Pro-Palestinean demonstration at Columbia University.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march in solidarity with two Columbia University student groups which were recently banned from campus for their support of Palestine, November 15, 2023, outside of the gates of Columbia University in New York City, New York.

(Photograph: Andrew Lichtenstein/ Corbis via Getty Images)

Israel’s War on Gaza Has Become a ‘Stress Test’ for Academic Freedom

Universities must find a way to create brave spaces where difficult questions are encouraged, not silenced.

As the daughter of a Syrian political exile, I never took my right to political dissent and free speech for granted. When my father left Damascus, Syria, in 1979, he narrowly escaped death. On the night of his wedding that summer, as Hafez Assad’s ruling Ba’ath Party had begun its violent crackdown on political dissidents, some of my father’s college friends were rounded up, never to be seen again. My parents fled the country the next day, eventually arriving in the U.S., where my father was accepted into a medical residency program. As the Syrian government’s crackdown worsened in the 1980s, my father’s hope of ever seeing his country again slipped into the abyss of impossibility.

The right to political dissent and free speech have been central to my upbringing in the U.S. Growing up in Northwest Florida, my father taught us to cherish the freedom that America gave us—the freedom to freely speak our minds without fear of reprisal, the freedom to critique the government without losing our job, and the freedom to fully practice our faith. I cherished my freedom of speech as foundational to my American identity.

In the post 9-11 climate, at the height of America’s wars in the Middle East, I never felt afraid to critique my government when it led our country into two wars, one in Afghanistan and a second in Iraq. In college, I joined a coalition of anti-war activists, and we mobilized one of the largest student walkouts at Florida State University in protest of the U.S. war in Iraq. My activism in the anti-war movement was paramount to my college experience; it introduced me to the strategic skills of advocacy, community building, creating alliances, and speaking truth to power. These experiences were foundational to my academic trajectory, which led me to pursue a graduate degree in contemporary Arab studies at Georgetown University.

Tactics of fearmongering, mischaracterization, and bullying to silence dissent should have no place on American college campuses.

I could not imagine my college experience at the height of America’s War on Terror in 2003 without the freedom to express my opposition to my country’s policies. Yet today’s students are facing a drastically different political environment. An alarming trend of silencing free speech on college campuses threatens to erode the civil liberties that have been at the heart of the American college experience. The current conflict has become a “stress test” for academic freedom.

As the Biden administration involves our country in another war in the Gaza Strip, through massive financial and military support to Israel, there is an orchestrated political campaign to mobilize support for Biden’s war policies and stifle political dissent. Universities have come under pressure from politicians and donors alike to silence pro-Palestinian voices. From the State University System of Florida to George Washington University and Columbia University, college administrators have shut down pro-Palestinian student groups that have existed on their college campuses for years, even decades.

The media has always played a critical role in manufacturing consent for war. By serving as a platform for the mischaracterization of Palestinian student groups as terrorist sympathizers, the media’s framing is also complicit. It silences groups whose anti-war position is an essential voice to hear in the current political climate. Such framing perpetuates the narrative that those calling for a cease-fire are villains in this ideological war. The irony is that anti-war groups are calling for the protection—not destruction—of human life. Worse, this inaccurate framing subjects Palestinian groups and their allies to violence and assault, such as the shooting of three Palestinian college students in Vermont. Although all three survived, one of them, Hisham Awartani, is now paralyzed for life, at the age of 20.

Tactics of fearmongering, mischaracterization, and bullying to silence dissent should have no place on American college campuses. Neither should rhetoric that incites hatred or violence against individuals. The rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia around the country is deeply disturbing. Yet silencing dissent to war does not help the cause of anti-racism; it helps the cause of war.

As an educator, I am concerned with the long-term consequences of emotional, knee-jerk reactions to the current ideological war unfolding in the United States. University administrators—and others – have an ethical responsibility to distinguish between rhetoric of hatred—which is unacceptable—and legitimate critiques of a government’s policies. By smearing those who critique Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war hawk approach to Gaza as antisemitic or pro-terrorist, we shut down debate and critical dialogue; we diminish any possibility of finding shared common values that can become the start of complex, global problem-solving.

As bastions of academic freedom, college campuses should not cave in to ideological or political pressure during times of conflict. Rather, universities must find a way to create brave spaces where difficult questions are encouraged, not silenced; where intellectual curiosity is embraced, not stifled; and where students of diverse backgrounds are given equal opportunity to share their narratives and voice their concerns. Unless we do so, we betray our responsibility to cultivate a human capacity for global problem solving. On a personal level, my failure to advocate for academic freedom would betray my father’s sacrifice of leaving his repressive, yet beloved homeland so his children could live free of fear and intimidation.

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