Skip to content Skip to footer

Scholars Should Be Able to Speak Out Against Genocide Without Fear of Punishment

The censorship of pro-Palestine speech on campuses is escalating. We must all work to resist this.

Kojo Acheampong, a Harvard student and member of African and African American Resistance Organization, speaks to pro-Palestine demonstrators in the lobby of Cambridge City Hall before their scheduled meeting on January 29, 2024, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Part of the Series

Academia has always been a political battleground. In recent years, those battles have been fought over issues of free speech, academic freedom and racial justice. As the world enters the sixth month of Israel’s current assault on the Palestinian people, scholars who advocate for Palestinian liberation, human rights and decolonization continue to find themselves in the crosshairs of right-wing, Zionist attacks on their character and their employment — both within their institutions and in the media.

The late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said once said that “despite the variety and the differences and however much we proclaim the contrary, what the media produce is neither spontaneous nor completely ‘free’: ‘news’ does not just happen, pictures and ideas do not merely spring from reality into our eyes and minds, truth is not directly available, we do not have unrestrained variety at our disposal.” Said pointedly critiqued the so-called freedom of press in the West, which has always been implicated in Western imperial and racial projects. The media’s targeting of scholars who advocate for Palestinian liberation is one manifestation of Said’s caution.

There are a number of high-profile cases of scholars who have been penalized within academia for public criticism of Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. Literary scholar, activist and public intellectual Steven Salaita has described his and others’ ostracization from academia for their public criticism of Israel as a “method of coercion and also as a punishment for defiance.” Attacks on scholars predate October 7, 2023 — faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, were targeted for hosting a Palestinian literature festival in September 2023. Administrators at U Penn characterized the event as “incompatible with the values of our institution,” suggesting that Palestinian cultural events are problematic, and that those hosting the event are antisemitic. Since early October, however, such attacks have increased in volume and escalated in the ferocity of their vitriol.

Anthropologist Maura Finkelstein, a tenured professor at Muhlenberg College, has been put on administrative leave for tweeting about the Nakba, posting responses to questions from a student newspaper about the war on Gaza, and explaining that “never again” applies to everyone. She is now pursuing legal action against the school; a GoFundMe campaign set up to support her legal costs reached its goal within 48 hours. Other academics who have been targeted, vilified, slandered or reprimanded for speaking about Palestine before and after October 7 include Rabab Abdulhadi, Joseph Massad, Zareena Grewal, Hatem Bazian, Jasbir Puar and Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian. This is by no means just a U.S. issue, as we see targeting of pro-Palestine groups and academic censorship across Europe and within Israel itself (as in Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s case). In the U.K., for instance, a government minister publicly attacked two academics for their support of Palestine, claiming that they support terrorism — a claim she was eventually forced to retract. These attacks, many of which come from within the academy, are a vivid testimony to the fear rooted in the established power structures and a confirmation of their complicity with the project of racial dehumanization. The media has often distorted pro-Palestine scholars’ words to vilify them, buttressing an assault on academic freedom and exposing our colleagues to abuse and the threat of violence.

Among the latest scholars to be targeted in the media is Texas Tech University assistant professor Jairo I. Fúnez-Flores, who has had several misleading articles written about him in response to his advocacy for Palestinian liberation. For example, Texas Scorecard, a conservative publication, accused Fúnez-Flores of antisemitism while ignoring the ongoing violence of Israel against Palestinians before October 7. Israeli soldiers killed 234 Palestinians in 2023 prior to October 7. Since then, Israel has killed 1 in every 73 Gazans, a population that is almost 50 percent children.

Fúnez-Flores is a leading decolonial scholar whose teaching and research focuses on social theory and curriculum studies. His own lived experience of migration informs his scholarship, which he makes accessible in ways that have garnered attention and respect from both the academic community and the public. His expertise has been recognized in prestigious appointments and publications, including as chair of the American Educational Research Association Decolonial, Postcolonial, and Anti-Colonial Studies in Education Special Interest Group and co-editor of the book series Decolonization and Social Worlds. It’s no coincidence that scholars from marginalized communities, such as Fúnez-Flores, who already face discrimination in academia, are easy targets for those who seek to limit academic freedom and anti-colonial education. The corporate university itself is part and parcel of settler-colonial society.

The November shooting of three Palestinian college students in Burlington, Vermont, illustrates how quickly violent rhetoric can lead to physical violence.

By labeling Fúnez-Flores’s criticisms of Israel as “antisemitic,” these media attacks deny the fact, underlined by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, that “criticisms of Israel and Zionism are not inherently or inevitably anti-Jewish. All states, movements and ideologies should be scrutinized, and all forms of injustice denounced.” Since October 7, Jewish groups across the world have stood with Palestinians to oppose Israel’s murderous campaign. The targeting of anti-Zionist Jews and allies for standing with Palestine, often by non-Jewish figures, is an actual form of antisemitism when it conflates all Jews with Israel, as anti-Zionist Jews, including many survivors of the Holocaust, have made clear. The fight for Palestinian freedom is also a fight against antisemitism and all forms of racism and coloniality.

