Tuesday, May 21, 2024

For years, conservatives have struggled to persuade American voters that the right-wing tilt of higher education is not only wrong but dangerous. Universities and their students, they’ve argued, have been increasingly clenched by suffocating ideologies — political correctness in one decade, overweening “social justice” in another, “woke-ism” most recently — that shouldn’t be dismissed as academic fads or harmless zeal. The validation they have sought seemed to finally arrive this fall, as campuses convulsed with protests against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and hostile, sometimes violent, rhetoric toward Jews. It came to a head last week on Capitol Hill, as the presidents of three elite universities struggled to answer a question about whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate school rules, and Republicans asserted that outbreaks of campus antisemitism were a symptom of the radical ideas they had long warned about. On Saturday, amid the fallout, one of those presidents, M. Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, resigned. For Republicans, the rise of antisemitic speech and the timid responses of some academic leaders presented a long-sought opportunity to flip the political script and cast liberals or their institutions as hateful and intolerant. “What I’m describing is a grave danger inherent in assenting to the race-based ideology of the radical left,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina, at the hearing, adding, “Institutional antisemitism and hate are among the poison fruits of your institution’s cultures.”

The potency of the critique was underscored by how many Democrats joined the attack.

The three college presidents were denounced by a spokesman for President Biden. He was echoed by other Democratic officials, like Pennsylvania’s governor, Josh Shapiro, who joined calls for Ms. Magill’s firing. Some prominent business leaders with liberal leanings said they had failed to understand what was really happening in higher education. “For a long time i said that antisemitism, particularly on the american left, was not as bad as people claimed,” wrote Sam Altman, head of the artificial intelligence firm OpenAI and a major Democratic donor, on X. “i’d like to just state that i was totally wrong.”

Several prominent Republicans began to embrace an antisemitic, race-based ideology of their own: so-called replacement theory, which holds that Western elites, sometimes manipulated by Jews, want to replace and disempower white Americans, in part by encouraging unfettered immigration. The theory has helped inspire several mass shootings in the United States in recent years, even as echoes of its central tenets become more common in mainstream Republican politics.

Controversies around antisemitism may fuel further Republican efforts to defund and restrict public universities, particularly where the G.O.P. dominates state legislatures. One leading Republican presidential contender, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, won a following among conservatives with incessant attacks on diversity programs and the teaching of left-wing theories of racism at Florida public universities.

House Republicans have begun an investigation into disciplinary procedures and learning at the three institutions, which will unfold over the coming months. Both Dr. Gay of Harvard and Ms. Magill of Penn have apologized for their answers in the hearing. At M.I.T., the governing board issued a statement endorsing Dr. Kornbluth, saying she had its “full and unreserved support” and had “done excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hate.”

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