A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Sixers home opener. Great seats. Who needs Harden? Screw him. Maxey went off.
Anyway, something happened there that awakened me from the distraction that is my hoops obsession. Remember, this was October 29, not three weeks since Hamas’ brutal rampage into Israel, in which they killed, maimed and set fire to peace-loving citizens while ecstatically shouting “Allahu Akbar!” God is Most Great.
In the weeks after that horrific attack, our institutions — especially our elite universities — struggled to find their voice. Moral confusion abounded. Penn President Liz Magill’s first response, you’ll recall, came under fire because she didn’t even use the word “terrorism.” Bullying billionaire donors called for her firing, and pro-Palestinian student groups who too often cross the line into being pro-Hamas joined in the cacophony of complaint.
Magill’s subsequent statements — like the announcement of, essentially, multiple task forces to combat antisemitism — had the feel of placation. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell and other elite institutions have also sounded, at best, flat-footed and, at worst, morally obtuse. Was it so hard to say the reasonable thing? To balance full-throated condemnation of Islamic jihadism with support for peace-loving Palestinians, while recommitting to values like free speech and pluralism?
“We can do two things at the same time. We can be morally outraged at brutality. And we can try to understand what leads to it, where it comes from, what explains it, and so on. In college, that’s what we’re doing. This is why we study.”— Ezzedine Fishere, an Egyptian novelist and academic
The Sixers may not have the backdoor play completely down just yet, but on opening night they got their statement on Middle East terrorism just right. “Tonight, there are more than 220 people — including babies, children and grandparents — being held hostage by Hamas, including 11 Americans,” announcer Matt Cord intoned before the game. “We fly these flags to represent these hostages and pray for their safe return, for the security of all innocent people in the region, and safety of all in our own communities in the face of rising antisemitism and Islamophobia.”
Score one for the Sixers’ Comms and DEI teams — maybe they could counsel our elite universities as to how to succinctly say something that every thinking person will hear and nod their head to in agreement?
Our best and brightest
After much criticism, Magill ended up giving an excellent speech before her Board of Trustees that did strike all the right notes. It bears reading here. She condemned terrorism and had a human, empathetic tone toward all the victims of this war’s collateral damage while defining the university space as the last, best hope for the “free exchange of ideas” — which includes the expression of ideas that offend.
Still, I’ve got to cop to a longstanding bias: Whenever a leader announces a series of task forces, it’s usually an attempt to appear to be doing something. Meantime, masked pro-Palestinian students at Penn are protesting, and what’s striking is just how ill-informed much of their rhetoric is. Really, these are our best and brightest? The best they can do is “Zionism is racism’” “Penn funds Palestinian genocide’” “From West Philly to Palestine, occupation is a crime’” “Liz Magill is complicit in genocide’” “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and ”10,000 murdered by Israeli occupation since October 7”?
I take a backseat to no one in condemning Israel’s settlements as not only an impediment to peace, but a provocation. However, none of these chants are remotely true. (And they naively take Hamas’ word on the number of Palestinian fatalities, which, even if accurate, includes at least a few thousand of the very terrorists who attacked Israel and beheaded babies.)
At Penn, we’ve had student Tara Tarawneh, who proclaimed herself “empowered and happy” by the October 7 attacks, footage of which New York Congressman Ritchie Torres responded to on X: “In what appears to be a call for violence, she tells the crowd to ‘hold that feeling in your hearts’ and ‘bring it to the streets.’ This is not a patient at a psychiatric hospital. This is a student at an Ivy League.”
Then there’s the Penn professor and medical doctor Mohammed Alghamdi, showing up with his own set of scissors to instruct students how to cut down posters of Israeli hostages. (One wishes Paulie from Queens had been around to introduce himself to the good doctor.) Or how about the Penn librarian, also caught tearing down hostage photos?
Getting it right
All of it adds up to one unanswered question: Is anyone teaching these people? You know that this space is committed to First Amendment absolutism, so this is not an argument for shutting anybody up. Just for making them smarter. Isn’t that how universities should react at times like these? You know, by seizing on teachable moments?
That’s what Dartmouth College did, when two professors — one Jewish, one Arab — didn’t wait for a series of administration statements before doing what teachers do. On the night of October 7, Susannah Heschel, chair of Dartmouth’s Jewish studies department, and Tarek El-Ariss, chair of its Middle Eastern studies program, shared an anguished phone call and agreed to hold a series of public forums featuring professors from Israel, Lebanon and Egypt.
At the first one, a student suggested that Hamas’ attack and Israel’s retaliation demanded moral outrage, not academic discussion. “We can do two things at the same time,” said Ezzedine Fishere, an Egyptian novelist and academic. “We can be morally outraged at brutality. And we can try to understand what leads to it, where it comes from, what explains it, and so on. Those are not mutually exclusive things. In college, that’s what we’re doing. This is why we study.”
This is why we study. Penn’s at work on something similar to the Dartmouth approach, though details are still sketchy. This week, a spring 2024 lecture series, “Jews and the University: Antisemitism, Admissions, Academic Freedom,” was announced, and earlier this month Penn Arts & Sciences launched the “Living the Hard Promise initiative,” a dialogue series among students, combined with faculty symposiums.
