Tuesday, April 23, 2024

It’s Tuesday, April 23rd, 2024.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

An Ancient Hatred Emerges Again: Columbia University is Now Unsafe for Jewish Students

Go back to the 1960s, and of course there were famous riots, protests, political movements on America’s elite college campuses. And this is especially true when you look at universities and the Ivy League, the other major state universities, but also it filtered down to regional universities, local campuses as well. Now looking in retrospect to the 1960s, it is clear that an entire array of issues, the cultural revolution, the sexual revolution, the gender revolution, all those things were taking place. They were all a part of the context, but the catalyzing issue was the war in Vietnam. And so you had this massive student uprising. And quite frankly, you have all the ugly video of tear gas and soldiers and others, confrontations between authorities and students. This led to the toppling of numerous university administrations. And quite frankly, it is not a pretty picture from American history.

But as you look at the left, the left valorizes the 1960s. The left believes that this was a genuine, organic revolutionary movement that just got snuffed out. And that’s why so many on the left are so glad to see what is happening on some of America’s most elite private and public university campuses right now. In this case, once again, there’s a larger context and it is the entire ideological structure of critical theory, and of cultural Marxism, and of all the woke issues on the left. The takeover of the major universities there is pretty much absolutely done, but you’re looking at student protests right now and the catalyzing issue is not the Vietnam War, it is the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. But the issues are still being played out pretty much according to the same plan.

And what you have right now are headlines, again, going back to campuses, the most important campus in this light right now is Columbia University in Morningside Heights there in New York City. We are talking about one of America’s most elite universities. We are talking about an Ivy League university and we’re talking about the arrests of over a hundred students. And it has to do with protests that have taken the side of the Palestinians and have turned, if not openly violent than threatening to the university, and furthermore have called for the extermination of Israel as a state for the non-existence of Israel.

Columbia’s president of just a matter of a year or so, Nemat Shafik went to Capitol Hill just days ago. And in contrast to some of the educators who had appeared more infamously in a hearing, there were three university presidents who appeared in that hearing several months ago. Two of them had to resign in the wake of the controversy. President Shafik, who before this had been the president of the London School of Economics in London, she did not intend to be toppled, not in terms of the controversy over her congressional hearing. She and other officials of the university said that they would not tolerate a culture of anti-Semitism beyond certain bounds, and evidently what has taken place on the campus both before and after Columbia University’s president gave that testimony. Evidently, it has reached the point that police action was thought necessary. And the cultural and political left, they are crying out as if this is the 1960s all over again. So let’s figure out what all this means.

First of all, Columbia University, it didn’t begin as a university. It didn’t begin of course as part of the Ivy League. It did begin as part of early American history. What is now Columbia University began as King’s College in the year 1754. It was established, and remember this is before the American Revolution, it was established by the Church of England. It was an Anglican university there in New York City and it became an illustrious institution very, very quickly. It also began to grow.

Now of course, it’s not going to be able to keep the name King’s College after the colonies fought a war of Independence from the King, so it became Columbia College in 1784. In those 12 years, the college had grown so fast it had to move further up the island in order to go to what is now called Morningside Heights. That was in 1896. But in the 20th century, Columbia University became one of the most prestigious institutions in the echelon of American higher education, but it also became an institution that has traditionally struggled with the issue of anti-Semitism.

Now, to be honest, going back to the early decades and even the middle of the 20th century, anti-Semitism was not a problem unique to Columbia College, later Columbia University, but it was a major issue there and it became even more of an issue of course, because of the large Jewish population in New York City itself. The historians who look at the past of Columbia College, later Columbia University, understand that anti-Semitism has been a major issue. It became a major issue again along with other questions of religious strife as you look not only at the end of the 20th century, but the beginning of the 21st century.

But this is where I enter the picture at least for a day. I was invited by the then president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, who before that had been the president of the University of Michigan to participate in a panel on the courts and the church state line, a public panel about the role not only of the courts and American public life engaging with the issue of religious liberty, but also the larger question of religion and public life and how religious believers should engage one another in a space such as Columbia University.

There had been huge protests and a good deal of unrest at the university at that time. A major donor, the Kraft family, had given funds for this forum to be held. I was glad to be invited to appear along with a major Muslim figure, Noah Feldman, then professor of law at New York University, Kent Greenawalt, university professor of law as a matter of fact there at Columbia, and also Suzanne Last Stone, professor of law at Cordozo School of Law, that school of law there at Yeshiva University also in New York. It was a very lively exchange. It was a very memorable day. The president of the university convened the forum and he presided at the forum. And after the forum was over and we had engaged one another rather vigorously, there was a formal lunch, and then I was asked to speak in classes. That did not go well.

