Stanford student protests are forcing the left’s moral reckoning

Four and a half years ago, I sat in Building 10 in Stanford’s main quad and interviewed then-President Marc Tessier-Lavigne as part of The Stanford Daily’s editorial board. Around a solid-wood conference table, I asked about free speech. What was the university’s position on controversial speakers coming to campus?   

Back then, it was mostly left-leaning student groups wary of right-wing speech. In my freshman year, the target was conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza. My sophomore year, around the time of the interview, the target was commentator Ben Shapiro. 

The speakers changed. The student argument remained the same: Colleges should restrict hateful speech by hateful people.  

Last Wednesday, a group of pro-Palestine students broke into and barricaded themselves inside the same building I’d sat in. Wearing a keffiyeh, mask and sunglasses in a video that felt eerily akin to a ransom note, an activist laid out a list of demands including divestment and financial disclosure. Outside, some participants spray painted “DE@TH 2 ISR@HELL,” and “Kill cops.” 

In an ironic twist, the self-described “autonomous group” that led the building takeover, Liberate Stanford, condemned the graffiti as the product of rogue activists while demanding amnesty for all charges related to pro-Palestinian student activities. Such condemnations mean little, especially to Jewish and Israeli students who saw hate scrawled in black paint as they walked to their finals in the main quad.  

The activists likely thought they were forcing a reckoning — in their eyes, with Stanford’s alleged complicity in Israel’s actions in Gaza. Instead, the occupation of the president’s office is forcing a reckoning between what the left claims to stand for and what it actually promotes. The value of lived experience has yielded to selective empathy, antisemitism has overridden a wariness of hate speech and conspiracy theories have taken root instead of facts. 

For years, I wrote occasional speeches and op-eds for some of America’s most progressive politicians and activists. I am also an American Israeli Jew. These identities once felt like tenable complements. After Oct. 7, they do not. People associated with the Senate campaign I worked on praise Hamas, as former friends from Stanford organize with a group that alternately justifies the killing and rape of Jews or denies it happened at all.  

I’ve since grappled with the anger and confusion of a sudden break-up. What happened? Did something change? Or did I miss obvious signs?  

The left I used to know valued lived experience. It championed the idea that politics is personal, that justice requires listening to the people closest to the problem. It’s why I sought to bring in first-person accounts into progressive political communication, and why I traveled to the West Bank to speak directly with Palestinians about the harms of Israeli occupation.  

The left I’ve seen after Oct. 7 mistakes Israeli and Jewish trauma for an oppressor’s crocodile tears — falsely seeing Palestinian and Israeli suffering as zero-sum. 

When Joanna Chen, a left-wing Israeli who refused to serve in the army and volunteers to help Palestinians access medical care, wrote a piece empathizing with both Israeli and Gazan civilians, she was accused of penning “an apologia for Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Palestine.”  

Any Israeli perspective generates cries of “both-sidesism”; that one is somehow equivocating on an issue of moral clarity between two actors of unequal power. This is wrong on multiple fronts.  

Empathy is not a shallow puddle. It is a spring that grows more abundant when we care about more people. Second, power is fluid, not static. Israel may be more powerful overall, but in the awful moments when Hamas gunmen murdered and raped Israeli civilians, who really had the power? In the awful moments the remaining hostages — those who are still alive — are experiencing right now, who really has the power?  

While promoting an anti-war message that rightly highlights the pain of Palestinian civilians, many on the left profess solidarity with Hamas, most recently outside a New York City exhibit documenting the massacre at the Nova music festival.

 In lieu of the facts, some of America’s largest leftist groups amplify conspiracies that Hamas’s assault is a myth. At a town hall meeting my friend attended in Palo Alto, the audience screamed of lies and propaganda when a city counselor, a woman of color, condemned Hamas’s depravity. 

The left’s reckoning could not come at a worse time. With the planet burning, abortion under attack, health care at risk and a convicted felon poised to retake the White House, some on the progressive left are threatening to withhold their votes in a critical election while estranging former and potential allies and repelling undecided moderates.  

Dinesh D’Souza and Ben Shapiro speaking on campus seem tame compared to breaking and entering, assaulting a university employee and spreading antisemitism. Unlike those speakers — who came for a few hours and left — the vitriol this time is often coming from within the campus community, by the same kinds of students who once claimed to oppose hateful speech.  

Nadav Ziv is a writer whose work includes essays about misinformation, antisemitism and Israel.

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