The unravelling of academic freedom on US campuses

In 1970, the British socialist Mervyn Jones addressed the peculiar, indeed unique, passions that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inspires, far more than any other. Jones was addressing fellow socialists, though his remarks apply to left-liberals too. He termed the conflict a “labyrinth” and wrote, “One cannot easily recall another problem over which Socialists of good faith have disagreed so much” – disagreed over everything from “sympathies” and “possible solutions” to an “analysis of the very nature of the problem.”

Almost from the moment that Hamas’ attacks of 7 October unfolded, the USA has been roiled by vitriolic debates that prove Jones’ observation – debates that, frankly, I have never witnessed in my lifetime. (The country was also torn by the Vietnam War, but that was a conflict in which tens of thousands of US soldiers were dying.) Both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel (reductive terms that I try to avoid) advocates have been punished: A magazine editor and a leading university president have been fired, speakers have been cancelled, medical school doctors have been relieved of their posts. Legal organisations, non-profits, unions, businesses, publications and city councils have been wracked by extraordinarily hostile internecine discord. Job offers have been rescinded. Even a Santa Claus was fired.

But much of the attention has focused on the country’s most elite and influential universities, which train our future leaders and are the object of both awe and resentment. And just as the Israel-Hamas war revealed long-standing rifts between what I would call the anti-fascist and anti-colonial Lefts, it also revealed trends and practices that have been distorting academic life for at least the last decade, and that have been decried by some on the Right and a smaller minority on the Left.

In the most immediate sense, the problem started with a plethora of statements – some shockingly bloodthirsty – that issued from students at Harvard and other universities, which praised the 7 October attacks, blamed Israel for them, exalted the Hamas “martyrs” and eagerly anticipated future violence against Israel. Demonstrations calling for the elimination of Israel, which some regard as a genocidal aim, became frequent. Many university administrations were either silent about the attacks themselves or issued anodyne statements: a sharp contrast to their heartfelt condemnations of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and to their support for the Black Lives Matter protests that followed.

The atmosphere at some campuses soon turned more ominous as some factions of the pro-Palestinian movement became more extreme: Jewish students were threatened with death; violently antisemitic messages flooded social media; classes were disrupted by students chanting Palestinian slogans; public spaces were defaced; speakers were shouted down; classrooms and faculty offices were blocked. What in the world was happening and, more important, why did university administrators seem to be paralysed? The presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – three of the country’s most selective institutions – were called before a congressional committee to explain.

It did not go well. Disaster, fiasco, pathetic, embarrassing, feeble, infuriating, hypocritical: the presidents’ testimony elicited a tsunami of outrage from various political quarters. The hearings were conducted by Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a right-wing Trump supporter, but the criticism was hardly confined to the right. Laurence Tribe, who taught at Harvard Law School for decades and whose defense of constitutional rights has made him a hero to the liberal-left, described the Harvard president’s testimony as “hesitant, formulaic”, “bizarrely evasive” and “deeply troubling”.

At the hearings, the academic leaders offered bloodless, legalistic answers to the question of whether advocating the genocide of the Jewish people contradicts the schools’ codes of conduct. (Let’s not lose sight of how extraordinary it is that this question needs to be asked.) “To call their performance robotic would insult robots,” Heather Mac Donald wrote in City Journal. The three presidents might as well have been discussing a physics equation; they manifested little understanding of the fact that for many Jews, genocide is hardly a theoretical issue. In response to often hostile questioning, the academic leaders insisted that the First Amendment, and the academy’s longstanding commitment to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas, meant that only harassing conduct, not heinous speech, could be subjected to disciplinary action. In essence, they argued that “context matters”: speech and action are not the same. In this, they were right.

The problem, however, is that academia, and especially elite academia, is the place where free speech goes to die. In fact, the nonpartisan free-speech organisation FIRE ranks Harvard as last among 248 US universities when it comes to protecting free speech. (University of Pennsylvania is second to last.) And that, too, has a long context.


