Students and pro-Palestinian activists face police

Students and pro-Palestinian activists face police as they gather outside of Columbia University to protest the university’s stance on Israel on April 18, 2024 in New York City.

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Academia's Compradors of Genocide

We are now seeing the comprador class in action as the presidents of Columbia, NYU, Yale, and other universities serve ruling-class interests by trying to quash student protests aimed at stopping the genocide in Gaza.

I once listened to a colleague rail against the million-dollar salaries paid to some university presidents and chancellors. As he saw it, such salaries were grossly wasteful; it would be possible, he argued, to find people willing and able to do the same work, just as well, for far less pay. He was right, of course. But the point of those high salaries, I said, is not really to attract rare talent. The point is to create class identification with business elites and wealthy donors, and to ensure complicity with their desires.

University administrators whose allegiance is bought in this way constitute a comprador class. A “comprador,” in political theory, is a member of a colonized group who abets the colonizer, against the interests of his or her own people, in exchange for wealth, privilege, and local power. We are now seeing this comprador class in action, as its members—the presidents of Columbia, NYU, Yale, and other universities—serve ruling-class interests by trying to quash student protests aimed at stopping the genocide underway in Gaza.

Minouche Shafik, president of Columbia University, is the most visible representative of the category. She obediently accepted a summons from grandstanding MAGA politicians on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and in her testimony sold out pro-Palestinian students and faculty, accepting committee members’ spurious claims that these students and faculty are antisemitic and should be purged. Shafik offered no defense of free speech or academic freedom, and upon her return to campus deployed police to tear down a peaceful protest encampment by pro-Palestinian students.

What’s going on, in short, is that institutional authority and state power are being deployed to silence Americans who object not only to Israel’s brutality, but also to U.S. support for Israel as an outpost of imperialism in the Middle East.

Despite her craven performance, Shafik was criticized by committee members—Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), Jim Banks (R-Ind.)—for being insufficiently vigorous in quashing pro-Palestinian voices on the Columbia campus. For this failure, Stefanik and other lawmakers insisted that Shafik follow the pattern set by Harvard’s Claudine Gay and Penn’s Liz Magill and resign her post. The treatment of these university presidents illustrates how the comprador arrangement works: You get rewarded only as long as you keep the natives under control. If you can’t manage this task, you will be replaced.

Other university presidents who as yet still enjoy the perks of collaboration have been put on notice, and are falling in line. Peaceful protest encampments—efforts that symbolically express support for the Palestinian people and opposition to the genocide that they are suffering at the hands of Israel and the U.S.—have been shut down by administrators at Columbia, NYU, Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Texas, Emory, and other schools (the list is growing daily). This is such an unhinged overreaction that even the police have wondered at times, when called upon to arrest peaceful protesters, what is going on.

What’s going on, in short, is that institutional authority and state power are being deployed to silence Americans who object not only to Israel’s brutality, but also to U.S. support for Israel as an outpost of imperialism in the Middle East. It is popular opposition to the human damage caused by U.S. imperialism, as well as to the enormous military spending needed to sustain it, that threatens capitalist-class interests. The charge of antisemitism, wielded to discredit protesters seeking divestment from Israel and an end to Israeli violence, is a smoke screen. It is a propaganda tactic that turns Zionist victimizers into victims, deflects attention from the horrors being perpetrated in Gaza, and keeps a critique of U.S. imperialism off the table.

The mendacity of the antisemitism charge is further exposed when one notices that many of the students and faculty opposing Israel’s genocide are Jewish, some citing Judaic values as their motivation. Partisans of Zionism must render these students and faculty invisible as Jews, since their involvement belies the claim that the solidarity encampments, freedom chants, and expressions of support for decolonizing Palestine make Jewish students and faculty fear for their safety. No doubt those who support the removal of Palestinians from Palestine might be unsettled by campus solidarity protests. But that’s not because their Jewishness is under attack; it’s because the protests may prompt them to question their anti-Palestinian racism and reflect on the injustice baked into Zionism.

The compradors of academia are losing control. More students, faculty, and other members of campus communities are questioning Israel’s savagery and U.S. backing for this behavior. More Americans in general are recognizing, with no love for Hamas, that Israel has gone too far and is becoming a pariah state. These may be indications that the moral arc of the universe, in regard to Palestine, has begun to bend toward justice. Yet these heartening developments also pose the danger that soft methods of repression—suspending student organizations, canceling commencement speeches, denying venues for films and lectures—will give way, as we are now seeing, to the harder methods of violence, arrest, and jail.

To their credit, student activists are remaining steadfast in their commitment to free speech in the pursuit of justice for Palestinians. More solidarity encampments are popping up. Even more importantly, student activists have wisely said that focusing on their campus struggles is a distraction from the real issue: stopping the genocide in Palestine. That’s what matters now. When university administrators stand in the way, when they follow the implicit or explicit orders of the capitalist class they serve, they become compradors in genocide—a role that history will record to their shame.

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