InternationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 6

Gaza, US universities and the reproduction of power

On the morning of December 10, I awoke to two messages. The first was from my father. He was asking me to write to the US Department of State to request the evacuation of my uncle and his family from Rafah, in southern Gaza, where they are “without any food, shelter or water and very terrified from the bombing all the time”. My aunt, my uncle’s wife, was killed by the Israelis in Gaza in 2014. Now, he and his children face the real possibility of joining her in death.

The second was an email from a friend in a senior leadership role at one of the large, multilateral organisations. We attended the University of Pennsylvania together and she was dismayed by the capitulation of its current president, Liz Magill, to the right wing. But she felt, justifiably, that she was unable to speak out because of the oppressive environment at work, and in America in general.

If Magill, a moderate who stood for very little, could not stand up to a clutch of rusty pitchforks, what hope was there for a woman of colour with Middle Eastern roots? Those two messages, coming so close together, neatly captured the various fronts of the war on Palestinian lives. I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2006 with a BA in political science. My experience of the school was mixed. Having resources – which Penn does – is a nice thing for lots of reasons. But having money may also indicate an excessive orientation around, and to, it.

Back then, securing a well-paying job after college was the main thrum of undergraduate life. The internships with consulting and banking firms were highly prized and expected to lead to rich offers from those same firms in New York or London. Things don’t appear to have changed much: Penn ranked first, ahead of Princeton, Columbia, MIT and Harvard, in the 2024 Wall Street Journal/College Pulse Salary Impact study. Or, as the headline in the WSJ frames it, the school is first among “The Top US Colleges That Make Their Graduates Richer”. Which isn’t to say that Penn was an apolitical place; the accumulation of large amounts of money cannot possibly be apolitical.

I recall an early conversation with a young woman who, upon learning I was from Palestine, responded with “there’s no such thing”. Separately, I remember being raged at by another undergraduate, in the context of my student activism, “if you don’t like it here you can go home, terrorist”. While I suspect that Penn’s focus on money may have been a major contributor to Magill’s ultimate undoing – her testimony at Congress has been cited as a reason for the withdrawal of a $100m donation – that is not the full story.

My experience of Penn was representative of elite America’s pinched disdain for anything which threatens its conception of itself as meritocratic, deserving of exalted status and morally beyond reproach. It’s an essentially conservative posture, one that resists growth and defies all efforts at meaningful social education. I observed that posture later in life, as a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. There, I met some of the high-achieving minds behind President George W Bush’s catastrophe in Iraq. I remember one conversation I had with a senior State Department official who now serves as ambassador to a large country in Asia.

“Hans Blix,” I said, referring to the former head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, “told you there were no weapons of mass destruction. Why did you go to war?” He explained, disarmingly, that “we believed what we wanted to believe”.

In seven words, he captured the essence of a system that insulates its people from accountability, which today partially explains why my family in Gaza are left to die along with the rest of the Palestinians there. It explains President Joe Biden’s priggishness and the egg on his National Security Advisor’s long face.

When I first learned of the hunt for large quarry at Penn and Harvard I shrugged. I regarded the topic as a sideshow; false moralism in an alternate universe meant to distract from the ongoing atrocities in Palestine. But now I think I was probably too dismissive of what was happening, and how it related in a direct, if multifaceted, way to the Israeli genocide in Gaza. The relationship between Capitol Hill, University City, where Penn rests, expansively, Cambridge and Rafah is correctly understood through the prism of power. The main role of elite higher education institutions in America is to reproduce power and the infrastructure which attends it.

If society is an organism, the university is the clonal petri dish. But in nature, nothing is reproduced perfectly; evolution is an essential feature of every biological system. And evolution within the university leads to a divergence from the staunchly guarded power structures that define our existing political order.

The grotesque threshing by the right wing, on television, in newspapers and through congressional inquiries, is animated by the awareness that young, educated people invariably think differently across generations. The assault on US universities is part of a larger effort to direct and control the evolution of thought in this society.

In this context, values are relative and speech is only valuable insofar as it isn’t performed and lies dormant in the realm of abstract ideas, like “freedom” or “the arc of the moral universe”. Now Magill stands, unwillingly in all likelihood, as the lamb on the altar. Collateral damage in so many words. The people who demanded her resignation may not have been able to articulate their whole reason for wanting her ouster. But they demonstrate an innate understanding of the stakes: the capacity of the organism to reproduce itself is embedded within the university, more than anywhere else.

What they fail to understand, however, is that like Daniel Dennett’s theory of the mind, independent thinking arises everywhere at once. Nothing short of a bullet to the brain can stop its emergence. Sadly, for the people in Gaza today, the advent of a new political understanding on Palestine in the US doesn’t mean very much. My uncle and his family, and many thousands of others, may be dead by the time a new generation of Americans, whose evolution was forged by a genocide, come to power.