The First Amendment is often misunderstood by outsiders, and by many Americans too. Its defense of free speech – and more important, free thought – was extremely radical in the 18th century and still is. It is the first clause in our Bill of Rights because the founders believed that in its absence no other rights would matter or, even, be possible. It prohibits any governmental body from either prohibiting or mandating speech. (Private universities are not required to adhere to First Amendment principles, though they claim to do so; as recipients of federal funds they are, however, subject to federal anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws.)

There are many exceptions to the amendment. Calling for imminent violence is not protected. Death threats and extortion are not protected. One cannot falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theatre or blare music at four in the morning in a residential neighbourhood. Defamation is not protected, which is why a jury recently decided that Rudy Giuliani, one of Donald Trump’s former lawyers, must pay $148 million to two African-American election-poll workers whom Giuliani falsely accused of electoral fraud – accusations that led to years of horrifically violent, racist threats against them and that ruined their lives. But political speech – even burning the American flag – is protected.

Despite their stated dedication to First Amendment principles, many universities spend a lot of energy curtailing speech. Sometimes this emanates from the Right, and has the force of the courts and the government behind it. In some Republican-controlled states, most notoriously Florida, prohibitions on how teachers can, and cannot, address gender-related issues or teach the history of slavery have been legislated. Professors are leaving the state’s universities. Conservative groups like the erroneously-named Moms for Liberty are busy banning books, especially those dealing with LGBTQ or racial issues.

But at the elite universities, the assaults on free speech stem almost entirely from the Left, resulting in a culture of anxiety that muffles professors and students alike. So-called hate speech codes, which are both vague and capacious, dominate. Controversial views are frequently punished: at Harvard, a law school professor was stripped of his faculty deanship because he joined the defense team of an alleged sexual predator, which offended feminists, and an evolutionary biologist was vilified for asserting that there are “two sexes,” which outraged trans activists; she eventually left the university. At MIT, a noted geophysicist’s public lecture was cancelled because he had critiqued some aspects of affirmative action. These and other incidents are well-known within academia, and to some outside it, which is why the presidents’ sudden championing of free speech struck many as ludicrous or worse. Time and again, university administrators have placated angry students rather than defend either their own faculties or the free circulation of ideas; the word “feckless” comes to mind.

Talk of “privilege” abounds; in fact, in a sharp departure from its courageous history of defending political dissidents, many on the Left now argue that the First Amendment itself is a form of privilege and therefore needn’t be defended. A bizarre campus culture of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” has emerged. Underlying all this is the premise that offense is synonymous with actual danger – that speech and action are the same – and that students must therefore be protected from ideas that don’t accord with their own. Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive psychologist and robust free-speech advocate (who was the target of an attempted cancellation), has described the terrain: “Vast regions in the landscape of ideas are no-go zones, and dissenting ideas are greeted with incomprehension, outrage, and censorship.”

Complicating this situation has been the emergence of a group of ideas and practices called “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI), which gained steam after George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matters protests. It is difficult to separate the criticism of the presidents’ testimony from the DEI context. Though DEI aimed to increase minority representation, it is also associated with a range of highly contested ideas and has, perhaps ironically, created an intellectual monoculture: the very opposite of the multiplicity that diversity implies.

DEI is a constellation of ideas, but certain themes predominate. Many of its proponents consider any racial disparities in academic test scores or grades to be ipso racist, and argue for discarding such assessments. Some push for virtual quotas in hiring and student acceptances as the sign of “equity,” which they contrast to equality of opportunity. Others posit that US history should be taught as, primarily, the story of “structural racism”. All these ideas are debatable: except that, often, they are not. Throughout the country, DEI has become the reigning ideology at numerous universities, colleges and even elementary and high schools. Combatting “white hegemony” and “neo-colonialism” is a pedagogic aim; the Columbia School of Social Work’s framework for its entire curriculum focuses on “power, race, oppression and privilege.”