One of my memories from that date is the fact that so many liberal Jewish students were so opposed to everything I had to say. One of the arguments I had made is that persons of deep religious conviction should be able to speak those convictions out loud in a forum, especially in academic forums such as Columbia University, then in the year 2006. That’s when the forum was held. I was astounded at the response and the vehemence with which that response came with so many students, particularly Jewish students, very offended that I said we should talk about religion openly on a college campus. I was told bluntly that that would lead to severe problems.

Well, that forum was nearly 20 years ago, but you have to wonder how those Jewish students would think now, now that one of the official rabbis there at Columbia University has advised Jewish students not to attend classes in person because of a danger of anti-Semitism on the campus, a context that he said just a matter of recent days has become so hot, so dangerous that Jewish students should take their classes at home rather than to be on the campus. The situation grew so volatile that the president of the university canceled all in-person classes on the campus. And right now we’re talking about the problem of anti-Semitism rearing its head once again. I want us to take the time to figure out where that comes from at Columbia University, and then I want to take the larger picture as to what this means. But I just have to wonder what some of those Jewish students, now Jewish graduates, would think of what has happened at Columbia University in the name of not talking about religious issues, not talking about religious conviction.

Now, another issue that just isn’t discussed in the press is the fact that Columbia University is not just accidentally at the center of this story, and it’s not just because of geography and culture because it’s there on Morningside Heights in Manhattan. It’s not just that it is an Ivy League university. It’s also because it is a university that has been very important to the Palestinian cause and Palestinian liberation ideology in the United States, and frankly, on the global stage.

There is one scholar above all others in terms of influence anywhere in the world who has made the case that Israel is, to use the phrase of the ideology, “a settler colonialist state.” And that man was Edward Said, who taught for years on the faculty of Columbia University, basically began the program. The person who in the leadership role right now is continuing that program is Rashid Khalidi author of many books, and those books are indictments of Israel as a settler colonial state.

Now, to make that argument, you are basically saying that Israel is the problem rather than the solution and in the name of the liberation and preservation of the Palestinian people. And so now you’ve had figures of the intellectual stature of Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi who are not necessarily calling for the extinction of Israel, but they’re making very clear that Israel has no moral legitimacy as a nation, and in particular, as a Jewish nation. And they accuse Israel basically of having stolen the land of the Palestinian people. Those who follow this ideology do not believe that the United Nations had legitimacy in declaring Israel to be a Jewish state back in the late 1940s. And so there is a lot of predictability right now, to why these particular protests have broken out. New York City, very liberal city. And one of the things about New York City is that it has often been marked by and taken pride in a very large Jewish population. Well, what is that population thinking now?

Furthermore, you have New York City as the epicenter, at least on the east coast, of an increasingly aggressive, progressivist culture. And guess what? Here’s a Wake-up call for not only the Jewish people in America, but all who love them and love the nation of Israel. We are talking about a direct threat coming in such a strong ideological form that quite frankly, the students who have been arrested in these protests, and furthermore, the faculty behind them, they are only the tip of the iceberg.

There were protesters there on the campus of Columbia University who were calling, for example, to burn Tel Aviv to the ground. You also had others at the demonstration celebrating the Islamic terrorist group, Hamas, and even its extreme military wing that had undertaken the murderous attack against Israel on October the 7th. So there is no doubt that we’re talking here about open anti-Semitism, and frankly, there is no doubt about just how dangerous and poisonous this anti-Semitism is. Some of the protesters on the campus cried out, “Hamas, we love you. We support your rockets too. And red, black, green and white, the Palestinian colors, we support Hamas’s fight.”

Now, in light of that, the Orthodox Jewish rabbi there at Columbia University argued that Jewish students should go home. Rabbi Elie Buechler wrote, “The events of the last few days, especially last night, have made it clear that Columbia University public safety and the New York PD cannot guarantee Jewish student safety in the face of extreme anti-Semitism and anarchy.” He went on to say, “It’s not our job as Jews to ensure our own safety on campus.” Now, just for a moment, think about what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about right now, we’re talking about on the campus right now of a major American university, the Jewish chaplain telling Jewish students it’s not safe to be on the campus because they are Jews. This is New York City in 2024.

As I said, Columbia University is the epicenter of what’s going on right now, but as you look to other campuses, you’re seeing some similar developments. Students at Yale University marched in force and protested in solidarity with the students at Columbia, including the students who had been arrested.

Reminiscent of the 1960s for anyone old enough to remember those days, this kind of contagion passes from campus to campus, and the same language tends to show up just about everywhere. The same protest signs, the same arguments. Even more dangerously, the same ideology rears its head. So here we are in America in 2024, and this kind of anti-Semitism is showing up. Now, something else we need to watch is that there are many people saying “This isn’t anti-Semitism. This is a statement against Israel, not against the Jews and the Jewish people.” Well, if you make that separation, you are falling into a trap. And I think this is something that has served as a wake-up call for many of the Jewish people who are more secular and on the political left in the United States. I think more of them are waking up to the fact that this criticism of Israel is not just a criticism of Israel. Israel is a Jewish state, and it’s being condemned as a Jewish state. And so I think an increasing number of people are unable to deny the obvious.

