All Things Considered

'Interpretation is key': Professor weighs in on antisemitism claims at UMN

Person protests09
Protestors at a walk-out event on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus working in collaboration with the Shut It Down For Palestine organization on Nov. 29.
Kyre Johnson | MPR News

A University of Minnesota law professor and a former regent this week asked the U.S. Department of Education to investigate alleged antisemitism at the university. Their complaint stems from a statement on the Israel-Hamas War that faculty in the Gender, Women and Sexuality Department posted on a university website.

It reads, in part, “We assert that Israel’s response is not self-defense but the continuation of a genocidal war against Gaza and against Palestinian freedom, self-determination, and life.”

The complaint against that statement — and subsequent critique of the complaint — come as universities nationwide are trying to strike a balance between allowing free speech and addressing concerns of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Congressional hearings with the heads of three major colleges, including one who stepped down afterward, has made things feel all the more wobbly.

MRP News reached out to faculty members behind the statement and they declined to comment. A spokesman for the university said “the [complaint’s] broad characterizations of the University are inaccurate and are fundamentally contrary to our mission and values,” and added that the university does not tolerate harassment, intimidation or bias.

In an interview on All Things Considered Thursday, Carleton College history professor Amna Khalid defended the teachers’ right to post their opinion.

Khalid has written extensively about free speech, so we asked her to respond to an earlier interview with Richard Painter, the professor calling for a civil rights investigation. In that interview, Painter took issue with the faculty members’ use of a university website.

“This is not about being pro-Palestinian,” he said. “We need more people advocating for the rights of the Palestinian people to live in a peaceful state that recognizes Israel, and that is prosperous. This is about official statements of departments on websites paid for by the Minnesota taxpayers.”

You can hear Khalid’s response using the audio player above or by reading the transcript below. Both have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What is your reaction to Professor Painter’s argument there?

This is a classic case of confusing and conflating critiques of a state with critiques associated with an identity group.

Antisemitism and Islamophobia are real threats. But let’s be careful not to interpret everything as antisemitism or Islamophobia.

Now, as educators, we shouldn’t be in the business of fanning the flames of confusion and conflation, we should be committed to nuance and clarity.

So this statement, the statement made by the Gender, Women and Sexuality Department at University of Minnesota, is not an antisemitic statement as I see it, and it does not rise to the level of harassment and intimidation.

Now, let me come to the second issue that this complaint poses, which is the issue of whether such statements can be made by faculty.

So as the American Association of University Professors says, academic freedom is comprised of the freedom to research, the freedom to teach, as well as the freedom of faculty members to make statements in their capacity as citizens on matters of public concern. And that is exactly what these professors at the U have done.

Now, the statement is also very clear. It says, “The statement does not reflect the position of the University of Minnesota.” And having done that, I don't think that they’re in violation of any kind of policy.

Is there some understandable confusion there? Right at the top of the website is the University of Minnesota logo.

We use departmental and official channels of communication to express our views all the time. We use our emails, we write on letterhead, we express our opinions in letters of recommendation, along with other communication.

As long as it is clear that they are not speaking on behalf of the institution, there is absolutely no problem, as far as I see, in terms of academic freedom with this statement.

This all comes with the backdrop of congressional hearings on antisemitism at college campuses. So do you see this conversation at the U as an extension of that?

I don’t see it as an extension of that, in that the congressional hearings were very much about the limitations of speech on private campuses. This complaint is coming in the context of academic freedom on public campuses.

But where the similarity lies is, I think, very much like the congressional hearings, this is a case where antisemitism and claims of antisemitism are being weaponized for purposes of political grandstanding.

The presidents at the congressional hearing were actually quite right in what they said. They said context matters in determining whether something qualifies as antisemitic or not.

What they should have done is elaborate and explain that this is not just a matter of the First Amendment, which frankly, private institutions are not compelled to follow, but actually that freedom of expression is absolutely central to the educational mission of higher education.

Our educational mission is furthered by allowing for speech — all kinds of speech — provided it does not target an individual or does not pose immediate threat of violence.

Some people listening would say that what they believe is a call for genocide is, in fact, a threat of violence. What would you say to them?

They should have very clearly condemned any calls to genocide. But here’s the point that I'm trying to make: Interpretation is key.

When we look at calls like, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” for some that is a genocidal call. For others it is not; it’s a statement of what kind of state there should be in the Middle East.

Intifada literally means resistance or uprising. It doesn’t mean genocide. But in a particular context, it can mean that. Similarly, "Stand with Israel” can be perceived as Islamophobic to some. By others, it’s only stating the right of a state to defend itself.

So the issue, again, is how we interpret these things. Words have no meaning without context, and context is key over here.

Having said that, the presidents should have clarified that while certain speech may not be punishable, it is certainly not endorsed by the institution.

So how should universities navigate real harm from antisemitism and Islamophobia while protecting free speech and academic freedom? Is there a way to balance that?

Absolutely. I just want to take this moment to critique the discourse of harm that has come to dominate institutions of higher education, where belonging is interpreted as feeling comfortable at all points and having a right to be not offended. This is actually what is underlying the situation right now.

So I think we need to recognize that institutions of higher education have made mistakes by pandering to that kind of discourse of harm. We need to define harm much more narrowly and recognize that this is actually a moment where we can course correct.