Very Good Questions

I’m not a huge fan of Maureen Dowd, the columnist for the New York Times. I probably agree with her more than I disagree, but I’ve been put off at times by what comes across as cattiness, or perhaps just a “too cute” writing style.

That said, she ended last Sunday’s column with a very important set of questions.

The column was about the hugely controversial testimony of three college presidents over anti-semitism on their (very elite) campuses. My own reaction parallels that of another Times columnist, David French. French is a former litigator who spent a considerable portion of his legal career battling censorship on college campuses. He wrote that what struck him about the presidents’ answers wasn’t legal insufficiency “but rather their stunning hypocrisy.”

As French accurately notes, private universities are not bound by the First Amendment, although academic freedom principles–which they do follow– are modeled after the Free Speech provisions of that Amendment. If those schools hewed more closely to First Amendment analysis, the “context matters” responses would have been largely correct.

So if the university presidents were largely (though clumsily) correct about the legal balance, why the outrage? To quote the presidents back to themselves, context matters. For decades now, we’ve watched as campus administrators from coast to coast have constructed a comprehensive web of policies and practices intended to suppress so-called hate speech and to support students who find themselves distressed by speech they find offensive.

The result has been a network of speech codes, bias response teams, safe spaces and glossaries of microaggressions that are all designed to protect students from alleged emotional harm. But not all students.

French is absolutely correct that “the rule cannot be that Jews must endure free speech at its most painful while favored campus constituencies enjoy the warmth of college administrators and the protection of campus speech codes.”

Dowd similarly alluded to the hypocrisy of the testimony. She quoted Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, who criticized “the inability of these individuals to articulate a simple, straightforward answer to what should have been the easiest question in the world… These presidents are not committed to free speech. They’re committed to favored speech. They selectively enforce the codes of conduct when it works for them or their friends in the faculty lounge.”

When it comes to the current war in the Middle East, Dowd points out what every sentient person knows about the conflict: there are no good guys.

Netanyahu isn’t just personally despicable, he and his supporters have done enormous damage to Israel both domestically and internationally, and there is simply no justification for the way Israel has treated the Palestinians over the past twenty plus years. But as Dowd says, that’s no excuse for what Hamas did on October 7th. Hamas is a terrorist organization intent upon wiping Israel and all Jews off the face of the globe. But again, that undeniable fact does not justify the indiscriminate killing of innocent Palestinian civilians.

As Dowd writes, these things should be self-evident. But then, so much of our current political turmoil is the result of refusal to accept facts that should be self-evident.

Dowd writes:

I think this is still America. But I don’t understand why I have to keep making the case on matters that should be self-evident.

Why should I have to make the case that a man who tried to overthrow the government should not be president again?

Why should I have to make the case that we can’t abandon Ukraine to the evil Vladimir Putin?

Why should I have to make the case that a young woman — whose life and future ability to bear children are at risk — should not be getting persecuted about an abortion by a shady Texas attorney general?

Why should I have to make the case that antisemitism is abhorrent?

To which I will add another: why should we have to make the case that criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, but blaming all Jews for decisions made by the Israeli government (or for whatever is going wrong in someone’s life) is?

I see an eerie parallel between the current eruption of anti-Jewish hatred sparked by the events in the Middle East, and the explosion of anti-Black bigotry that followed the election of Barack Obama. Obviously, ancient tribal hatreds had been there all along–simmering, barely suppressed bigotries just waiting for an excuse to emerge.

The most poignant “why” question of all has to be: why are we humans so tribal? Why do we insist on seeing people who differ from us in some way as a monolithic “them” rather than the discrete individuals they are?

In the immortal words of Rodney King, why can’t we all just get along?


  1. Getting along hurts sales… sales of media, tiki torches and propaganda printing businesses.

    Okay. But cynicism aside, that tribalism is how we evolved socially while still fighting for depleting resources so OUR TRIBE could reproduce at the expense of the OTHER TRIBES trying to take our share of the resources.

