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USA: Politics, Media and Academia

Developments in the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia especially over the past few days are particularly relevant
01:46 AM Dec 16, 2023 IST | Vivek Katju
usa  politics  media and academia
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Following Hamas’s brutal, bloody and horrendous attack on Israel on October 7, and Israel’s severe and continuing military response which has led to over 17000 deaths in Gaza, campuses of some of the major American universities have witnessed dissensions and turbulence on Arab-Israel issues. These contestations in prestigious Ivy League universities have not only been limited to academic discussions; students on either side of the Arab-Israeli divide have complained of bullying, harassment and intimidation by the other side. University managements have been put under great strain to ensure that their traditions of free speech and academic freedoms do not cross the boundaries of civility. They have also had to deal with the deep influence exercised by the Jewish lobby in America in politics, media and academia.

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In this context, developments in the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia especially over the past few days are particularly relevant. They expose the underbelly of the American University system and the unseen hands which control its culture. They also illustrate far from being a bastion of academic independence, when push comes to shove, it falls prey to outside pressures. It is seldom that these unseen hands become public but, in this case, they did and forced the University’s President Elizabeth Magill to resign. After Magill announced that she will step down from her job, Scott Bok, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University also decided to leave his position.

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According to reports in respected American media outlets some of the principal donors of the University became furious with Magill for not naming Hamas a terrorist group after its October 7 attack. They were also upset at her taking, what they perceived, to be an equivocal position on the Israel-Hamas war. It would seem, though, that their reservations against Magill predated the Hamas attack. Magill had permitted a ‘Palestine Writes Literature Festival’ to be organized on the campus in September. She disregarded the objections from Jewish groups and powerful lobbies which asserted that some of the prposed participants held antisemitic views. While denouncing antisemitism Magill held that the University’s commitment to “open expression” and “academic freedom” needed to upheld. The Festival went on for three days. Apart from culture it focused on the condition of the Palestinians who were displaced from their homes. It is noteworthy that the Festival was organized at a time when interest in the Palestinians and in what is referred to as the ‘Palestinian Cause’ had considerably waned throughout the Arab world. That position has changed after October 7 and the Israeli response to the Hamas attack.

The Jewish lobby’s opposition to the Festival indicates that Jewish groups and their sympathizers monitor the media, academia and politics very closely, especially in America, on matters relating to Israel. They seek to ensure that not only discussions on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians are limited so that Israeli actions are not probed. They also seek to conflate criticism of Israeli foreign policy positions and political approaches towards its own Arab population with antisemitism. The Jewish lobby is powerful, well-funded and pro-active. Indeed, its opposition to the University allowing that the Palestine Writes Literature Festival proves its influence.

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The donors, politicians and the anti-Magill group in the University got great ammunition against her because of her ambivalent response to a question by Congresswomen Elise Stefanik during a Congressional hearing. Stefanik asked if calling for the genocide of Jews constituted harassment or bullying. Instead, of clearing denouncing genocide or a call for genocide by anyone, at any time and at any place Magill proceeded to give a convoluted response. She said that it was “context dependent”. Magill is, as her University of Pennsylvania biodata notes, a “legal scholar” with expertise in constitutional and administrative law. Her response was legalistic with its focus, as she later admitted on the boundaries of free speech. While such an approach may have been fine in a court of law or in a purely legal conference it was way out of place in the political setting of a Congressional hearing. Consequently, she lost support of the Board of Trustees and the politicians. She, therefore, resigned before she could be asked to leave. Stefanik exulted after Magill resigned showing how intensely political the affairs of the University of Pennsylvania had become.

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Magill’s case shows that even in America there is no such thing as complete academic freedom. This is ironic because the Americans have always been in the forefront of urging the world of the need for freedom of expression as a basic human right. Of course, in communist states as in China and in those with a national ideology as in some of India’s other neighbours, all centres of learning are tightly controlled so that students are kept away from dangerous thoughts. This is harmful because centres of learning have to be places for the generation of ideas, of contestation of different opinions and have to be in the lead for social change, transformation and progress. Naturally, they cannot be centres for the promotion of violence or for the promotion of extremist ideologies which lead to violence. And, ideally, there should be the least interference from either the state or from behind the scenes from donors, as in the case of the University of Pennsylvania.

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All this is also contemporary India. University campuses should be places for the fostering of new knowledge in every area, of intense debates and discussions on issues concerning the country. Naturally, all this has to be in an environment of peace.

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