Part II

President Biden Creates False Moral Equivalence: The Big Issues Behind His (Incredibly Weak) Condemnation of Anti-Semitism

By the way, one of the shameful aspects of all of this is that the president of the United States has been silent about all of this for days. Yesterday after an Earth Day observation, he was basically trapped and had to say something, and yet what he said wasn’t much. And when I say what he said wasn’t much, I really mean it wasn’t much. His so-called condemnation of the anti-Semitic protests was just five words, “I condemn the anti-Semitic protests.” That’s what he said. And then he said this, and this is where things get really interesting, and sadly enough, very revealing. The President went on to say, “I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

Now press, in this case, CBS news, reports that a reporter cut off the president’s sentence before he could finish. Well, he said enough to understand exactly what he was doing there. He was creating a false moral equivalence between anti-Semitic protests and those, on the other hand, the president condemns. That’s the word he used. He said, I also condemn “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.” Now again, we have to acknowledge that the Palestinian people are suffering horribly, and we have to hope that that suffering will be alleviated. And we also have to know, that in the main, that suffering has resulted from the fact that the terrorist group, Hamas, the Islamic group, has embedded itself among civilians so that when Israel has to take action against Hamas, you have collateral. That’s the very sad, morally insufficient word that is often used here. The civilians, and that includes men, women, and children become so-called collateral damage. Christians understand that the biblical worldview doesn’t allow anyone to simply be dismissed as collateral damage because we believe that every single human being is made in the image of God.

But we do have to be honest about who is in the Palestinian people and quite frankly, who has abused them. And Israel’s not blameless in all of this as its own political and military leadership have acknowledged. The United States, I believe, has a righteous role among the nations. And at the same time, the United States has made mistakes as our own political and military leaders have had to acknowledge. But looking at this, you have this false equivalence that has been created by so many in the global media, so many on the ideological left, and frankly, sadly enough, you had that kind of equivalence that was presented by the president of the United States, and woefully inadequate comments on Monday.

Part III

Columbia University’s President Knows Where the Danger to Her Job Now Lies — And It’s Not from Those on the Right

We’ll be tracking all of this with you. And of course, one of the things we need to note just in terms of moving to the next story is that when you look at what’s taking place at Columbia, you look at the fact that the president of Columbia University actually took action, her hand was forced. She took action, the police there took action. These protesters were arrested. I think her action was way too late and probably inadequate, but she did take action.

And watch what is going to happen to her. The ideological political, cultural left with the sympathizers to the Palestinian cause, and quite frankly, those who are ready to cry Islamophobia at anyone who criticizes Hamas or any other group, you’re going to see that she’s going to have a very difficult time. But at this point, you have to recognize that the greatest threat to her continuation as the president of Columbia University isn’t the right, how much damage could those on the right actually do to the president of Columbia University. No, it’s from the left. It’s from the ideological left. Perhaps at this point, the Columbia University President recognizes where the danger lies.

Part IV

Do the Homeless Have the Right to Camp on Public Property? SCOTUS Hears Oral Arguments Related to Rights of Homeless People in Cities

Okay, let’s come back to another story here in the United States, and this one has to do with oral arguments held before the Supreme Court of the United States yesterday and what an issue is at stake. We’re talking about whether or not those who are declared to be homeless in the United States have the right to camp on public property, even though this is bringing all kinds of havoc, not only that, but crime rates to America’s cities. And those cities, by the way, are spread across the country. Those cities may be actually governed by people who are rather liberal or rather conservative, both as it turns out. And you might say that some of these cities are big cities in blue America, and some of these cities are smaller cities in red America, but here’s the deal, they can’t deny the reality that they have, in some cases, hundreds or thousands or multiple thousands of people who are camping out on their city streets or in their city parks, and they have basically decided that this is how they’re going to live.

Now, as you look at this, you recognize that as is the case in so many situations, on the left, let’s just state it this way, well-intended, perhaps policies have led to unintended results, but those unintended results were not entirely unpredictable. That’s the case with the crisis that so many cities are now facing, and honestly, it’s been faced by this country for a matter of decades now, of what are rightly called the homeless, but sometimes are called “the unhoused.”

Alright. The case is actually called City of Grants Pass vs. Johnson. Grants Pass, you might’ve guessed, is a small town, in this case, a small town in Oregon, and it has a big problem. The case Grants Pass versus Johnson is the case in which this city is seeking relief from a decision handed down by the infamously liberal Ninth Circuit of the federal courts saying that the homeless or the unhoused have a right to basically live on, camp out on, public areas if there is an insufficient number or not an equal number of slots in homeless shelters or in homeless facilities that a city might offer them.

