campuses emerge from the pedagogy of postcolonial and decolonization studies. Here’s Christopher Rufo, tweeting on October 14:

Conservatives need to create a strong association between Hamas, BLM, DSA, and academic “decolonization” in the public mind. Connect the dots, then attack, delegitimize, and discredit. Make the center-left disavow them. Make them political untouchables.

The narrative is reiterated by Bari Weiss. In a speech to the Federalist Society titled “The last line of defense,” Weiss pins the crisis of protests demonstrating solidarity with Palestine to decolonization. She states:

In other words, everyone can now see how very deep these ideas run, and we see clearly that there are not just metaphors. Decolonization isn’t just a clever turn of phrase, or a new way to read novels. It is the sincerely held political view that serves as a predicate to violence.

Claudine Gay’s resignation comes as a result of an orchestrated racist campaign that started with a hearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on December 5, 2023, when the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were pressed on the policies of the universities in addressing antisemitism on their campuses. This had earlier led to the resignation of the University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill. The hearing, one of the most watched hearings of all time, sends out a warning to other higher education institutions about the consequences for not repressing campus support for Palestine.

The architecture of the hearing was based on the false premise that since October 7, there have been widespread calls for Jewish genocide across U.S. university campuses. There is no empirical evidence to back this up, and the politicians participating in the December 5 hearing couldn’t provide evidence to substantiate the claim.

Critical to the manufactured frenzy around the hearing was the questioning and subsequent social media posts produced by the far right MAGA politician, Elise Stefanik, who has platformed the extremist antisemitic Great Replacement theory (the same ideology that resulted in the Buffalo mass shooting), peddled in antisemitic narratives, circulated QAnon conspiracy theories and actively disseminated the Trump lie about a stolen election.

The structure of Stefanik’s questioning sets up a discursive trap, repeating “Does the call for the genocide of Jews on your campus constitute harassment, yes or no?”

Implicitly referring to Palestinian solidarity protests, and mislabelling slogans voiced in the protests — “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and “Intifada” (some version of it) — as calls to genocide, the five-hour questioning was built to censor campus speech in solidarity with Palestine. The communicative act of mislabelling Palestinian slogans for freedom as antisemitic, terrorist, and as calls to genocide forms the racist discursive infrastructure of white settler colonialism that works actively to erase the voices of the colonized claiming sovereignty while carrying out genocidal violence. At the core of the questioning was the demonization of Palestinians and solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.

For large cross-sections of Palestinian and Global South voices, the call “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” expresses the human right to justice and liberty, challenging the apartheid condition and Israeli occupation of Palestine. Similarly, the reference to Intifada is a call for resistance, mobilized to challenge a colonial occupation and protected by international law.

Once the campaign saw its first trophy with the resignation of the University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, a victorious Stefanik posted on social media: “One down. Two to go.”

Stefanik claimed that this is the first of more congressional hearings on “all facets of their institutions’ negligent perpetration of antisemitism including administrative, faculty, and overall leadership and governance.” In a piece published in the right-wing British tabloid The Daily Mail, she states, “We must DEFUND the rot in America’s higher education.”

Claiming credit for the resignation of President Gay, Stefanik tweeted: “TWO DOWN,” accompanied by three red siren emojis. She further tweeted “I will always deliver results…” By falsely framing pro-Palestinian protests as antisemitic, by falsely identifying the cause of antisemitism as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, and by stoking manufactured frenzy around DEI diversity, equity and inclusion programs, Stefanik seized the opportunity to consolidate her position within the Republican Party.

The manufactured crisis over false rumors about “calls to Jewish genocide” is synergized with the broader far right campaign attacking the teaching of critical race theory on university campuses, turning to DEI programs.

Rufo claimed that, “Powerful forces — including Elon Musk, Bill Ackman, and many others behind the scenes — are boosting our story about the Claudine Gay plagiarism scandal. They do not want to let this one go. They realize that DEI is death to merit, accomplishment, and the American spirit.” Weiss chimes in, arguing that, “Lots of organizations claim to be defending young Jews on campus. Simple litmus test: do they oppose DEI? If not, do not take them seriously.”

Yet what continues to be ignored is the actual threats against antisemitism across the U.S. — which arise not from support for Palestine but from white supremacy. In 2014, the white supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. shot and killed three people outside a Jewish community center and retirement home in suburban Kansas City. In 2019, the white supremacist John Earnest opened fire, attempting a mass killing of Jews attending services inside a synagogue in Poway, California, killing one person and injuring several. The white nationalist Robert Bowers shot and killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Each of these attacks was driven by white supremacy, with Bowers specifically drawing on Great Replacement theory, blaming Jews in the U.S. for catalyzing “an invasion of nonwhite immigrants who would slaughter the white race.” Note the mainstreaming of the Great Replacement theory, an extremist ideology that has resulted in a growing wave of white extremist terrorism in the U.S. and abroad, including in Norway and Christchurch.

The study and discussion of anti-colonial theory at universities exists in continuity with anti-colonial struggles in communities and on the streets. In spite of the far right extremism seeking to terrorize universities, the actual work of decolonization will continue. As long as conditions of oppression, exploitation, apartheid and occupation continue, the voices of the global majority will stand in resistance.

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