    Maybe it’s because I’m old, but I don’t see how we’ve evolved that much since the invention of economy, hoarding and power-mongering

  2. I’ll admit that I have not closely followed the news out of Israel and Gaza until recently. That said, it appears now that the voters in both countries elected the leadership they now have and have stood by it over the years. Certainly those voters knew what they were getting… fear and intolerance.
    Where were the “good” citizens in these countries when Palestinian people were pushed off their land in the West Bank, or when terrorist were building tunnels under hospitals in Gaza? And how is it that western powers have been so inept at bringing peace?
    I don’t have the answers, but I sure have the questions.

  3. Freedom of speech has become the Labrys of the 1st Amendment; being wielded wildly by Trump and his attorneys in our highest courts, including the latest movement to the Supreme Court. It’s greatest danger is the full acceptance of lies and distortions of truth; we should be questioning the acceptance by millions of Americans who follow the blatant ridiculous claims which common sense should come to the fore in the minds of thinking people. The danger level in the hands of voters willing to overthrow this government jeopardizes not only America and Americans today; but the future of generations to come. Antisemitism is always with us; at times hidden in the shadows of being politically correct but the Israeli/Hamas war is actually Netanyahu’s personal war against Palestine and he is using Putin’s playbook as his guide with a few of his own distortions of fact as excuses for killing. The elite private institutions of learning are using it as an excuse for their Antisemitism and those who are of like mind are using their rants as proof of facts never in evidence.

  4. It does appear that an evil spirit of repression and hatred has been loosed upon the face of the Earth, or maybe it is more like a boil beneath the surface has been lanced and the pus of authoritarianism is leaking out, at a time when it seems that the survival of humanity relies upon human beings setting aside our differences and working to prevent a seemingly inevitable existential threat.
    The most important political truth today is that Trump and MAGA must be soundly defeated and tossed onto the trash heap of history, where he/it belongs. The question is, as always: what are we going to do to make that happen?

  5. I have been loath to comment on this topic, with rampant selective criticism and equivocation prevailing.

    Simply put, the Jews are a tiny minority that have succeeded in America when allowed to do so. My mother had to put “religion” on her job applications. Needless to say, many jobs were not offered. My father, like many Jews of his generation, opened his own business to avoid that. One way or another, Jews as a group have succeeded in America, even with one hand tied behind their backs, hence, they are no longer a minority needing protection, even when they are targeted for who they are.

    As for the double standard, it has been long standing, and even more on the left. As a young Trotskyite (YPSL member) told me in ’68, ‘we used to favor Israel, the socialist underdog, but they won the war in ’67, so we have to support the Palestinians.’ Only “approved” minorities are respected. Jews are considered “white” when it comes to minority status, so antisemitism is OK.

    I hate Bibi and his cohorts, now more than ever, and I hate the hardships placed on the citizens in Gaza, but Palestinians voted for Hamas, like the Germans voted for Hitler. I don’t recall any reporters telling us of the “suffering of the German people” due to allied bombing.

    Hamas took over, declared all agreements with Israel void, and killed their opponents. They built military installations in schools and hospitals (along with tunnel systems throughout Gaza and crossing the border into Israel), and launched daily rocket attacks against Israel. I don’t recall the western press screaming war crimes.

    They sent murder squads to attack youth centers, kibbutzim, and a music festival. They raped and they killed entire families, threw grenades into cars of those fleeing. They took hostages. Nobody used the words “war crimes”.

    Israel attacked Hamas and cries of “war crimes” were heard. “Rape” is never mentioned and just the “death tolls” are listed for comparison. Civilian deaths during a war are equated to targeted murder and rape (and the kidnapped are treated as a normal part of life).

    Israel is just expected to — do nothing? Rape and mass murder or Jews, why that is just the way things go. – Hamas, Nazis, Cossacks, Crusaders, Romans – it’s just history.

