Six words turned Marc Lamont Hill into a symbol of the divisive effort to set parameters on acceptable speech about the state of Israel and the rights of Palestinians.
In an address last month at the United Nations, Hill called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” repeating a phrase — “from the river to the sea” — that has been used by terror groups intent on the destruction of Israel.
Two institutions reacted differently to the use of these six words by the academic, activist and pundit. The split reveals how the disagreement over anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is intensifying on college campuses, at media organizations and within political parties.
CNN, where Hill had been a contributor, cut ties with the 39-year-old almost immediately, as conservatives and hard-line advocates of Israel cried foul, and other groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, also expressed concern about the professor’s language. “Marc Lamont Hill is no longer under contract with CNN,” a spokeswoman for the network said without further explanation.
But on Tuesday, Temple University, where Hill is a professor of media studies, reached a different determination, finding that his speech was protected by the First Amendment. The board of trustees of the Philadelphia university condemned the professor’s remarks but said it would not dismiss or even discipline him.
Hill’s speech, the trustees wrote in a statement, included language that “many regard as promoting violence.” The phrase “from the river to the sea,” they observed, “has been used by anti-Israel terror groups” and is “widely perceived as language that threatens the existence of the State of Israel.” They acknowledged the criticism of his remarks as “hate speech” and “virulent anti-Semitism.”
On the other hand, they reasoned, Temple’s role as a public university is “to support a learning and work environment that is open to a wide diversity of thought, opinion and dialogue by people of all backgrounds.” Furthermore, the trustees wrote, Hill, who is also an alumnus of the school, was not representing his employer when he appeared at the U.N.'s International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on Nov. 28.
“We recognize that Professor Hill’s comments are his own, that his speech as a private individual is entitled to the same Constitutional protection of any other citizen, and that he has through subsequent statements expressly rejected anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence,” the university concluded.
When the controversy erupted two weeks ago, Hill defended his language, saying the phrasing had a “variety of meanings” and that he was advocating for full citizenship rights in Israel, as well as a return to the pre-1967 borders before the Six-Day War, which are the lines that have long been understood as a basis for a possible peace agreement. The genesis of the phrase remains contested, in part because of the multiple uses to which the slogan has been put. It expresses Palestinian national aspirations but with varying degrees of militancy.
Several days later, the professor apologized in the Philadelphia Inquirer “for the reception of my message” and affirmed that “we must reject anti-Semitism in any form or fashion.”
But just as Hill enjoys the protection of free speech, Temple’s statement observed, so, too, do the university’s governing officials. The trustees, “in exercise of their own Constitutionally-protected right as citizens to express their views,” they wrote, “hereby state their disappointment, displeasure, and disagreement with Professor Hill’s comments, and reaffirm in the strongest possible terms the President’s condemnation of all anti-Semitic, racist or incendiary language, hate speech, calls to violence, or the disparagement of any person or persons based on religion, nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or identity.”
The statement was in line with earlier comments made by university leaders, who distanced the university from the tenured faculty member’s views without suggesting that they were grounds for dismissal. Patrick O’Connor, the chairman of the board of trustees, did go so far as to label Hill’s remarks “hate speech” in an interview with the Inquirer.
The chairman’s judgment was rebuked days later by a collection of Temple professors in an op-ed in the same newspaper, in which they said they had no confidence in the leadership provided by O’Connor and defended their colleague’s “academic freedom to express his views on the Israeli occupation of Palestine.” The American Association of University Professors also came to Hill’s defense.
Temple’s decision drew divergent reactions, while also making strange bedfellows. The left-wing Jacobin magazine celebrated the university’s move as a “big win for free speech,” bringing it into agreement with the free-speech watchdog FIRE, which has been accused of having a conservative bias.
On the other side, Ryan Fournier, the chairman of Students for Trump, asked Tuesday evening on Twitter why Temple hadn’t held Hill “accountable for his hateful rhetoric,” citing the example of CNN’s decisive action against him.
The opposing responses replayed, in miniature, the debate over Hill’s remarks and their reception at CNN. Some cheered the move by the network as a sign that it wouldn’t brook anti-Semitism, while others said the outrage intentionally conflated defensible criticism of Israel with animosity toward Jews. Noura Erakat, a Palestinian American human rights attorney and assistant professor at George Mason University, wrote in The Washington Post that CNN’s decision fit a pattern of “punishing black internationalists,” citing examples such as actor and activist Paul Robeson and boxer Muhammad Ali.
Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul general in New York, tweeted that the remarks were equivalent to a “swastika painted in red,” according to a column in Haaretz. Seth Mandel, the editor of the Washington Examiner, called Hill’s statement an “explicit call for Jewish genocide.” Where Joe Concha, a media reporter and columnist for the Hill newspaper, saw a gesture to “a Hamas script,” as he told Fox’s Sean Hannity, a writer for the left-wing In These Times magazine saw evidence of “the proud black anti-colonial tradition.”
The conflict didn’t unfold in dueling punditry alone.
In an indication that these debates could soon play out with more volatility on Capitol Hill, Democratic Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib of Michigan blasted CNN’s decision last month on Twitter, writing that “we all have a right to speak up about injustice any and everywhere.”
Tlaib will be one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, alongside Democratic Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. The two women will also be the first two members of Congress to be on the record in support of the hotly contested movement known as BDS, for boycott, divestment and sanctions. It aims to apply pressure on Israel, including through moratoriums on engagement with Israeli universities, to win Palestinian rights.
Their stance suggests that the Democratic caucus may soon feature a wider split when it comes to Israel. This is notable amid warnings from the American Civil Liberties Union that congressional leadership is planning to slip a measure “criminalizing politically motivated boycotts of Israel” into an end-of-year spending bill. The civil-liberties group argues that the legislation, originally sponsored by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), would violate the First Amendment.
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