University Leaders are Teaching Us How Holocausts Happen

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

We are now seeing how holocausts happen. We are seeing how people who dare to speak out against massive state violence—in this case, college students protesting Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza—are being beaten and arrested at the behest of university leaders, who in turn are acting as agents of the Israel-allied US government.

After 35,000 Palestinians, mostly children and other civilians, have been killed, after all of Gaza’s universities have been destroyed and its hospitals bombed, and now as over a million Gazans face death by forced starvation, university administrators are having students arrested for setting up tents and asking for dialogue about how their schools might be complicit in an unfolding genocide.

This is how the paralysis that allows holocausts to happen is induced. By forcibly evicting and arresting protesters on university campuses, a clear message is sent to sympathetic others: keep quiet, accept things as they are, don’t step out of line—or you too will suffer. There’s no need to arrest everyone; just make enough arrests to set an example.

Most people, reasonably fearing arrest and its potential consequences, are then less likely to protest, less likely even to speak out. They look away from the violence, foreign and domestic, carried out by their government. They avoid asking how universities, supposedly society’s institutional stewards of humane values, might be complicit in the violence. Later, after many innocents have been murdered, they will claim ignorance about what was going on.

In the United States, suppressing dissent is complicated by laws protecting freedom of speech, assembly, and the press. Suppressing dissent on university campuses is further complicated by the widely held idea that universities are places where a clash of views is tolerated, even encouraged. Arresting students engaged in peaceful protests spoils this self-flattering image of American universities as bastions of intellectual freedom.

The contradiction between free speech and violent repression of protest requires university administrators to trot out justifications that defy both common sense and the evidence visible to anyone who has been paying attention.

At UNC–Chapel Hill, interim chancellor Lee Roberts and provost Chris Clemens claimed, in a public statement about recent arrests of student protesters, that they had to send in police because the solidarity encampment was disrupting campus operations, threatening and intimidating students, and destroying property. This was nonsense, as attested by firsthand observers and journalists. One local TV news anchor sounded incredulous as he remarked on a video feed of the arrests. We’ve been watching this protest for five days, he said, and this is the first time we’ve seen any violence. Other newscasters have made similar observations about protests elsewhere.

Many of the UNC protesters, Roberts and Clemens said, were not “members of the Carolina community.” Perhaps this was a rhetorical nod to tradition. Back in the day, when authorities sought to justify violence against civil rights protesters, they spoke of outside agitators stirring up trouble. All would be well, it was implied, if commie agitators didn’t put wild ideas about equality and justice into people’s heads. In the case of the UNC solidarity encampment, no one has yet specified who the alleged outsiders are. Students from Duke?

It is worth recalling that, not long ago, when “Silent Sam,” a Confederate statue on UNC’s campus, was the target of antiracist protest, students were told they had to accept neo-Confederates rallying on campus in defense of the statue because UNC was open to the public and obligated to respect free speech. Except, apparently, when it comes to Palestine.

In their statement, Roberts and Clemens also claimed to be alarmed by “rising accounts of antisemitic speech” linked to the protests—thereby embracing the chief propaganda tactic long used to smear critics of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. As journalists and others have documented, the claim that antisemitism is rampant on US campuses is based largely on counting criticism of Israel’s behavior as antisemitic. One can then argue that antisemitism is on the rise, thus fueling a sense of urgency about the need to rein in criticism of Israel. Occasionally, Israeli officials slip up and publicly admit that this is a trick.

The best trick, however, for reconciling the contradiction between claiming to respect free speech even while quashing it is this: devise a set of rules by which protests must be conducted and then claim that repression is justified because rules are being broken. University administrators around the country have adopted this ploy in the months since October 7, 2023. Rules never before known or applied are suddenly found to apply, peculiarly, to protests opposing Israel’s genocidal bombardment of Gaza.

The repression-by-rules tactic has the added benefit of allowing proponents of “civil discourse” at UNC and elsewhere to exempt themselves from defending the students whose rights are trampled. Those students and their agitating allies don’t deserve defense, according to the self-exculpatory logic at work here, because they broke the rules! They hollered and made people uncomfortable! That’s uncivil! Of course, once speech and protest are bureaucratized and arcane rules can be wielded arbitrarily by administrators who dislike what is being said, speech is no longer free.

Inventing rules and then sending in militarized police when student protesters violate them is another tactic that generates its own justification. Use police to turn a peaceful protest into a melee, and then claim that police are necessary to restore order. Casual observers who haven’t closely followed the sequence of events may then be misled into thinking that violence originated with protesters rather than the police.

History teaches us that holocausts happen because people follow orders and remain willfully blind to the greater evil to which they are contributing. It is this dangerous conformity that free speech and dissent can disrupt. This is what the antigenocide student protests and solidarity encampments are trying to do. To invoke picayune rules to quash the protests does worse than violate the free speech and assembly rights of a group of fellow Americans. It puts us as a nation on the path to becoming co-perpetrators of a crime against humanity, about which future historians will ask, How could this have happened again?

This essay originally appeared on Academe Blog.

Michael Schwalbe is professor emeritus of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at