    Of course, most people hadn’t been paying attention over the years and the Arab world, with oil money, has been able to rewrite the history books.

    How many know that the League of Nations cut up the Turkish Empire and mandated the “Territory of Palestine” to provide homeland for the Jewish people with regards to protecting the non-Jewish population? Or know of the Sykes-Picot agreement (British and French) that took 2/3 of that territory and gave it to King Abdullah?

    How many know that when the United Nations agreed to partition the remaining territory between Israel and a Palestinian state, Israel agreed to two states, but the Palestinians rejected it? Or how many know that the British first offered the Arabs the “Reserve Plan” where all the Jews would be put in a ghetto and King Abdullah would take the rest of the land with a cut out for a British military base (no Palestinian state), soon to be followed by the Clayton Pact that offered the land to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, TransJordan, and Egypt, again with British military access (no Palestinian state and no Israel)?

    Theresa – There has been a Peace Now movement in Israel for decades, with little comparable anti-violence sentiment among the Palestinians. I will note that there have been independent Israeli/Palestinian efforts to end the hatred.
    Before this attack, protests against Netanyahu’s government were a daily occurrence with threats of mass resignations in the military. Hamas propped up Netanyahu’s government. Israeli’s may hate him (close to half have long opposed him), but mass murder and rape are a bit worse.

  6. I hear Len and Theresa, “they elected those leaders…”, BUT. Look back a very few years, and the world looked at the buffoon in the White House and said the same of us. *I* did not elect that criminal! And how long will it take him and his cronies in a second term to act like Hamas, to act like Bibi?
    My point? I’m not sure I have one exactly, except that we should perhaps have more sympathy for both Israeli AND Palestinian citizens , and more contempt for both governments.

  7. JoAnn has hit the nail squarely on the head: “…the Israeli/Hamas war is actually Netanyahu’s personal war against Palestine and he is using Putin’s playbook as his guide with a few of his own distortions of fact as excuses for killing.” I’m Jewish, but have loathed Netanyahu ever since his rise to power.
    And in agreement with James regarding the need for TFG/MAGA being defeated and tossed into the garbage, same with Netanyahu and his obscenely horrible coalition; they are destroying the dream that once was Israel, and taking world Jewry with it.

  8. Until all of the citizens of a fearful and hate filled country rise up against their elected government that continues to stoke those war fires, it is on them. All of them. The only innocents in Israel and Palestine are the babies and children.

  9. I will say, a small comfort, is knowing for certain now that the leaders of elite universities are just as dumb as anyone else. “Elite” is an odd word to use for people who walked into an obvious trap, didn’t know it was a trap, tried to give “uh, technically” answers when simple/obvious answers were clear, and just generally shot themselves in the feet over and over again.

    It’s nice to be reminded now and then that our “elites” couldn’t handle a basic retail job (which is a lot of work!) or do their own laundry if they had to.

    And don’t even get me started on the question “why does a wealthy country with one of the most powerful/well funded/well trained militaries on Earth need more supplies from US to fight a relatively small group of terrorists in a completely enclosed/cut off space?” I mean, I know the answer is because this is a great way to throw a few billion at our “impoverished” defense contractors, but still…

    This whole thing is a s—t show in every direction. And then there’s the DRC, and Syria, and Ukraine, and…. I can’t even read the news anymore. It’s too depressing.

  10. Theresa,

    You need to be clear on one fact. Palestinians elected Hamas in 2006 and there has been no election since. Polling (as it can be done and before October 7th) suggested that Hamas’s popularity was less than 50%. As one of the poorest places on Earth, Gaza folks can hardly take things into their own hands.

  11. We elected Joe Biden. His lack of leadership has exacerbated the situation by doing nothing. We are all complicit to genocide. The Palestinians are an unarmed population living within an open air prison and the genocide is being paid for on our dime. It’s time we cut the purse strings and stop being Israel’s sugar daddy. Zionism is a supremacist ideology based upon a stupid work of fiction. It’s not a religious war.
    It’s a race war. Since colonizing runs through the veins of the majority of US citizens,and the PTB support those amongst the lightest of skin around the world? It’s no wonder the zeitgeist within America is engaged in an organic splendor over the genocide of Palestinians.

