In what should have proved to be a positive step, a group of Syracuse University (SU) students recently tried to experiment with social media in order to encourage open discussion about racism on their campus, an effort, as it were, to counter the “cancel-culture” that seeks to shut down serious, empirically-based exchanges of ideas and arguments.
But the results should concern anyone who might applaud such an initiative. Far from the desired effects, the initiative gave rise to a wave of activism that further poisoned the University’s intellectual atmosphere, and although the administration did not openly side with the student activists or encourage them, it showed no public support for their victims. Two student-run, SU-branded, social media accounts invited people to (anonymously) recount their painful experiences of racism. In addition to legitimate complaints that identified instances of racism and bigotry, a strong stream of hate speech filled the pages aimed at “Zionists” who were declared genocidal, racist oppressors of the indigenous Palestinian people.
This, it seems, was part of a larger campus-wide campaign to attack anyone insufficiently in line with the Black Lives Matter movement, including SU’s conservative students, who have over this summer been harassed and threatened, in some cases with death, driving out those deemed “open racists.” Some fought back, especially self-defining liberal and conservative Jewish students who both insisted on their right to engage in the conversation over racism and inequities on the Syracuse campus, and to defend Israel. But they were both in the minority, and, more or less, on their own.
Not surprisingly, the activists did not stop at bullying their peers, but went after one of the school’s most openly Zionist faculty member. One post, featured on the day the Instagram accounts went live lamented that “There are professors at SU who are openly Zionist to the point that it hurts Palestinian students…This shit runs deep.”
And how did this Jewish professor allegedly hurt her students? Inflammatory comments and demonstrably false accusations swirled on Instagram and spilled over onto Twitter; students and alum, the vast majority admitting that they never took any of her classes, charged that she engaged in “violence against Arab students,” “promoted the killing of Palestinians,” “discriminated against Arab and Muslim students” and was “pro-genocide.”
Syracuse’s campus newspaper ran an article about the two Black social media sites, promoting its beneficial impact. Nothing, however, was mentioned about the antisemitism or targeting of “openly Zionist professors,” although it did include some disturbing comments about naming and shaming to punish alleged racists. For the creator of one of these sites, those “outed” as alleged racists are deemed “maggots” that need to be exposed to the light. He names certain perps specifically to “hurt” them. For the author of this article, and apparently many others, this crude dehumanizing does not even register.
Were this just scurrilous remarks about one or two professors on Twitter or Instagram, it might be ugly but not devastating. Faculty are often in the public eye and have learned to expect this kind of pushback. But just like the attacks on Harvard’s Steven Pinker and Cornell’s William Jacobson and Princeton’s Joshua Katz and U Penn’s Carlin Romano, it is so much aimed at the named targets, as much as at anyone who might dare follow their lead.
Given the toxic rhetoric of the student-run and SU-branded (complete with the university’s logo and colors) BLM social media campaign, Jewish students (and non-Jewish students who identify as Zionists) at Syracuse increasingly felt unsafe, demoralized, and ostracized. Many in this beleaguered group look for a University-wide statement to dampen the ardor of their denouncers. However, Syracuse has still not issued any public statement condemning these targeted attacks on the Jewish community (or on conservative students for their alleged “evil” identity and viewpoints). Administrators have not publicly addressed the issue of this toxic bigotry, although. SU’s administrators sent out multiple campus-wide emails in support of international students endangered by President Trump’s new ICE directives, now rescinded.
What is happening at Syracuse University is emblematic of what we are likely to see in the months ahead on campuses — much of it now online but spilling over into in-person activism when campuses reopen. Jewish students will be increasingly harassed and marginalized for expressing the Zionist component of their identities. If they want to participate in social justice campaigns, they should not only leave their Zionism at the door, but abandon it completely. Opposing the activism that animates the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign will be defined as genocidal white-supremacist racism.
In light of the recent events described here, SPME calls on the Syracuse University administration to:
- Stand in support of those being bullied for their actual or perceived support of Zionism, Israel, or Jewish self-determination (while it is not their place to get involved in the “scholarly” details of the competing narratives, it is their place to condemn hate speech and outright harassment, whether online or offline).
- Guarantee that those being slandered and harassed have the right and opportunity to defend their views in a legitimate public forum.
- Temper the cancel culture which attempts to suppress the views of ideological opponents, including personal attacks that have as their purpose to expel those with alternate views from the marketplace of ideas.
- Bar anyone claiming to represent SU who practices or promotes current practices of cancel-culture (and that goes for SU alum, too, who in this case were the ringleaders of a manufactured outrage and online mobbing).