November/December 2023Vol. XXXVI No. 2

Standing Together Against Hate: From the River to the Sea, From Gaza to MIT

Michel DeGraff

First things first: Thanks to the students at MIT’s Coalition for Palestine (MIT C4P), especially MIT’s Coalition Against Apartheid (MIT CAA), for the courage and moral clarity in their protests for Palestinian liberation and against the genocide in Gaza, in spite of intimidation near and far, including doxxing by MIT senior faculty.

The steadfast humanism that I’ve observed in MIT students’ anti-genocide vigils and protests – starting on October 13, 2023, with the most recent one on November 9 – have given me hope for the future. I’ve even taken my family, including my five-year-old daughter Èzili, to these protests. She too needs to understand that Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is not an abstract prayer from the past. We too can work to leave the world in a better place than what we were born into.

Though these students have not been perfect in their advocacy (how could students be perfect if we faculty are so far from perfect?), they have risen to this occasion, doing their best to make the world a safer place for all, “from the river to the sea” and “from Gaza to MIT,” as they chant in their rallies. True, some of these chants are controversial, having been linked to “past antisemitic horrors or violent attacks on Israelis.” But, in the specific context of the students’ protests, they are meant as a plea for universal freedom and equal rights in historic Palestine, for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Many students and faculty have written me supportive messages about the aggression against me by faculty colleagues at the MIT Institute faculty meeting of November 15, 2023, when I was expressing my concerns about the MIT administration’s silence about the genocide in Gaza and the impact thereof on our community. I was contrasting the ongoing bombing (that is, war crimes) against hospitals in Gaza with President Kornbluth’s announcement, the day before, of a committee for “Standing together against hate” with a near-exclusive focus on antisemitism, as if MIT were immune to the hatred related to the genocide in Gaza. That’s when I was suddenly interrupted by a faculty member yelling “Enough! Enough lies! . . . Shut up!” Other colleagues wrote invectives on the Zoom chat: “Shame on you,” “I leave with disgust,” “We should not be listening to fake news read by faculty” . . . .

These verbal attacks are nano when compared to the deadly attacks against civilians over decades in Israel and Palestine – and, even, recent attacks in the US against a Palestinian child in Chicago and Palestinian college students in Vermont. Yet the physical aggression by pro-Israel counter-protesters against the MIT CAA students and their allies constitutes violations of MIT policy, if not criminal offenses. In my analysis, these patterns of aggression among MIT faculty and students are part of a larger war on truth, morality and international law, as orchestrated by a powerful propaganda machine in support of Israel’s genocide against Palestinians.

I’m sorry that the casualties of this “war on truth” at MIT have now included these students who, because they truly believe that #AllLivesMatter, including Palestinian lives, are now having to deal with the pain and anguish caused by the campaign against their C4P. In one heart-wrenching email I received one day after this embarrassing faculty meeting, one MIT CAA student asked:

“How can I sit in lectures and take my professors’ words to be true when I know that they cannot even behave themselves with decorum? How can I bring unexpected results and odd data points to my research supervisors when I have witnessed them reject unpopular ideas as ‘disgusting‘? How can I finish manuscripts on [my scientific] research when I know that my university leaders would rather that I ignore the bombardment and starvation of Al-Shifa hospital?” [hyperlinks added]

Here’s some of what I wrote back:

“I’m sorry you have to deal with such pain and anguish. But please note that the MIT faculty, like any other human grouping, have never been homogeneous in our moral beliefs and pedagogical practices. That much was evident at the faculty meeting last Wednesday, November 15, 2023. Consider the bullying and insults there in contrast with faculty’s voices in support of truth and justice [including the role of history and our understanding of intergenerational trauma in our teaching].”

And there are certainly faculty who deplore the genocide in Gaza, and who wish our administration would stop ignoring the Palestinians in our “Standing together against hate.” The November 15, 2023, responses from the Editorial Board of the MIT Faculty Newsletter, alongside the November 14, 2023, “Open Letter from Faculty & Staff Regarding Freedom of Expression and Student Safety at MIT,” and the November 21, 2023, letter to MIT faculty titled “Wiser and more compassionate together,” give me hope that MIT can still do a better job on the right side of this war on truth.

We should also remember that MIT CAA, which is now targeted by the administration, fought against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. Sadly, we recently lost two MIT heroes in that struggle: Prof. Willard Johnson and Prof. Mel King. Together with Prof. Ruth Perry and other faculty, staff, and students, they were steadfast supporters of MIT CAA in successfully pushing MIT to divest from financial holdings in South Africa.

Back then, as now, social justice at MIT was undermined by an administration that’s too often more concerned with the bottom line than with moral rectitude. Back then, the bottom line was investment in South Africa stocks. Today it’s geo-political domination, fossil fuels in the Middle East, financial support from mega donors, etc. I think the administration, as well, can learn from MIT CAA’s history – which, perhaps, can help restore MIT’s moral compass toward an #MITBetterWorld where human lives are not valued according to a warped sense of history or the size of donations to universities.

The same MIT CAA student who emailed me to express distress at the bullying at the MIT faculty meeting on November 15, 2023, also made this remark:

“. . . it does not escape me that you were one of the very few individuals of color to speak at today’s meeting, and unfortunately, a hypothesis that racism and bias played a hand in the hostility directed towards you would be very consistent with my prior experiences with this MIT administration.