  12. Lester, of course they can take things into their own hands. They can say “NO”. They can use non-violence as MLK did. A leader must arise, and my guess is that one is already there. Because Lester, this mess does not get cleaned up by outsiders providing more weapons to either side. It gets cleaned up from the inside by the majority demanding and working for peace.

  13. Btw,since the masks are now off,Israeli government officials have now stated publicly they never wanted a two state solution. Of course, the US never intended to abide by the Minsk agreement(s).

    We suck. We really are a worthless people.

  14. Theresa – really? “In Gaza, the average monthly income for a middle-class family is around $250, while in Tel Aviv, the average monthly income for a middle-class family is around $3,500 to $6,800.” Not a lot of time for politicking when you are just trying to survive – these are MIDDLE CLASS numbers….

  15. I was aware that the Ottoman Empire was divided up back in 1922, but Len provided some additional history that I was unaware of.

    Dirks is right – we are spending our money on Ukraine and Israel because the MIC does an excellent job of lobbying Congress to produce more weapons of war. As he said, the billions we are spending is propping up the impoverished defense contractors.

    The DC Beltway has expanded exponentially in the past 10-15 years with lobbyists for corporations that manufacture weapons/fighter jets/everything else that is connected to weapons. These wars have been an early Christmas gift to them. Who knows, maybe they have even played a small part in starting these wars. I know that may sound far-fetched, but when massive corporations that produce military products see their sales and profits reduced by a fraction of a percent as our country finally pulled out of the Afghanistan war, I would not put it past them to play some small part in sparking wars.

  16. Theresa, the Western countries really step in the quicksand when they think they can solve the conflict. If the solution is to come it has to come from the two parties. We need to understand that you can’t impose peace. It has to flow from the center.

    The best we can do is encourage non-violent contacts between the two.

  17. Education, education, education. And I do not mean jobs programs for the children of the wealthy, but the kind that ensures a blue collar worker understands civics and economics sufficiently to participate in the political process.

    Religion, by the way, is the opposite of education. The purpose of religion is to obscure the truth.

  18. Lester, Freedom is not free. It usually comes at a high price, and that price is not paid in money. Read the history of the civil rights movement in the United States for a tutorial on this subject then get back to me.

  19. Dowd’s questions/statements are all biased with extremism. I don’t think Putin is “evil,” just like I don’t think hating other tribes is a good thing. Lots of either/or thinking in this post which doesn’t follow the patterns of logic.

    The defense budget tips our hands to the perceived enemies for which we spend over 50% of our national budget. Peeling back Hamas, we have Iran, China, and Russia. All the propaganda will paint those countries as “evil” so our CIA and State Dept can do what they want. You know, like blowing up bridges, pipelines, and embassies while blaming it on a convenient foe.

    I find it interesting that RFK, Jr. was getting skewered on X for saying that Palestinians were “pampered by international aid organizations.” If they receive lots of aid from the international community, that is a good thing and easily verified. If he meant Palestinians are pampered in Gaza, that is insensitive and inexcusable. Phrasing matters.

    Propaganda rules the day. Weeding through it is where critical thinking skills are practiced. Truth-telling is not the status quo. 😉

  20. Maybe the question needs to be turned around and considered from the other direction. Why are some of us _not_ tribal in that way?

    My suspicion is it’s the parents and groups (church, school, etc.) that surround one during the formative years that make the biggest difference. I don’t think it’s natural to be tribal and bigoted, or decent and fair-minded. I think it’s learned. Probably either way.

    I was taught to treat everyone well, and to generally ignore physical differences in people. Why should they matter, after all? I credit my mother for that, and am constantly thankful for it, honestly. I did the same with my children. It helps, of course, if the schools, churches, and extra-curricular groups (etc.) are also a mix of different people. Is the answer simply education? Probably not, but it’s a very significant factor.