“We fly these flags to represent these hostages and pray for their safe return, for the security of all innocent people in the region, and safety of all in our own communities in the face of rising antisemitism and Islamophobia.” — Matt Cord, Sixers announcer.
Given that those scholars in the Quad shouting for a ceasefire seem blissfully unaware that there was a ceasefire up until Hamas broke it on October 7, efforts to educate can’t come soon enough. (This week, Charles Lane wondered in the Washington Post: Where are the calls from the left for Hamas to surrender?)
In a way, the reflexive pro-Palestinian protests on campus can actually be seen as a primal scream for wanting to be taught something. The panoply of protesting groups — Penn Students Against the Occupation, Radical South Asian Collective, Students for the Preservation of Chinatown, Penn Bangla, Police Free Penn, Penn Pakistan Society, Penn Association for Gender Equity, Penn Repro Justice, Penn Philippine Association, Afghan Student Association, Fossil Free Penn, and The Freedom School for Palestine — all seem to make the same intellectual mistake: The crime of moral equivalence.
Yes, occupation in the West Bank (Gaza hasn’t been occupied since 2005, but has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt) is shameful. A provocation. Yes, unlike its predecessor’s, Israel’s Netanyahu government has propped up Hamas, because — like Hamas — it hasn’t truly wanted a partner in peace. Yes, the bombing of the war zone that is Gaza and the footage of the carnage there makes one’s heartbreak. Yes, there’s a complicated history in the region, with two groups with indigenous claims to the same land.
But, again, Hamas didn’t attack because of any of that. Some, like Yuval Noah Harari, author and history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, say Hamas’ attack was a purposeful attempt to prevent the breakthrough in peace Israel and Saudi Arabia were about to strike. Have the protestors heard that argument? Does it change their moral calculus?
Alas, Harari might be giving Hamas too much credit for rational political thought. There’s more evidence that they attacked because they are simply a jihadist death cult, which their original charter explicitly states and which their current leadership attests to. Somewhere, there has to be professors on Penn’s campus who are capable of telling that simple truth, too, no? Because if you’re doing that both-sides thing on this issue, you’re siding with Medievalism over civilization. And universities used to be the place where some of us went to get civilized.
“If you have landed proudly and sanctimoniously on the wrong side of this asymmetry, this vast gulf between savagery and civilization, while marching through the Quad of an Ivy League university wearing yoga pants, I’m not sure it matters whether your moral confusion has anything to do with just hating Jews or whether you’re just an apologist for atrocity,” says the brilliant author and philosopher Sam Harris on his podcast, Making Sense — a must-listen. “The crucial point is, you are dangerously confused about the moral norms that make life in this world worth living.”
Harris reads from a much-talked-about transcript of a phone call made home during the October 7 barbarism by one of the terrorists. It’s chilling:
“Hi, Dad — open my WhatsApp now, and you’ll see all those killed. Look how many I killed with my own hands! Your son killed Jews!”
And his dad says, “May God protect you.”
“Dad, I’m talking to you from a Jewish woman’s phone. I killed her, and I killed her husband. I killed ten with my own hands! Dad, ten with my own hands! Dad, open WhatsApp and see how many I killed, Dad. Open the phone, Dad. I’m calling you on WhatsApp. Open the phone, go. Dad, I killed ten. Ten with my own hands. Their blood is on their hands. [I believe that is a reference to the Quran.] Put Mom on.”
And the father says, “Oh, my son. God bless you!”
“I swear, ten with my own hands. Mother, I killed ten with my own hands!”
And his father says, “May God bring you home safely.”
“Dad, go back to WhatsApp now. Dad, I want to do a live broadcast.”
And the mother now says, “I wish I was with you.”
“Mom, your son is a hero!”
And then, apparently talking to his comrades, he yells, “Kill, kill, kill, kill them.”
Harris’ verdict? “This piece of audio is more than just the worst WhatsApp commercial ever conceived,” he says. “It is a window onto a culture.”
This is what we’re up against, folks — and what the protestors on Penn’s campus don’t see. (Isn’t it funny that the Charlottesville racists hate Jews because they see them as a racial minority, and the Intersectional left hates them because they see them as a White oppressor? Don’t you wish the fascists would get together and get their stories straight?) It’s amazing that it needs to be stated: There is a vast moral difference between holy warriors’ wanton, barbaric killing of those they see as infidels, and Israel’s tragic killing of innocent human shields used by those martyrs to score propaganda points.
The issue is the same as it was on September 12, 2001: The rise of a Medieval sect of jihadis who are intent on obliterating Western values. I was a vehement opponent of the Iraq War, but after 20 years … guess what? Iraq is now a democracy, fledgling and fragile, but a democracy nonetheless. Maybe W wasn’t so stupid after all. After all, here we are, 20 years on, and we find jihad upon us yet again. The world is still a clash of civilizations, and the only way to engage that is through the power of ideas. And — looking at you, Quakers — guess what institution used to specialize in that?
MORE ON THE ISRAEL-HAMAS WARPenn campus, looking at The Button beyond Ben Franklin. Photo by Simon