To which, I responded:

“Like Arab and Muslim faculty and students who have noticed the administration’s biases against them, we faculty of color at MIT keep noticing, both directly and indirectly, anti-Black racism on the part of the administration as well. So, often, Black faculty, like Arab and Muslim faculty, choose whose walls to bang our heads on. Faculty meetings might be one of those walls that are best avoided.”

In light of recent news of censorship and other attacks on freedom of speech, what happened at that MIT faculty meeting, alongside the events and statements around it, points to the complicity of much of Academia in Israel’s genocide in Palestine!

Language matters, so I use the word “genocide” cautiously. The fact is that even experts at the UN and Israeli scholars consider Palestinians at risk of genocide. At the very least, there’s genocidal intent whose roots go back decades – in this so called “land without people for a people without a land” – and are now well documented, even in mainstream media like the New York Times.

It is with this history in mind that we need to analyze a certain incongruence between, on the one hand, the Jewish students who report feeling threatened by antisemitism and, on the other hand, the Jewish professors who disrupted an Institute-wide faculty meeting to verbally harass a senior faculty colleague on November 15, 2023, and the Israeli counter-protesters who physically harassed their fellow students on November 9, 2023, in Lobby 7. In both cases, the objective was to silence voices protesting the genocide in Gaza and asking MIT to honor the humanity of Palestinians on a par with that of Jews and everyone else.

When a group of MIT faculty met with President Sally Kornbluth on October 24, 2023, to discuss the tragedy in Palestine, we also raised the question why harassment against Arabs and Muslims gets underreported – as compared to harassment against Jews. Judging from President Kornbluth’s remarks back then, it seems that the Jewish community has lines of communication with her (a Jewish president) that the Arab and Muslim communities don’t. Yet, at the faculty meeting on November 15, when I asked President Kornbluth why such a primary focus on antisemitism as part of an agenda “against hate,” and why not consider anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate on a par with antisemitism, President Kornbluth evoked her personal experience as a Jewish person who has received antisemitic messages and a 10-to-1 ratio of reports of antisemitism vs. Islamophobia. In Kornbluth’s justification, her own experience is among the reasons why MIT’s “Standing together against hate” agenda is primarily to combat antisemitism. Yet, in the same response, she also mentioned some of the reasons why Islamophobia goes unreported.

The problem here is that, if MIT’s “Standing together against hate” says nothing about the slaughter of thousands of Palestinians or the impact of this slaughter among Arabs and Muslims, then what message is being sent to Arabs and Muslims here?

On October 10, 2023, in her very first statement after Hamas’s attack on Israel, President Kornbluth appropriately denounced Hamas’s war crimes: “The brutality perpetrated on innocent civilians in Israel by terrorists from Hamas is horrifying.” But, if the brutality of Hamas’s war crimes against some 1,200 Israeli soldiers and civilians is “horrifying,” then how can the same Sally Kornbluth remain silent about the record-breaking bombing of Palestinian civilians (11,000+ as of now, including 5,000+ children!), bombing of hospitals, schools, mosques, etc. (another horrifying series of war crimes).

One remembers the denunciation by MIT President Rafael Reif on February 27, 2022, of Russia‘s war crimes in Ukraine. US President Biden even raised the “genocide” alert in Ukraine where fatalities over two years are of the same order as in Gaza in only one month. Yet, Kornbluth’s statements, like Biden’s, have remained silent about genocide in Gaza, insisting she’s “not taking sides.” But how can one NOT take sides vis-à-vis genocide, no matter how complex the history leading to it. Here, “not taking sides,” in effect, is on the side of genocide.

At this rate, should we ask if Arab and Muslim lives matter as much as Ukrainian, Jewish, and Israeli lives? Is there racism at play here? Aren’t such questions related to why Islamophobia goes underreported, due to mistrust of authorities who show less care for Arabs and Muslims than they do for other groups?

Now consider the flip side of this coin, namely the widespread preference for Israel and Jewish students (for example, Claudine Gay’s “Harvard has [their] back”), with US unconditional support for Israel in spite of recurrent violations of human rights, international law and agreements. These double standards make it even more difficult for Arabs and Muslims to trust that authorities will ever care for their wellbeing as much as they care for Jews.

Despite all of the above, I was heartened by President Kornbluth’s response to my question at the faculty meeting when she stated:

“I have condemned what’s happening in Gaza. I think it’s awful that we are seeing the suffering of innocent children, of innocent people.”

That statement alone showed more courage than what we’ve seen at most elite universities in the US to date – even at Harvard where President Claudine Gay once spoke of the importance of “courage.

Yes, antisemitism is real and causing great pain to our Jewish students and colleagues, even more so after the horrific attack of October 7, especially in light of Hamas’s agenda for the annihilation of Israel. And we should ALSO recognize that Arab and Muslim communities are under attack and in great pain as well. So we need President Kornbluth to counteract this disregard for Palestinian lives – a global disregard that, unfortunately, is all too familiar and has come at inordinate cost to Palestinians in the past few decades.

The time is now for we at MIT to live up to our “Mens et Manus et Cor” mission to make the world better. Meanwhile MIT’s Coalition for Palestine inspires us to honor the humanity of us all – from the river to the sea, from Gaza to MIT . . . .