  21. Theresa – WADR – I don’t think dogs and fire hoses are quite the equivocation of Hamas’ “policing”

  22. Todd, I agree on “evil” being in quotes.

    However, Putin is destructive of humans and humanity, so he must be opposed. Just as we must with many narcissistic psychopaths. Whether it’s his purposeful choice or just driven by the makeup of his brain is irrelevant.

    On RFK, as soon as he chooses to use the word “pampered”, one actually does know all that’s necessary about his statement.

  23. Todd. A supposedly elected leader such as Putin who assassinates some of his political opponents and incarcerates the rest and uses his then unchecked power to wage a war of conquest IS evil. Unless,of course, you claim that evil does not really exist. In which case oligarchy is not evil, either.

  24. Todd, I can not agree with your characterization of Dowd’s questions., I think they are spot-on. Can you tell me what is “extremist” in her position, in the questions that Sheila quoted?
    Sadly, tribalism is virtually a part of our human DNA, and our large brains have not found a work-around. In the meanwhile, there are bastard politicians who plug directly into that failing and all too easily energize it.
    Bibi is one such bastard, and does not represent whatever the hell world Jewry is. I say that as a descendent of Ashkenazi Jews, though my perspective is as an atheist.

  25. Sheila, you said the words I have been saying recently, Rodney King’s, why can’t we all just get along?

    This country’s downfall will be this current trend of ambiguity, hatred and white supremacy that pervades our daily lives. I would ask, what would Jesus do?

    I am fearful we are going to find out very soon, since history does repeat itself.

  26. Taking Dowd’s questions one tiny step further, why in the world would we not question the possible candidacy of a very sick man (TFG) who can go public with a statement like immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country….”?

  27. Lester, dogs and fire hoses are not the equivocation to Hama’s control of the Palestinian people. But lynching, cross burning, bombing and murder were. All were on display during the fifties and sixties.

  28. Freedom of speech can hurt people’s sensibilities but the limits of it, our responsibility to stay short of, are clearly established.

    The Middle East has been a contentious place my whole life and the two ingredients that fan the fires are oil and the British Partishening Mandate. (The Mandate reaffirmed the 1917 British commitment to the Balfour Declaration for the establishment in Palestine of a “National Home” for the Jewish people, with the prerogative to carry it out. A British census of 1918 estimated 700,000 Arabs and 56,000 Jews.)

    So the trouble are endless and the current iteration is Israel relentlessly destroying and potentially annexing the Gaza Strip in retaliation for an unsurprising terrorist kidnapping action by Hamas on (a, a few?) of the kibbutz settlements.

    Assymetric terrorism is always awful but about the only tool poor countries have in the competition with well funded modern militaries.

    That doesn’t excuse anything but it does explain what college administrators have to balance in order to allow, but limit to legal, heartfelt emotional responses to current events.

  29. Sadly, the extremely unfortunate confusion between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israeli government policies has been promoted by the influential work of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. As a Jew, it embarrasses me as much as Netanyahu infuriates me.

  30. What would happen if the countries of the world decided to provide support to formation of a Palestinian state immediately? What Middle Eastern countries would be willing to surrender territory (and its potential resources) to such an initiative? After all, a new state cannot be manufactured out of the air. Ethnicity, religion, tribalism, if you will, cannot be ignored.
    John H. is right. It is learned behavior, taught at home, in church and from the biases of adult family members. It is built on the need to protect entitled status or the grievance when that status is questioned. Instead of embracing the concept of equality before the law for every person, regardless of the various status, or embracing the immigrants, nurturing the needy, all the supposed bases of Judeo-Christian religion, so many fall back on the tribal sanctuary of identity. It has always led to conflict when status involved.
    I sent emails to my Senators (sadly both Republican) urging them to fund Ukraine’s resistance and to support a two state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. I got a reply from one with wishy-washy doublespeak and nothing from the other. (Braun is a tool without an original thought in his head.)
    Elections in both Israel and Gaza are not representative of the majority in either place. Bibi couldn’t win a majority on his own for good reason. Hamas hasn’t had elections in 17 years. With the very young in the majority in Gaza, likely the majority have never know anything other than the terrorists in control.
    It is complicated for sure.

