During recent hearings on Capitol Hill, three university presidents discussed antisemitism on their campuses with members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Reports inaccurately suggesting that these leaders refused to condemn calls for genocide against Jews have fanned widespread but misplaced outrage.
Context is everything if we want to understand these hearings and why they matter. The Republican members of Congress holding the hearings are denouncing the supposed failures of university presidents in combating antisemitism. Yet they themselves have failed to condemn antisemitic acts, both in their own districts and from their political allies. And actions speak louder than words.
Some responses to the hearings portray the university presidents as callous, timid or amoral sycophants of a woke liberalism that has run amok. The truth is that they were clueless, not callous. When President Claudine Gay of Harvard University distinguished between speech that is offensive and speech that is harassment, she was right. Harassment is a specific offense that depends not only on what is said, but to whom, and in what context.
While this answer is factually correct, it is also inadequate. The real offense of these university presidents was that they didn’t offer answers that were compassionate as well as correct in response to the questions they were asked. And they have apologized for this.
The GOP has not always been such a vocal opponent of antisemitism. Take a recent antisemitic crime in Austin. In October 2021, Congregation Beth Israel was attacked by an arsonist who said that he was motivated by a hatred of Jews. He has been sentenced to 10 years in prison. The sanctuary of the synagogue was so heavily damaged by smoke that it will take several years to repair.
House Reps. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat, and Michael McCaul, a Republican, condemned the attack. None of the other five members of Congress who represented Austin at the time issued a statement. Condemning the attempted burning of a house of worship by a self-avowed antisemite would seem like an easy call, especially for people as concerned about antisemitism as the House GOP claims to be.
Speaking up against expressions of hatred for Jews now might suggest that the GOP has always defended them, even though the record arguably says otherwise.
We shouldn’t fall for this.
The struggles in university communities to foster free speech at a difficult time in our country are a symptom, not a cause, of similar difficulties in families, faith communities and businesses across our country. And the lack of urgency from lawmakers in response to conflicts over free speech outside of universities, not to mention the antisemitic words and actions of some of former President Donald Trump’s associates, suggests that universities are the real targets of these hearings. Antisemitism is simply a means to an end.
Unfortunately, nuance is fundamental to free speech policies, but it often seems extinct in our nation’s politics. This is why the Harvard president’s refusal to conflate hate speech that is harassment with hate speech that is morally objectionable was met with outrage on Capitol Hill, but with statements of support from over 500 Harvard faculty members and from the Harvard Corporation.
Universities are in the business of studying nuance and understanding how apparently small differences, like the definition of “harassment,” can create huge real-world effects. This is difficult in large part because the same small difference can legitimately mean different things to different people.
Politics as it unfolded in these hearings on antisemitism is about something else entirely. Outrage can feel satisfying, but it won’t make people’s lives — in our universities and beyond — any better or safer. For that, we need facts, compassion and nuance.
In the recent hearings, university presidents offered two of the three, while politicians offered zero. The presidents weren’t perfect, but at least they get a passing grade.
Deborah Beck is a professor of classics at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Messenger.