Universities : The Sound of Silence

European and American universities, once considered politically neutral, have gradually become involved in political statements in solidarity with victims of injustice. However, when it comes to events related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these same universities, without consulting each other, have generally remained silent, tacitly and collectively. They have thus revealed their fundamental reluctance to take a stand on any issue concerning the Jews, especially when the issue is their mass murder as Jews and in the most important Jewish centre in the world, Israel. Why is this so? What does it mean, in particular, that the majority of the social sciences have become incapable of studying the Jewish condition from an objective point of view, whether in the Diaspora or in Israel, and seem to have an irresistible tendency, without admitting it, to place “the Jews” in the camp of the “dominant”?


Untitled (Early Egyptian) – Robert Rauschenberg


On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. From the very same day, not only were the national monuments of various European capitals lit up in blue-orange, but almost all Western universities, through their official Twitter accounts, statements published on their homepages or even their Facebook pages, expressed their solidarity with the attacked Ukraine, strongly condemning the aggression of which it was the victim. This kind of political statement would perhaps have been unimaginable twenty years ago, with the university understood as a place where political viewpoints clashed, but which, with a few exceptions with very strong identities, never took sides as an institution. The message it wanted to get across, and in some respects sincerely believed in, was a simple one—that the results of political struggles at its heart, the knowledge it produces and transmits, should be politically neutral and objective. 

Knowledge producers came from a certain class, a certain gender, a certain culture that believed itself to be universal. As a result, they had to take into account the fact that they unconsciously understood social reality from the point of view of that dominant class or gender or majority culture to which they belonged. 

Deeply affected by this commitment to self-reflection, the university has since spontaneously sided with those who rightly consider themselves inferior or invisible: the subaltern, the oppressed, the voiceless subject—in short, those who have been forgotten by history, and especially by the history of knowledge, which has excluded their singular perspectives on reality. This decision, which has not been the subject of any official declaration, has simply become an implicit principle and a status quo. It explains the ease with which these lofty institutions of modern society—whose fundamental mission of producing and transmitting knowledge remains unchanged—can now feel justified, exceptionally and when the hour is grave, in issuing political declarations, condemning state actions, supporting the victims of police violence; etc.; in other words, intervening, at least in word, in the internal and external politics of the nation, even in geopolitics, in order to say publicly which side of a conflict they are on. Precisely because they are democratic institutions of knowledge, they are attentive to all proven victims of injustice, oppression and violence. 

Given this general situation in European and American academia, one might legitimately have expected that these institutions, whether Jewish or not, would issue messages of solidarity for the victims of the Hamas attacks, as they did during the attack on Ukraine, the day after October 7 and 8, 2023. Nothing of the sort happened. With the exception of the German Association of University Presidents (HRK) and the French Association of University Professors and Lecturers (France Université), which published an unequivocal message of support for the victims of the murders on their Twitter accounts, and the Max Planck Society, which did the same, not a single European university, research institute or national research agency has published anything on the subject. What’s more, between the morning of October 7th and the evening of October 9th, all of them, as if by mutual agreement, simply did not publish anything on the social networks and, by the end of this undeclared break, resumed their usual activity of announcing symposia, awards received by their members or promoting, for example, the “World Mental Health Day”—what a great idea!

What does this short-lived, uncoordinated silence, followed by “business as usual,” mean? If we look at the institutions that did react, namely the associations of university presidents in France and Germany, one thing is clear: speaking out at the highest level of corporate representation first and foremost relieved every university of the need to take its own stand. Commitment and disengagement were comfortably reconciled. The slightest embarrassing question—What do you think about what happened in your position?—could be answered by referring to the press release from the floor above, or even by forwarding it to the official university accounts—something that few German institutions, and none in France, chose to do. We had a clear conscience and peace of mind. Because that’s what it’s all about—peace, or the fear of civil war within the institutions. Let’s put it this way. The presidents know, or rather they think they know that expressing solidarity with the victims of the inhuman attacks in southern Israel risks creating unmanageable political rifts in the places and on the stages they are responsible for. It’s an unspoken knowledge, never made explicit, but no less shared— all the university presidents in Europe must have discreetly instructed their communication departments to remain silent for three days and then to resume communication as if nothing had happened. 