  31. I just saw a clip of the House committee’s Elise Stefanic interrogating the three college presidents. The Penn University president replied that they consider students’ rights to free speech, and don’t allow speech leading to violence. Stefanic insisted that meant the president was condoning genocide of the Jews. It looked like a well laid trap and Stefanic has bragged one down and two to go. Stefanic who is an election denier and supports DJT and his fascist trajectory for power. How dare they use such a tragic event to advance their right-wing agenda. Beware of the new “McCarthyism”!

  32. To answer Mr. Rodney King — Because there is No “Just” to “getting along”….

    Each child born into Our World and Society must learn to “get along”…..and it doesn’t come “naturally”…. Morals, rules, conventions, culture, indeed all things meaningful are communicated to them in a culture of human relations/relationships…. Parents, Family, Friends, Teachers, Community all are responsible for the teaching moments that we all needs must encounter in order to become fully responsible and enculturated human beings….

    Maturity comes at a price…Life-long learning…. Surely, you, Sheila, know that…. As a Responsible Elder you are one voice to whom I pay particular attention…. We don’t give up when things get rough…. We continue to hoe our rows in the Fields of the Lord…so to speak….

    Maureen Dowd is young….still… You are wiser than she I think….

    If we could “just get along” we wouldn’t have Universities like the one where we both taught….

    We wouldn’t need them…. We’d have “instincts” to guide us….

    BUT we are not mere animals in that way—and so we must Learn to “get along”…..

  33. Jeff – couldn’t agree more: “Morals, rules, conventions, culture, indeed all things meaningful are communicated to them in a culture of human relations/relationships…. Parents, Family, Friends, Teachers, Community all are responsible for the teaching moments that we all needs must encounter in order to become fully responsible and enculturated human beings….” however, those “relations/relationships” have been torn asunder. Check out “Bowling Alone” in your library, years ago but prophetic .

  34. I will make one additional comment – education is often neglected. The history Pete cited picks its details, leaving out the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Clayton pact. It also doesn’t mention that in 1923 all Jews were expelled from TransJordan, some settlements having been there for hundreds of years or more. The Saudis poured tons of money into setting up “middle eastern studies” departments in the ’70s. They did get a say in shaping those departments.

    I have been trying to find the documentary by a German journalist I saw many years ago, I believe on PBS, covering the years between the Munich Massacre and the Oslo Accords. Among the things he pointed out, was the fact that the textbooks used to teach history to Palestinian children for generations (paid for by the UN), no longer said that the Jews were sons of dogs, after Oslo, but they still compared them to the crusaders.

    Israel had better leaders before Netanyahu, but it never mattered. There were leaders for peace on both sides. Rabin died because he believed in peace. King Abdullah I died because he believed he should accept two states. The Europeans (especially the British) and the non-Palestinian Arab leaders, for the most part, have tried to exploit the divisions. The Arabs invented the “refugee camps” to keep the some 750,000 Palestinians as pawns. Israels absorbs their 800,000 Jew refugees from North African and Arab nations (who suddenly lost whatever meager rights they had been granted).

    Both Jews (especially the Likud supporters) and the Palestinians need to learn that they are all one genetic family with three religions (and a lot of Israelis are not religious).
    As I have said before, shared food and music will some day bring peace. Maybe that is why Hamas attacked a music festival.

    Meanwhile, if we want to preserve free speech on campuses, the same rules need to be applied to everyone.

    Oh, and one more fact – a Palestinian Refugee is defined. by the UN as someone who lived in the area for at least two years in 1946 and lost land, not decades, two years.

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