Faculty fear committing “micro-aggressions”, which can include anything from mispronouncing a student’s name to introducing an idea that makes them uncomfortable. (No one actually knows what a micro-aggression is, so everyone is kept on their toes.) All this has made faculty nervous, but far more important is that students are too: they tell me that they fear using the wrong word, expressing the wrong idea or posting the wrong thing on social media. As one explained to me, “We’re policing each other.”

Administrations are policing them too. Students and faculty at some universities attend mandatory anti-racist training sessions. Fealty to DEI principles is a stated prerequisite for hiring or promotion at some universities (including, at times, mine).

Meanwhile already hired professors can be required to post “anti-racist” affirmations, an eerie echo of the anti-Communist oaths required during the McCarthy era. Many of DEI’s critics emanate from the Right, but there are liberals and leftists, including prominent black intellectuals, who also reproach it: Randall Kennedy, a leading legal theorist at Harvard who identifies with the Left, has observed that “the DEI regime has a big problem, and that big problem is the problem of coercion.” Danielle Allen, an influential democracy theorist (also at Harvard) who was a member of the university’s initial DEI committee, has lamented the fact that like so many political projects, the positive intentions of DEI morphed into their opposite. In the wake of the Congressional hearings, she wrote, “Counter to the anti-racism agenda, we cannot create a framework for inclusion and belonging that is focused on accusation. . . Somehow the racial reckoning of 2020 lost sight of that core goal of a culture of mutual respect… A shaming culture was embraced instead.” 


A crisis can be an opportunity, and it is unclear what direction universities will take in the wake of the Congressional hearings and the debates – welcome debates, in my view – that they have inspired. The University of Pennsylvania’s president was fired (cancelled, in effect), which strikes me as exactly the wrong response, if only because it implies that the problem lies with an individual rather than with a culture. Some have called for universities to expand the definition of hate speech to more specifically include antisemitism and to fold antisemitism into the DEI project: another wrong turn. (As David French, a conservative New York Times columnist and Harvard Law School grad argued, “Censorship helped put these presidents in their predicament, and censorship will not help them escape.”) Conversely, others have argued that DEI has proved to be inherently anti-democratic and should be abolished, though it is extremely unlikely that many universities will accede to that.

At the moment, both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students feel beleaguered, victimised and unsafe, particularly on highly-politicised campuses in New York City. Jewish students feel intimidated when they walk through a gauntlet of masked protesters shouting “From the river to the sea!” as they go to class or see signs saying “Zionism is Fascism”. Pro-Palestinian students have been doxed – an indefensible attack on their right to expression. Anti-Israeli events have been cancelled, and Students for Justice in Palestine, the most extreme group, has been suspended by several universities: sometimes for speech, sometimes for actions. Dueling headlines in a recent edition of the New York Times capture the atmosphere well: “Defenders of Palestinians Feel Muzzled on Campus” and “Feeling Estranged, Some Jews Wonder if They Have a Place at Harvard”.

Allen has stressed the urgency of the situation: “The health of our democracy requires renovation of our colleges and universities,” she wrote. My own dream is that faculty and students will become unfettered, that an atmosphere of robust intellectual debate will be fostered, and that faculty can raise a generation of students to be fearless, independent critical thinkers unburdened by dogma, which is the prerequisite for an informed citizenry. But changing a culture is a difficult task, far more so than issuing new guidelines. And it is actually quite hard to get the balance right between speech and harassment, and to figure out if, say, overt support for terrorist acts crosses the line from one to the other. Allen admits, “We do not know how to protect intellectual freedom and establish a culture of mutual respect at the same time. But this must be our project.”

Contents – Having the last laugh: The comedians who won’t be silenced


The Winter 2023 issue of Index looks at how comedians are being targeted by oppressive regimes around the world in order to crack down on dissent. In this issue, we attempt to uncover the extent of the threat to comedy worldwide, highlighting examples of comedians being harassed, threatened or silenced by those wishing to censor them.