From both inside and outside, there is a question about what has happened to the university to find itself in such a situation where it is impossible, precisely for those who consistently raise their voices in support of all the victims of this world, to speak in favor of Jews who have been cold-bloodedly shot, burned alive, tortured, raped, and kidnapped en masse. In fact, no one is surprised that these institutions do not display an Israeli flag as a sign of solidarity. The Israeli state’s policy toward the Palestinians, which can be described at the very least as a failure and at worst as deliberate oppression, clearly makes such a gesture very complicated; everyone knows it, but again, no one says it. Were we not entitled, precisely in view of the recurring political statements of universities in recent years, to expect messages of solidarity and support for the massacred Israeli population?

The fact that this didn’t seem to be possible, without the risk of igniting the powder keg being considered too great, testifies to a number of current problems that weigh heavily on our institutions of higher education and research. If the current contradiction has any value, it’s in highlighting the said problems. We’ll try to list them here, both as a reminder and so that we can finally move beyond them.

First of all, it turns out that the democratic university, reflexive about the knowledge it produces, is only able to take a public political stance when the victim in whose name it speaks is the object of an attack by an actor generally considered to have a power and position through which it exercises domination: the state, authoritarian or otherwise, male individuals, the police. Occasionally, capitalism—or neoliberalism—as an abstract agent can be included in the list, during the peaks of the socio-economic crises that have peppered the recent economic climate. No less striking, however, is its inability to express solidarity with murdered Jews. We are then inclined to conclude that it presupposes, without its representatives being able to say so, that the Jews are in the wrong place for the hegemonic opinion in the institutions they have to administer—that of a group identified as dominant. In short, to be so massively silent, one must believe that one is always, more or less tacitly, infected by an ancient anti-Semitic thought. We may individually deplore it, but the conviction remains. But is this an accurate diagnosis? No one can say, precisely because great care is taken to avoid taking any position that might provoke reactions that could have settled the issue. The fact that the university presidents are silent, or are carefully managing a period of silence that resembles tetany, is a clear indication that they do indeed harbor such a suspicion. That they are unable to articulate it clearly, that they keep it buried deep within themselves, or at best in the hushed offices of their governing boards, is surely a monumental failure of the democratic university. 

This brings up a second problem. If there’s a fear that a large number of researchers and students in the social sciences could be convinced that every Jew belongs to the social and political pole of the dominant, it’s because a certain evolution in the social sciences has allowed this to happen—the same evolution that has made domination the main fact to be discovered, whose putative agents must be identified. In the last thirty years, this has been the case with a considerable part—and ultimately the majority—of these forms of knowledge: we have in fact arrived at a conception of politics in which the latter is increasingly reduced to the actualization of pure power relations. In the simplest version of this tendency, which is also the most common and widespread, politics is no longer conceived as a struggle between ideals or ideologies trying to impose their point of view on global society according to certain criteria of justice. It is reduced to a simple struggle between the weak (minority) and the strong (majority). This brings us to the point where the projects for the global society of the “weak” no longer need to be questioned at all; all the attention of the advocates of emancipation is focused on compensating for and hopefully strengthening their position of weakness. 

The implicit reasoning, however reductive, is worth noting—officially, the view is that once the forces have been equalized, the struggle should give way to peaceful coexistence. In short, the goal is to level the playing field, leaving aside the problem of knowing what the entities on the scales actually consist of, and whose weight is measured in quantitative terms of concentration of power. In truth, there’s a lot of bad faith here. For no one is so naive as to think that the minority actors whose cause we support will see their group identity reduced to the fact that they are a numerical minority, so that if we succeed in making them “equal” to the dominant ones, they will be satisfied and go quietly about their business. Groups, whether minority or majority, are the bearers of ideals. Therefore, true politics should provide for the articulation of these ideals, in which each group represents itself—even in oppositional terms—while at the same time representing the global society of which it is a part. The supposedly realistic language of domination and power relations overlooks this entirely objective issue and thus misunderstands both the possibilities of integration that emerge in politics and the true nature of the conflicts that take place and with which any politics must deal. 

In such a vision, it goes without saying that the State of Israel is on the side of the “strong.” To go further seems simply irrelevant. It is strong because it is a state, and it is strong because it has a powerful army. Since we can’t show solidarity with it, it seems that we can’t show solidarity with its citizens either, without fear of finding ourselves on the wrong side of history—even when those same citizens find themselves unarmed in the face of killers fully equipped by other states whose military power is not in doubt and has unfortunately already proved itself, often against their own people…

Viewed from this perspective, the silence of universities attests to a particularly impoverished understanding of what constitutes legitimate politics, aimed at the enhancement of justice through the articulation of socially and politically contested ideals, rather than merely balancing the forces at play. This conception has become so ingrained in our minds that we no longer know how to break free from it. What this inability does, in the case of many academics and the semi-knowledgeable public, is to prevent them from addressing recent events for what they unequivocally reveal—a political struggle not between a “strong” and a “weak,” but between two societal visions, one of which condemns the cold execution, rape, and mutilation of the adversary, while the other advocates and encourages it. The result is nothing but silence. Attempting to justify this silence on the shallow grounds that on both sides of the conflict the other is perceived only in the guise of the enemy or the adversary, simply indicates that we have forsaken the endeavor of understanding politics and the real processes of politicization that occur in all societies, even in those torn by national conflicts, such as Israeli and Palestinian societies, where the confrontation and reformulation of various ideals of justice are played out.

