Lack of consequences emboldens increasingly violent behavior
November 14, 2023 - Tepid response by the administration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has encouraged an escalating level of protests by supporters of Hamas who call openly for the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel and accuse Israelis and Jews of genocide. Hamas is the ruling party in Gaza and labeled a terrorist organization by the United States.
Shortly after the October 7 brutal and deadly invasion of Israel by Hamas, MIT President Sally Kornbluth admitted awareness of threats against Jewish and Israel-connected students, as well as Palestinian students. But in an October 10 video address to the campus, she simply said "we must ensure" that the rhetoric would not devolve into personal attacks, harassment, or violence. No practical consequences to ensure as much were outlined, and none were taken.
A series of increasingly violent and increasingly large and disruptive pro-Hamas demonstrations succeeded this lack of consequences. A petition from the MIT Israel Alliance and circulated by the MIT Hillel, the main Jewish organization on campus, gives a timeline of these increasingly threatening events.
On October 19, a crowd of hundreds blocked the Student Center shouting "One solution, Intifada revolution." "Intifada: refers to a long, violent period of suicide bombings of crowded restaurants, bus stops and other attacks on civilians. As noted by the MIT Israel Alliance petition, "It is tantamount to calling for repeats of Poway, California and Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shootings here in the United States."
In response Sally Kornbluth released another video in which she said calls to violence were "unacceptable." Once again, she provided no consequences for doing so.
Accordingly, the Coalition Against Apartheid (CAA) planned a more elaborate protest for November 9. The CAA had responded to the October 7 massacre with the statement that they "hold the Israeli regime responsible for all unfolding violence."
MIT Israel Alliance preemptively met with the campus administration the previous night to explain that the CAA's planned blockade of Lobby 7, the main entrance to campus and the "infinite corridor" leading to most classrooms beyond, violated Institute policies regarding harassment. It also violated policies regarding disturbing the peace and interfering with the normal operation of the institute.
A communication was sent out that night by Suzy M. Nelson, Vice Chancellor and Dean for Student Life. In it she warned that students might not "disrupt living, working, and learning spaces" and that "MIT does not protect direct threats, harassment, plagiarism, or other speech that falls outside the boundaries of the First Amendment." The only approved venues for protests were outdoors and had to be reserved in advance. Finally, consequences were enumerated. "Failure to comply with these regulations will result in referral to the Committee on Discipline."
But by this time the CAA had been emboldened. They staged a "die-in" in the Lobby 7 three-story rotunda. This included loud and prolonged chants calling for Intifada and freedom for Palestine from the "river to the sea." The latter is a call to ethnically cleanse the entire land of Israel of Jews. MIT responded with a communication to the protesters (and eventual counter-protesters) to leave the area. "A line has been crossed," the communication read, which was from President Kornbluth, Provost Cynthia Barnhart,and Chancellor Melissa Nobles. "By choosing to violate our policies and guidelines, you have chosen to accept the consequences, and made yourself subject to MIT disciplinary action." Any student who remained past 12:15 would be subject to suspension.
According the MIT Israel Alliance petition, CAA responded by calling for more protesters to come assist from outside the university. "Everyone, regardless of affiliation with MIT, are welcome," reads their communication.
Matters devolved to the point that an advisory was sent to all students to avoid Lobby 7. MIT Hillel and some faculty strongly recommended that Jewish students specifically not do so.
Some students stayed past the deadline, but none were suspended, as promised. Instead, President Kornbluth released the following statement later that day, claiming there were "serious concerns about collateral consequences for the students, such as visa issues," so that as an "interim action" the university was only suspending them from "non-academic campus activities" and allowing them to remain enrolled and attend classes. Supposedly, an "Ad Hoc Complaint Response Team" will deliver a final adjudication on the issue.
This lack of consequences led to the largest demonstration thus far. On November 12, thousands of protesters descended on the school, massing on Massachusetts Avenue, a main artery between Boston and Cambridge that divides the living quarters of the campus from the classrooms and laboratories. Blocking entrance to the campus, the group of largely non-students yelled epithets against Israel through megaphones and displayed large Palestinian flags from all sides. A large banner accused Israel of genocide. Other signs contained other blood libels.
MIT Israel Alliance is demanding the Institute permanently ban CAA and any other group that violates MIT rules and incites antisemitism. In addition the leaders of the CAA and of any other such groups must be disciplined and removed from campus for a substantial period. "If MIT takes no action, it is a clear signal that Jews and Israelis are unwelcome here. It is a clear signal that the administration supports the normalization of antisemitism on campus."
In not one single communication has President Kornbluth or any other member of the university administration condemned antisemitism or taken any kind of a stand to defend the state of Israel.
"I am deliberately not specifying the viewpoints," Kornbluth said in her November 9 communication, "as the issue at hand is not the substance of the views but where and how they were expressed."
Alyssa Erdley is an alumnus of MIT.