The writers in this issue report on example of comedians being targeted all over the globe, from Russia to Uganda to Brazil. Laughter is often the best medicine in dark times, making comedy a vital tool of dissent. When the state places restrictions on what people can joke about and suppresses those who breach their strict rules, it's no laughing matter.

Up Front

Still laughing, just, by Jemimah Steinfeld: When free speech becomes a laughing matter.

The Index, by Mark Frary: The latest in the world of free expression, from Russian elections to a memorable gardener


Silent Palestinians, by Samir El-Youssef: Voices of reason are being stamped out.

Soundtrack for a siege, by JP O'Malley: Bosnia’s story of underground music, resistance and Bono.

Libraries turned into Arsenals, by Sasha Dovzhyk: Once silent spaces in Ukraine are pivotal in times of war.

Shot by both sides, by Martin Bright: The Russian writers being cancelled.

A sinister news cycle, by Winthrop Rodgers: A journalist speaks out from behind bars in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Smoke, fire and a media storm, by John Lewinski: Can respect for a local culture and media scrutiny co-exist? The aftermath of disaster in Hawaii has put this to the test.

Message marches into lives and homes, by Anmol Irfan: How Pakistan's history of demonising women's movements is still at large today.

A snake devouring its own tail, by JS Tennant: A Cuban journalist faces civic death, then forced emigration.

A 'seasoned dissident' speaks up, by Martin Bright: Writing against Russian authority has come full circle for Gennady Katsov.

Special Report: Having the last laugh - The comedians who won't be silenced

And God created laughter (so fuck off), by Shalom Auslander: On failing to be serious, and trading rabbis for Kafka.

The jokes that are made - and banned - in China, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Journalist turned comedian Vicky Xu is under threat after exposing Beijing’s crimes but in comedy she finds a refuge.

Giving Putin the finger, by John Sweeney: Reflecting on a comedy festival that tells Putin to “fuck off”.

Meet the Iranian cartoonist who had to flee his country, by Daisy Ruddock: Kianoush Ramezani is laughing in the face of the Ayatollah.

The SLAPP stickers, by Rosie Holt and Charlie Holt: Sometimes it’s not the autocrats, or the audience, that comedians fear, it’s the lawyers.

This great stage of fools, by Danson Kahyana: A comedy troupe in Uganda pushes the line on acceptable speech.

Joke's on Lukashenka speaking rubbish Belarusian. Or is it?, by Maria Sorensen: Comedy under an authoritarian regime could be hilarious, it it was allowed.

Laughing matters, by Daisy Ruddock: Knock knock. Who's there? The comedy police.

Taliban takeover jokes, by Spozhmai Maani and Rizwan Sharif: In Afghanistan, the Taliban can never by the punchline.

Turkey's standups sit down, by Kaya Ge: Turkey loses its sense of humour over a joke deemed offensive.

An unfunny double act, by Thiện Việt: A gold-plated steak and a maternal slap lead to problems for two comedians in Vietnam.

Dragged down, by Tilewa Kazeem: Nigeria's queens refuse to be dethroned.

Turning sorrow into satire, by Zahra Hankir: A lesson from Lebanon: even terrible times need comedic release.

'Hatred has won, the artist has lost', by Salil Tripathi: Hindu nationalism and cries of blasphemy are causing jokes to land badly in India.

Did you hear the one about...? No, you won't have, by Alexandra Domenech: Putin has strangled comedy in Russia, but that doesn't stop Russian voices.

Of Conservatives, cancel culture and comics, by Simone Marques: In Brazil, a comedy gay Jesus was met with Molotov cocktails.

Standing up for Indigenous culture, by Katie Dancey-Downs: Comedian Janelle Niles deals in the uncomfortable, even when she'd rather not.


Your truth or mine, by Bobby Duffy: Debate: Is there a free speech crisis on UK campuses?

All the books that might not get written, by Andrew Lownie: Freedom of information faces a right royal problem.