Now, you say, “Well, that might make a little bit of sense,” except this is a situation in which the federal courts were supposedly creating a right. We’re not talking about the responsibility of government to come up with some kind of rational solution here. No, we’re talking about the legal activism of judges who said, “This is a matter of a constitutional right.” Let’s just go back and speak to George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and ask them if that’s what they had in mind in the U.S constitution. The obvious answer is no. But the Ninth Circuit, infamously, is the most liberal of the circuits of our federal appellate court system. And the Supreme Court now has to decide if they’re going to uphold the Ninth Circuit’s decision here.

But it’s not little old Grants Pass, Oregon that is alone in fighting this fight. No, an awful lot of cities, blue cities and red cities. An awful lot of cities. Small cities and big cities have sided with the cause of this little town in Oregon because quite honestly, the homeless problem is threatening to lead so many of our cities to being, at least in the city center, nearly uninhabitable and quite frankly, ungovernable, and furthermore, unsustainable.

Just go to a city like San Francisco. But wait a minute, maybe you’re not going to San Francisco precisely because you have heard of the problem of the homeless on the streets there. And I’ll just say that part of it is biological, I guess you could say organic, that’s all I’m going to say. I will also just underline the fact that we are talking about threatening behaviors. We’re talking about concentrations of those who are using and abusing drugs and alcohol and all kinds of other things. We’re talking about all kinds of pathologies. And you have not only the big cities in America, but smaller cities where the homeless have become a huge problem. And now you have a liberal activist court that says, “Well, there is a right of persons to camp out in such situations.”

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal nails it on this issue when the editors wrote, “According to the Ninth Circuit judges, Grants Pass unfairly punished the supposedly involuntary status of being homeless, even though many vagrants rejected housing.” This is just one of the realities many people don’t want to recognize, but it’s of huge moral significance. Many of these people don’t want to be in shelters. Many of these people don’t want to be in houses. They are living off the land, so to speak, even if the land in this case is pavement. And they like the culture that has been developed in these camps. They like the lifestyle. They don’t want to live what they see as a bourgeois, middle-class life. No doubt there are persons who are counted among the homeless who are on the streets, who want to be somewhere else, who want to have a job, and want to have safety, and want to be in a shelter and want to be in a place that is secure, and we should want that for them. And I think most states, most cities want to help to make that happen.

Many Christian churches, and frankly other congregations, religious organizations have been very much at work trying to help those who are trapped or endangered by such a pattern. But the reality is, that those who have been working in that system, and facing that challenge for a long time will tell you that the larger part of the problem right now is that this has become a major ongoing part of American culture, and now with the support of a liberal activist court.

The oral arguments held before the Supreme Court on Monday, were somewhat inconclusive in terms of having an absolute sign of how the Supreme Court is going to rule on the question. The more liberal justices, and those are three, they appeared to openly side with what they saw as the Ninth Circuit’s decision, and as they understood the homeless challenge to be. You had the more conservative justices that quite frankly might be separated in terms of their understanding of the role of government in this question, but they might also have to take a side on whether or not this is, in any sense, a constitutional problem. And at least one of the conservative justices asks out loud why exactly is this a court issue?

But in terms of a Christian worldview understanding of this, let’s just remind ourselves that the problem of persons who are in need is not a new problem. But the biblical worldview tells us not only that we are to help those who are in need. The biblical worldview also tells us that persons are to take responsibility for their lives. “If he will not work,” speaking of Christians, the Bible says “let him not eat.”

Now, there are things that are complicated, and one of the big complications here is the fact that there are those who are suffering because of something that’s not their responsibility. And there are some who are there because of long-term psychiatric illnesses and all kinds of problems, and of course, drugs and alcohol and a mixture of all of these things. But the reality of all of this is that if the argument of the left takes hold and such lifestyles become something like a constitutional right, then quite honestly, there is no end to where that logic will lead.

The more conservative response to this based upon, I believe, a more accurate understanding of the human condition and moral responsibility, it’s not to do nothing, but to say that there is a limit to what government can do, what communities can do. And persons who will not cooperate in terms of meeting their own needs and will not live by the rules of society, well, the answer to that cannot be an improvised tent encampment in a public park.

I think the editors of the Wall Street Journal weren’t exaggerating when they concluded their editorial statement by saying, “The only rescue here can come at this point by the Supreme Court because of the frankly outlandish ruling by the Ninth Circuit.” And in this case, the editor said, “The hope is that the majority of the Supreme Court ‘knows the Constitution isn’t a suicide pact.’” Meaning a pact undertaken by American society, driven by, of all things, the American courts.

Christians understand that the homelessness crisis presents us with some really complex issues, but the simple fact is that we have to hope that those editors are right.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. 

For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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