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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, April 19, 2024

Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor: 

I’d like to comment on the response of alum David Spalter LA’89 to the op-ed by the Revolutionary Marxist Students published last week in the Daily. His letter matches a national template, as pro-Israel forces in this country, stunned by the manifestations of local support for the Palestinian national cause, struggle to control the narrative. The gist is that students should not be allowed to voice support for the Palestinian people violently resisting occupation, or to refer to Israel as a colonial settler state, as such statements constitute “hate speech.”

The author, a University of Miami School of Law-trained corporate attorney, who represents Fortune 500 employers, declares that the Tufts administration “must act now” following the publication of the op-ed to shut down pro-Palestinian voices.

This is not within the bounds of ‘free expression,’” he fumes. “It is time for Tufts to act on its promise of maintaining a ‘vibrant community where differences are respected and all are made to feel welcome,’ and state, without qualification, that this type of hate speech will not be tolerated.”

These themselves are fighting words. The Tufts administration is being advised — by an alum personally, but likely speaking for a section of donors and alumni who want it — to crack down on freedom of expression: specifically, anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian expression. They either perceive this as “hate speech” directed at themselves, or (more likely) choose to label “hate speech” simply to vilify its content and justify its suppression.

So what are the offending words, to this indignant alumnus, who sent his letter so hot on the heels of the RMS statement? “It is necessary to rally behind the national liberation of Palestine and fight for an end to all systems that necessitate this oppression.” I have no problem with this as a general exhortation; fighting for national liberation is, in general, in my opinion good. I do sometimes have a problem with those who want to fight against the people fighting against oppression. Or who tell them to shut up, or to wait another generation.

“We therefore support the Palestinian mass-led overthrow of the colonial Zionist Israeli apartheid state.” Yes, for sure, what’s problematic here? There is a colonialist settler state, in the real world, a state established through violence, justified through an ideology called Zionism, one that resulted in one people’s displacement in 1947–48. Can we teach, at Tufts, this hateful reality, without being tarred as haters for our truthfulness? One has the right to support the displaced people’s right to return. That means an end to the apartheid state. And a mass-based movement is better than one lacking it.

“There can be no liberation if not carried out through the struggle of the oppressed masses, organized and politically conscious.” The statement is vague, generically Marxist, but generally validated by the historical record. Anyway, unless one rejects the idea that there are, in fact, oppressed masses, or that they should not organize and educate themselves towards the goal of liberation, this too appears unproblematic.

But the writer invokes — legalistically — from Tufts’ “Freedom of Expression” document of 2009, drawing from it what is, perhaps, for him, its most useful passage: “Freedom of expression and inquiry are not absolute.” He then notes that Tufts’ institutional policy allows only “freedom of expression of inquiry in ways that respect the human dignity of others,” the implication being that something in the above tramples on the plaintiff’s own dignity. So much so that he demands a campus crackdown on pro-Palestinian manifestations! Efforts to do this are in fact occurring nationally. One CNN contributor expressed alarm at the counterintuitive proliferation of Palestinian flags and keffiyeh in this country, especially on campuses, under the current circumstances. The stakes — the shaping of public opinion — are high; it’s no wonder the smear campaign is in high gear.

Spalter may recall that in the year he graduated, there were protests against South African apartheid on campus, and calls for Tufts’ divestment in South Africa. Our president at the time, Jean Mayer (a hero of the French Resistance, a decent man) argued against any measures, unless they were part of an international effort. (This was at a time of course when many in Congress and the State Department saw Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress as “terrorists because they indeed engaged in violent resistance to colonialism.) 

The Tufts administration’s position was shameful (as it may become again, in this instance), but we can be proud of the students who marched against apartheid in those days. Those who marched last week continue a Tufts tradition of opposing settler colonialism. The Palestinian struggle, as even former President Jimmy Carter figured out as of 2006, is one against an apartheid as vicious as the one we opposed then. There is a fight underway now, for sympathy and support, more intense than ever before, in part due to demographic change and dissemination of knowledge.

In this context, campuses are erupting with denunciations of Israel, based on an understanding of what happened long before Oct. 7, 2023, without which Oct. 7 would never have happened. Administrators are under pressure to keep the lid on, lest the campus movement spreads more broadly through society. I’d expect more such letters, which should be called out for what they are: desperate efforts to change the subject from five million people living in abject misery to people whose need to “feel respected and welcome” gives them special license to avoid exposure to reality.

Gary P. Leupp

Professor Emeritus

Department of History