Just as conflating all Jews with Israel is antisemitic, the dehumanization of Palestinians in response to the Hamas-led actions of October 7 is equally damning. Moreover, the framing of a genocide as a “war,” when Israel’s targets have included schools, hospitals, mosques and churches, and an overwhelming number of the victims have been children and even newborn babies, is unconscionable. Whitewashing the systematic elimination of a people under the guise of war is unacceptable. A broad cross section of the academic and civil community has stated that what is happening in Palestine is not a “war,” a term that implies a semblance of parity, but an asymmetrical assault on the very fabric of the Palestinian people’s existence. Schools, hospitals, places of faith — sanctuaries of life — are not “collateral damage”; they are deliberate targets in a campaign of annihilation. To justify such atrocities under the pretext of “conflict” and “war” is to abandon all pretense of morality and embrace complicity in genocide.

Hyperscrutinizing scholars who speak out about oppression and ethnic cleansing in Gaza by misrepresenting their words, as news outlets have done with Fúnez-Flores and others, puts not only their careers but also their bodies in harm’s way. This vilification feeds into right-wing paranoia and hate, which can endanger scholars, particularly ones who are racially marginalized. The media outlets that provide platforms for these smear campaigns are irresponsible and neglect to consider the safety of the individuals they smear. As marginalized scholars or those who have spoken out against discrimination in the past have discovered, there are few or no policies in place to protect scholars from media attacks. Through their inaction, corporate universities are complicit in silencing scholars, which goes against the “free speech” tenets that universities claim to champion. The root of corporate universities’ indifference or selective outrage/punishment is their desire to protect their own, often questionable, financial interests, rather than the scholars who speak truth to power. This perpetuates harmful practices, social injustices and in cases such as the one in question, the justification and defense of a genocide.

The November shooting of three Palestinian college students in Burlington, Vermont, illustrates how quickly violent rhetoric can lead to physical violence. There are multiple examples of dangerous rhetoric and threats in the replies on X (formerly Twitter) to stories about Fúnez-Flores. The scholarly community needs to reckon with the threatening comments left by readers in the comment sections associated with the articles published about Fúnez-Flores — comments like “I’m seriously thinking of arm (sic) myself. . . . The fake race war, invasion of illegal aliens, defund the police and climate lunatics are but some of the factors taking us down the road to anarchy . . . but this shit is getting too real people.” Academia has always been a battleground, but we are in danger of its violence becoming all too real.

This hyperscrutiny of Fúnez-Flores and other scholars who are vocal in their support for a liberated Palestine is meant to intimidate and silence them. It sets a dangerous precedent when news outlets take words and phrases out of context because those actions can lead to physical harm beyond the intended character assassination. It’s an unethical approach to journalism that launches ad hominem attacks and smear campaigns on scholars for their objection to U.S. and Israeli governmental actions that have killed over 32,000 people in Gaza.

In response to the targeting of Fúnez-Flores, scholars around the world have rallied to support him as a leading voice in decolonial studies and an advocate for oppressed and marginalized people globally. A petition in his support amassed more than 1,000 signatures in just over 24 hours and over 2,000 in total from scholars, students and the public around the world supporting him and urging Texas Tech University to protect his unassailable right to free speech. A colleague also set up a GoFundMe to assist with legal funds. Within a few days, the fund reached its goal, which is a testimony to the power of Fúnez-Flores’s voice against oppression.

It seems both deliberate and strategic that many of the smear articles targeting scholars expressing support for Palestine have used their advocacy on this issue to criticize the hiring of faculty of color and even the entire field of decolonial studies or of critical race and ethnic studies etc. Attacks on individual scholars should be seen as part of an ongoing assault on these fields by the right that has resulted in the banning of courses, books (including books they haven’t read), curricula and even student groups in several states. Make no mistake, these are also attacks on higher education writ large.

As Audre Lorde wrote, “The machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.” Silence is complicity, and we would do an injustice to humanity by saying nothing about an ongoing genocide.

Note: Additional contributors who played a supporting role in the creation of this article include Alana Lentin, Ph.D., Western Sydney University; Erik Wade, Ph.D., SUNY Oswego; Sarah Brazil, Ph.D., University of Geneva; Diego Ballestero, Ph.D., Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn; Mohamed Abdou, Ph.D., Columbia University; Margo Hendricks, Emerita, Ph.D., University of California, Santa Cruz; and Amy Fuller, Ph.D., University of Nottingham.

We have 5 days to raise $39,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.