On July 4, 2020, a few hundred of my then-colleagues at Princeton University signed an open letter endorsing a number of student demands made in the name of “anti-racism” and proposing such alarming policies as the creation of a faculty committee to police “racist behaviors.” Four days later, I published a lone dissent in which I acknowledged the signatories’ right to express their views. I also suggested—and a month later, Conor Friedersdorf came to a similar conclusion—that most of them probably didn’t believe all the things to which they were putting their name or maybe hadn’t even read the document.
Jump to October 7, 2023. In the days after Hamas invaded Israel and committed unspeakable acts of brutality, I was pleasantly surprised that Princeton faculty didn’t issue another such letter. Perhaps, I thought, they had learned that it was unwise to support groups like Princeton’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which had scheduled a pro-Hamas “teach-in” for the same time as a previously announced vigil for the Israelis whom Hamas had slaughtered and issued a screed blaming Israel for Hamas’s evil.
On October 22, however, the Daily Princetonian published “An open letter from Princeton faculty and students in solidarity with Gaza.” This new letter has so far received 664 signatures from people with Princeton affiliations, 69 of them university employees.
Because this letter was not published in the heat of some traumatic moment, instead appearing more than two weeks after the surprise Hamas attacks on Israel, there is little chance anyone signed it without understanding what’s at stake. The fact that it must have been produced with “care” makes its contents especially horrible: far worse, in my view, than the knee-jerk reaction of a bunch of college kids.
After beginning with a brief expression of “bereave[ment]” for “the tragic loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives,” the signatories make clear where they stand: “The ongoing Israeli assault upon the Gaza Strip must be stopped.” They say nothing about the actions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and mention Hamas only once. They also amplify misinformation about the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital bombing.
As in 2020, I defend my former colleagues’ right to say vile things. In the recent words of Nadine Strossen and Pamela Paresky, “even antisemites deserve free speech.”
The signatories of the new open letter, however, seem to be under the delusion that the Princeton administration might punish them for expressing their views. They claim that the present “political environment . . . serv[es] to justify rising threats to and criminalization of free speech and academic freedom around the demand to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories.” And they “demand continuous and ironclad guarantees of the freedom of speech for our faculty but especially for our students.”
Coming from them, an interest in freedom of expression and academic freedom is pretty rich. Many of the same people also signed the July 2020 letter and will not join nonpartisan organizations like the Academic Freedom Alliance (which I helped found) or support the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression because—and I must stress this—they do not actually believe in free speech or academic freedom. In fact, their presence on campus helps explain the dismal state of free speech at Princeton.
Did they defend free speech when, during the 2021–22 academic year, the administration leveraged Title IX policies to grant pro-Palestine students “no-communication orders” against Jewish student-journalists, effectively barring the Jewish students from writing about campus conflicts over the Middle East? (For the shocking story, read current undergraduate Danielle Shapiro’s searing piece in the Wall Street Journal.) No, they did not. So much for “ironclad guarantees of the freedom of speech . . . especially for our students.”
Did they defend free speech when protesters loudly interfered with a lecture this past March on the (yes, controversial) proposals for judicial reform in Israel given by Ronen Shoval, an Israeli who was spending a year as a lecturer at Princeton (and has now returned to his country to fight in the war)? No, they did not. Indeed, three tenured professors (one of whom signed both the July 2020 and the Gaza letters) took to the pages of the Daily Princetonian to denounce him, suggesting, as one put it, that Shoval has an “affinity to fascist views.”
What these faculty members do seem to care about is the freedom to express themselves in ways that many of us consider anti-Semitic. In February, for instance, a virulent young anti-Semite, the Palestinian activist-cum-“influencer” Mohammed El-Kurd, delivered a named lecture on campus by invitation of the English department. The acting chair of the department (who signed both the July 2020 and the Gaza letters) defended El-Kurd and his lecture, stating that “[t]he commitment of the English Department is to making sure that his voice can be heard.”
Then, earlier this fall, a Princeton professor of Near Eastern studies, Satyel Larson, assigned a tendentious book that claims the Israeli government intentionally maims Palestinians and harvests their organs. I am in unhappy agreement with Myles McKnight’s levelheaded assessment that Larson was within her rights to have her students read the book. It is telling, though, that a case of what looks for all the world like anti-Semitism could mobilize 37 faculty and staff members—together with over 350 students, alumni, and what one might call “allies”—to sign an open letter in August “in solidarity with Satyel Larson and in support of academic freedom.”
Here is the situation: free speech and academic freedom are vital for progressive extremists, but those who sign such letters generally refuse the same rights to those with whom they disagree. As one Princeton classics professor, a lead signatory of all three open letters, informed the incoming freshman class in August 2021, what most of us call free speech is apparently meant in “the masculinized, bravado sense.” What is actually needed, he said, is “a free speech and an intellectual discourse that is flexed to one specific aim, and that aim is the promotion of social justice, and an anti-racist social justice at that.” Obviously, this is not a call for free speech or for discourse, intellectual or otherwise.
Responding to the open letter of July 2020 led, undeniably, to the highly unusual revocation of my tenure. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that even as sizable crowds in prominent spaces on campus chant “long live the intifada” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” no Princeton faculty member has publicly called out those who signed the new letter “in solidarity with Gaza.” Not surprising, but very sad.