Finally, another problem has come to the fore. What is expressed in the silence of the universities is the constrained, prevented, and hindered relationship that European social science research has with the reality of the Jewish fact, namely with the specific social and historical experience of this group. What prevails, it must be said, is the most complete disinterest in what their point of view can represent and express. While research and teaching programs in recent decades have made a point of increasingly integrating the point of view of women, postcolonial populations, and gender minorities, and while incentives, especially financial ones, are particularly strong in each of these areas, the case of the Jews is not among those that we intend to address, study, document—in a word, to strive to understand, precisely with a view to advancing what is supposed to be collective emancipation through the production of knowledge. 

Yet no one would dispute that, objectively, Jews are a consistent minority. Yet does this mean that, in common opinion, they are on the “minority” side? That’s the question we’d do well to ask ourselves. If we had included them among the various minority perspectives to be taken into account in order to arrive at the most complete and accurate possible picture of reality, we would have noticed several things. Firstly, the Jews’ affiliation with the dominant “strong” rather than the “weak” camp finds no resonance among them, and the pride they take in their reconstruction is entirely linked to their ability to endure. Secondly, their constant gaze toward Israel stems from their awareness of vulnerability and potential exposure, feeling threatened, or even killed in the Diaspora. Their consistent interest in Israel’s fate is also informed by the knowledge that this small state, sandwiched between hostile authoritarian regimes, is far from secure, yet it represents the best refuge in case, despite their status as citizens in Western nation-states, the ordeal of persecution engulfs them once again.

Let’s continue with the science fiction hypothesis. If social science research had made the effort to integrate their point of view, it would have made it possible to perceive an essential element of the Jewish psyche. When Jews today speak of pogroms, holocaust, or genocide to describe what has just happened to them, it is not to “mobilize” international opinion in their favor by using categories of international law that obligate everyone to condemn what they have just suffered, but because the words they use are drawn from their own historical experience. In doing so, they bear witness to the fact that the events that have taken place are seamlessly woven into the very fabric of that experience. Today, no one denies any victim the right to name their experience with the words that seem to best correspond to them, as the expressive mode they themselves have produced. Jews, however, are now asked for something else, which is practically the opposite—providing photos of their mutilated children, so that we can judge whether their point of view is right “in all impartiality”—again, in the name of the objectivity to which knowledge must conform.

Surely one of the greatest failings of the social sciences is their inability to integrate the Jewish experience and its point of view into the variation of minority points of view. Yet, this openness would have allowed these sciences to become both more reflective and more incisive in their mode of knowledge That Jews can be killed because they are Jews, that their point of view, saturated by a thousand years of historical experience that apparently never dries up, can really matter in the formation and life of contemporary societies, is not on the agenda of current social science research. What’s more, when Jews protest that a self-described subaltern position is clearly antisemitic, they are accused of competing memories, or of putting their own above those of others. In short, they are suspected of not wanting to leave room for any point of view other than their own. In truth, the problem is just the opposite—it’s that theirs is no longer of interest to anyone. And this at a time when it is precisely their own experience, in the tragedy that it represents, that has proved so formative for the reconstruction of modern societies in post-1945 Europe—“How could we do this? What’s wrong with our idea of collective emancipation that made us do it? How can we create a democratic and egalitarian society if we do not achieve this goal?” These were the questions that dominated the minds of the time and deeply penetrated the social and historical sciences. The latter, in their task of enlightening public judgment, were undeniably inspired by the effort—successful or not, but at least initiated—to integrate the Jewish point of view and to make it, in some respects, the fulcrum of their intellectual, political, and moral reconstruction. In short, these were burning issues for the self-understanding of our societies at a time when Europe was being rebuilt. At that time, the universities were there to make this gesture. Today, they seem incapable of even trying to understand why they prefer to remain silent when “it”—which they then take pains to name—happens again.

Julia Christ

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