An image or a thousand words?, by Ruth Anderson: When to look at an image and when to look away.


Lukashenka's horror dream, by Alhierd Bacharevič and Mark Frary: The Belarusian author’s new collection of short stories is an act of resistance. We publish one for the first time in English.

Lost in time and memory, by Xue Tiwei: In a new short story, a man finds himself haunted by the ghosts of executions.

The hunger games, by Stephen Komarnyckyj and Mykola Khvylovy: The lesson of a Ukrainian writer’s death must be remembered today.

The woman who stopped Malta's mafia taking over, by Paul Caruana Galizia: Daphne Caruana Galizia’s son reckons with his mother’s assassination.

Having the last laugh: The comedians who won’t be silenced

The Winter 2023 issue of Index looks at how comedy is being censored around the world. Comedy has always been a powerful tool of dissent, but many comedians are being threatened, imprisoned or even killed by oppressive regimes wishing to silence them. Laughter is often the best medicine in dark times, and to target comedy is to try to extinguish hope itself. We highlight the extent of the problem in our magazine, with stories from Russia to Uganda to Brazil reminding us that the dangers of censorship can be experienced everywhere. Outside of our special report, Sasha Dovzhk looks at how libraries in Ukraine have played a pivotal part in the war against Russia, and we publish short stories by Alhierd Bacharevic and Xue Yiwei. Elsewhere, Samir El-Youssef highlights Palestinians who have been silenced in Gaza and Israel, Winthrop Rodgers interviews Kurdish journalist Guhdar Zebari about his lengthy imprisonment in Iraq, and Martin Bright speaks to Russian artists facing cancellation. 



Alhierd Bacharevič

Alhierd Bacharevič

Alhierd Bacharevič is a Belarusian writer and translator, who previously worked as a teacher of Belarusian and a journalist. His first texts were published in 1993 and his books h...Read More

Alhierd Bacharevič

Alhierd Bacharevič

Alhierd Bacharevič is a Belarusian writer and translator, who previously worked as a teacher of Belarusian and a journalist. His first texts were published in 1993 and his books have been translated into German, French, Polish and Russian.

Rosie Holt

Rosie Holt

Rosie Holt is a British actor, comedian and satirist. She rose to fame during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 with her satirical Woman Who... videos, which were posted onto X...Read More

Rosie Holt

Rosie Holt

Rosie Holt is a British actor, comedian and satirist. She rose to fame during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 with her satirical Woman Who... videos, which were posted onto X (then Twitter).

Vicky Xu

Vicky Xu

Vicky Xu is a China-born Australian journalist, writer and stand-up comedian. As a journalist, she covers international relations, human rights and national security, and is best k...Read More

Vicky Xu

Vicky Xu

Vicky Xu is a China-born Australian journalist, writer and stand-up comedian. As a journalist, she covers international relations, human rights and national security, and is best known for her investigative work on human rights abuses in China.


The SLAPP stickers

A conversation between a wokey comedian, Rosie Holt, and her wonky lawyer brother, Charlie Holt, co-chair of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition, on how open secrets survive on the comedy circuit

Joke’s on Lukashenka speaking rubbish Belarusian. Or is it?

Belarus’ belligerent leader is both tyrannical and comical. It’s fodder for the nation’s comics – when they’re not being muzzled

Fined thousands for a joke

Malaysian Comedian Rizal Van Geysel tells Francis Clarke how jokes landed him with a court case which inspired his recent show

From the Danube to the Baltic Sea, Germany takes an authoritarian turn

Since the Hamas’ 7 October terrorist attacks and the subsequent Israeli assault on Gaza, German authorities are using increasingly illiberal measures to curtail pro-Palestine activism. Under the guise of combatting Israel-related antisemitism, civic space for freedom of expression and assembly is shrinking.

