Jews don’t count, but do we want to? Phoebe Maltz Bovy on why the Ivy League antisemitism hearings (sort of) matter

Someone clue me in: What’s a “Harvard”?

There is but one university in North America that anyone cares about, to the point that if someone at it has a hangnail, it’s front-page news. Only one that gets the euphemistic treatment: I went to school in the Boston area, as though if the H-word were uttered aloud, one’s interlocutor will simply faint from how impressed they are.

The presidents of Harvard, along with the more obscure universities MIT and Penn, got grilled by by some Congressional Republicans on their handling of campus antisemitism. The New York Times is extremely on the case, with a whole journalistic package worth of coverage:

That’s just a sprinkling of the news articles. Head over to Opinion and you can, should the mood strike, read a Bret Stephens column with the take you would expect from Bret Stephens, and a Michelle Goldberg column with the one you’d expect from Michelle Goldberg. Wait, hold your horses, also David French and Maureen Dowd. All hands truly on deck.

Since I started drafting this post, the paper has run in my estimation 10,000 more articles about these hearings. And that’s just one newspaper. There is coverage everywhere, like I am literally swimming in a sea of such articles. Did you know that Penn’s president resigned? Probably you did, even if you, like me, are not in any way affiliated with that institution.

You can, if you have more patience for such things than I do, watch endless footage of the hearings themselves. I have seen some of it, more than out-of-context clips but I am not skipping season 9 of Doc Martin for this, I have my limits.

Everyone’s saying the topic at hand is free speech on campus, but the subtext lies elsewhere: It’s whether or not Jews are recognized as A Marginalized Group, aka one against whom hate speech is widely viewed as a meaningful category. This might seem simple but it’s anything but. There are the identity categories elite American colleges consider historically underrepresented (which may not mean currently underrepresented; see: men), and then the you-have-too-much-as-it-is ones.

The centre of the campus-speech issue is whether Jews want to be included as a DEI-recognized group that counts, or whether your average pro-Israel-give-or-take, liberal-to-centrist Jew finds the whole apparatus objectionable. Is the problem that campuses—the elite ones of course, the only ones that suck up this much of a news cycle—aren’t providing safe spaces for their Jewish students? Or is it that there’s this pretense of campuses as safe spaces to begin with? If not all campuses, then the mega-fancy ones that have the resources to curate their student bodies, admitting only a tiny percentage of applicants.

Some of this isn’t even specific to Jews, but a bigger part of the political conversation. It’s why you get conservatives rolling their eyes at diversity and they turning around to say something like, But what about IDEOLOGICAL diversity? and asking why there aren’t any Republican professors in the Gender Studies department, knowing full well the answer.

The biggest takeaway from the hearings and associated discourse, for me, is that supporting Jews has now become definitively right-wing-coded. A conservative cause. Recognized as marginalized, sure… but by the people who stand up for the men who are falling behind, or for the white working class. Not by progressives. Not by the people who run your local independent bookshop.

All of this is a problem for Jews, who are not particularly right-wing, but who are few in number and need the allies where we can get them.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on the website formerly known as Twitter. She also holds forth on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.