The Israel-Hamas War Affirms the Need for Institutional Neutrality

December 28, 2023 3 min read

Khoa Sands ‘26

Campus free speech has rarely been as salient as in the past months. The Israel-Hamas War has supercharged campus activists and the ongoing debate on free speech and the mission of the university. On December 6th, the presidents of Harvard, UPenn, and M.I.T. testified at a disastrous House hearing where they seemed to be unable to take a position against calling for the genocide of Jews. Alumni, students, faculty, and donors were outraged. Four days later, the President of UPenn, Liz Magill, resigned and calls have been growing for the resignation of Claudine Gay, President of Harvard. In the background of this affair has been a series of pro-Palestine protests at university campuses across the country, often crossing the boundary into open anti-semitism. In such an environment, it is hard to feel welcome as a Jewish student.

However, the university presidents were correct in a sense: it is perilous to punish political speech, even when that speech is abhorrent. But so long as such speech does not constitute a “true threat” or incitement of imminent violence, it should not be suppressed. In response to campus protests, left-leaning outlets have begun to preach the merits of free speech and even institutional neutrality. The great irony of this situation is that so many have begun to discover the merits of free speech now – when the issue is anti-semitism on the left – who had no such qualms about punishing right-leaning students and faculty for expressing conservative viewpoints. Just remember Kyle Kashuv, the Parkland shooting survivor and gun rights activist who had his Harvard admission rescinded over racist comments made at age 16. The correct path forward would be for universities to acknowledge the hypocrisy they have perpetrated and pledge no more double standards. 

As an early adopter of the Chicago Principles, Princeton has robust protections for free speech on paper. However, the university administration has been reluctant to adopt a policy of institutional neutrality. Over the past several months, a handful of pro-Palestine protests have occurred on campus. In light of the charged atmosphere, the administration’s aversion towards institutional neutrality may be growing. Dean Jamal of SPIA has expressed an alternative vision, in which the universities role is to foster intelligent debate. President Eisgruber has also, over time, developed a vague alternative, termed “institutional restraint.” In the aftermath of the December 6th hearing, Eisgruber issued a statement strongly defending campus free speech and acknowledging the need to “support our students.” These policies, though well-intentioned, fail to establish necessary guardrails and protections for dissident speech. For students affected by the war, institutional neutrality can seem callous and uncaring.

This aversion to institutional neutrality   is due to the high stakes of the conflict. Both sides accuse the other of advocating genocide. In a case so extreme, how can one be neutral? Either we stand against genocide or not – the decision, it would seem, should be simple. Of course, it is not. Genocide, like “fascist” is a word so overused its meaning has become far too contentious for an accusation of “genocide” to settle debate. Supporters of Israel would disagree with the notion that Israel is conducting genocide against Palestinians and point out the genocidal impulse that many see behind phrases like “from the river to the sea”; supporters of the Palestinians disagree with that characterization and claim Israel is committing genocide. 

But who decides what is right and true? If the university were to take a stand on the issue, someone or something would have to determine what claim is true. Who would we trust to make that decision? Refusing to take an institutional stance on the issue does not deny objective truth; rather, it acknowledges epistemological humility and the correct role of the university as a “home and sponsor of critics” not a critic in itself. A goal of pragmatic political thought is to acknowledge pluralism without accepting relativism. Princeton’s response to the Israel-Hamas War thus far has been primarily civil   – a rarity at top universities. Princeton can continue to be an example for other universities by adopting a policy of Institutional neutrality. To affirm the inclusive pluralism of the campus community, we must recognize that Princeton is a home for all critics dedicated to the pursuit of truth. 

 

Khoa Sands ‘26, a PFS Writing Fellow, is the President of the Senate of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society and a Vice President of the Princeton Human Values Forum.


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