The seemingly isolated incidents highlighted in this article are piling up and the curtailing of civic space is starting to be noticed internationally: Civicus, which ranks countries by freedom of expression rights, recently downgraded Germany in a review from "open" to "restricted" due to repression of pro-Palestinian voices, as well as of climate activists.

Stigmatisation of pro-Palestine activism

In her speech celebrating the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Israel in 2008, former chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the historical responsibility of Germany for the Shoah, including the security of Israel, as part of Germany’s “Staatsräson” (reason for existence). As Hamas has never credibly renounced its goal of destroying Israel, many German policymakers instinctively lean towards near unconditional support for Israel in the face of such adversaries. For them, the 7 October attacks only served to highlight that Germany cannot give an inch to critics of Israel.

There are long-standing disagreements around where to draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and attacks on Israel that single it out because it is a Jewish state, are expressed in antisemitic ways or are motivated by antisemitic views. For example, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism acknowledges that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic” but identifies seven examples of when attacks on Israel may be antisemitic (taking into account the overall context). For example, it could be antisemitic to reference classic antisemitic tropes such as the blood libel conspiracy myth to describe Israel, deny the Jewish people’s right to self-determination or blame Jews collectively for the actions of Israel, according to IHRA.

While Germany has adopted IHRA, much looser standards seem to be applied by authorities and commentators committed to tackling Israel-related antisemitism. Calls for a binational state, advocacy for the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) or accusations that Israel is committing Apartheid are regularly identified as antisemitic. There is a strong sense that given its historical responsibility, it is not Germany’s place to judge, or let anyone else judge, Israel even as its offensive in Gaza has resulted in one of the highest rates of death in armed conflict since the beginning of the 21st century, and disproportionately affects civilians.

Against this background, advocacy for Palestinian political self-determination and human rights is cast as suspicious. In the liberal Die Zeit newspaper, journalist Petra Pinzler criticised the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg as she “sympathises more and more openly with the Palestinians and thus divides the climate movement.” Apparently sympathy with the Palestinians has become a cause for concern.

The debates since 7 October have created an atmosphere in which pro-Palestinian voices are more and more stigmatised. Pro-Palestinian protests have repeatedly been banned by local authorities. Their dystopian rationale for these bans revolves around the idea that, based on assessments of previous marches, crimes are likely to be committed by protesters. The practice is not new: in the past, German police have even banned protests commemorating the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the collective mass expulsion and displacement of around 700,000 Palestinians from their homes during the 1947-49 wars following the adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine by the United Nations. In reaction to pro-Palestine protests since 7 October, the antisemitism commissioner of North Rhine Westphalia and former federal justice minister even suggested the police should pay closer attention to the nationality of pro-Palestine protest organisers as protests organised by non-Germans could be banned more easily.

Furthermore, pro-Palestinian political symbols are being falsely associated with Hamas or other pro-terrorist organisations. In early November, the Federal Interior Ministry banned the chant “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” as a symbol of both Hamas and Samidoun, a support network for the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the European Union.

While one plausible interpretation of the “From the River to the Sea” slogan is that it is a call for the destruction of Israel, it is equally plausible to understand it as a call for a binational state with full equality of all citizens. Without context, the slogan cannot automatically be identified as antisemitic, though it is of course entirely legitimate to criticise this ambivalence. As has been extensively documented, the slogan does not originate with nor is exclusively used by Hamas.

Apart from being based on misinformation, banning "From the River to the Sea" has also created the ludicrous situation that the German police force is asked to make assessments on whether holding a "From the River we do see nothing like equality" placard is an expression of support for terrorism. A former advisor to Angela Merkel even called for the German citizenship of a previously stateless Palestinian woman to be revoked who posted a similar slogan ("From the River to the Sea #FreePalestine") on her Instagram.

In some cases, these dynamics venture into the absurd. On 14 October, the activist Iris Hefets was temporarily detained in Berlin for holding a placard that read: “As a Jew & an Israeli Stop the Genocide in Gaza.”

These illiberal and ill-conceived measures are not limited to protests. In response to the 7 October attacks, authorities in Berlin allowed schools to ban students from wearing keffiyeh scarves to not “endanger school peace”.

Curtailing civic spaces

While these trends have been accelerated since 7 October, they predate it. In 2019, the German Bundestag passed a resolution that condemned the BDS movement as antisemitic. It referenced the aforementioned IHRA definition of antisemitism (which does not comment on boycotts), compared the BDS campaign to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish business and called on authorities to no longer fund groups or individuals that support BDS.

BDS calls for the boycott of Israeli goods, divestment from companies involved in the occupation of Arab territories and sanctions to force the Israeli government to comply with international law and respect the rights of Palestinians, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Inspired by the boycott campaign against Apartheid South Africa, BDS has attracted many supporters, but critics have claimed that BDS singles out Israel and delegitimises its existence. Accusations of antisemitism within the movement should of course be taken seriously: BDS supporters have previously been accused of employing antisemitic rhetoric about malign Jewish influence and intimidating Jewish students on campus. However, many of BDS’ core demands are clearly not antisemitic. Since the BDS lacks a central leadership that would issue official stances, it is difficult to make blanket statements about the movement in its entirety.

The 2019 resolution is now being cited to shut down cultural events. A planned exhibition in Essen on Afrofuturism was cancelled over social media posts that, according to the museum, “do not acknowledge the terroristic attack of the Hamas and consider the Israeli military operation in Gaza a genocide” and expressed support for BDS. The Frankfurt book fair “indefinitely postponed” a literary prize for the Palestinian author Adania Shibli, after one member of the jury resigned due to supposed anti-Israel and antisemitic themes in her book. Shibli has since been accused by the left-wing Taz newspaper of being an “engaged BDS supporter” for having signed one BDS letter in 2007 and a 2019 letter that criticised the city of Dortmund for revoking another literary price for an author that supports BDS. A presentation by the award-winning Forensic Architecture research group at Goldsmiths (University of London), which has analysed human rights abuses in SyriaVenezuela and Palestine as well as Neo-Nazi murders in Germany, was likewise cancelled by the University of Aachen which cited the group’s founder Eyal Weizman’s support for BDS.

The curtailing of civic space increasingly affects voices that have stood up for human rights at great personal risk. The Syrian opposition activist Wafa Ali Mustafa was detained by Berlin police near a pro-Palestine protest, reportedly for wearing a keffiyeh scarf. Similarly, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, which is associated with the centre-left Green Party, pulled out of the Hannah Arendt prize ceremony, which was due to be awarded to the renowned Russian dissident, philosopher and human rights advocate Masha Gessen. Despite acknowledging differences between the two, Gessen had compared Gaza to the Jewish ghettoes in Nazi-occupied Europe in an article about the politics of memory in Germany, the Soviet Union, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Israel.

Conversation stoppers

Alarm bells should ring as one of Europe’s major liberal democracies has taken an authoritarian turn in the aftermath of 7 October. Germany’s noble commitment to its historical responsibility in the face of rising antisemitism is morphing into a suppression of voices advocating for Palestinian political self-determination and human rights.

In this distorted reality, civic spaces are eroded, cultural symbols banned, political symbols falsely conflated with support for terrorism and events are shut down. So far, there has been little pushback or critical debate about these worrying developments. To the contrary: politicians, foundations, cultural institutions and media outlets seem to be closing ranks under the shadow of the 2019 BDS resolution and a skewed interpretation of the IHRA definition.

Following the appalling violence committed by Hamas on 7 October, and the scale of civilian suffering in Gaza due to the subsequent Israeli military offensive, polarisation and tension between communities have been on the rise. In this context, it is crucial to be able to have passionate, empathetic, controversial and nuanced discussions about the conflict, its history, the present impasse, potential ways forward and its impact on Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities abroad. With the voices of activists, authors and even internationally renowned human rights advocates being increasingly isolated, these vital exchanges are prevented from taking place.