In an important survey undertaken not long after the Hamas assault on 7 October last, most US Middle East experts admitted self-censoring rather than speaking out in defence of Palestinian rights. More recent evidence is not available, but it seems highly likely that this self-censorship has continued and even increased, as Zionist pressure from Congress as well as University administrations has intensified. Is the self-censorship equally great in the UK and across the developed world? It is hard to tell, not least because Britain’s mainstream media seldom consult independent experts.

Scholars Who Study the Middle East Are Afraid to Speak Out

Polling data indicate widespread self-censorship.


By  Marc Lynch and Shibley Telhami

DECEMBER 5, 2023

American college campuses have been at the center of charged political disputes in the weeks since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, and the subsequent attacks by Israel on Gaza. These heated debates have focused on the pressures on university presidents to take a stand, the behavior of student groups, allegations of antisemitism, and the censorship of pro-Palestinian speech. But less attention has been paid to one group directly affected by the controversies: the scholars who work on and teach about the Middle East, who every day concentrate professionally on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

How have those scholars who write, research, and teach the conflict navigated the post-October 7 wave of campus polarization? Have college and university administrators protected their freedom of speech? How do they manage the political passions and personal sensitivities of their Jewish and Palestinian students?

To explore those urgent questions, we recently carried out a unique poll among scholars focused on the Middle East who are members of the American Political Science Association, the American Historical Association, and the Middle East Studies Association. We netted 936 respondents. The survey represented the sixth wave of the Middle East Scholar Barometer, a biannual survey that we direct.

The findings were stark: Eighty-two percent of all U.S.-based respondents, including almost all assistant professors (98 percent), said they self-censor when they speak professionally about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Just over 81 percent of those self-censoring said they primarily held back their criticism of Israel, while 11 percent said they held back from criticizing Palestinians. Only 2 percent said criticizing U.S. policy was the biggest issue.

We included the opportunity for open-ended responses to supplement the survey questionnaire. A number of respondents complained of a pro-Palestinian orthodoxy on their campuses or in professional associations, though, as the poll numbers indicate, more of the complaints were about limits on criticism of Israel. Almost all of the comments presented a bleak story of the marginalization and even outright repression of faculty who specialize in Middle Eastern issues.

The policing of campus discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nothing new, of course. There is a long history of external groups such as Campus Watch and Canary Mission mobilizing pressure on allegedly anti-Israeli professors. For years, campuses have repeatedly been disrupted by controversies, intense moments of polarization, clashes between students, and inadequate support from academic administrations for their faculty and pro-Palestinian student groups.

But, according to the scholars surveyed, things have gotten significantly worse since October 7. Almost three-quarters of U.S.-based respondents said that the Israel-Hamas war had generated more need for self-censorship. That trend can also be seen by directly comparing responses to a question about self-censorship on the Middle East in general (not Israeli-Palestinian issues specifically) that we asked both this year and last fall. The percentage of scholars reporting self-censoring this year increased from 57 percent to 69 percent.

Increased self-censorship in the current climate might seem self-evident. Passions are running exceptionally hot. Fundamental beliefs about what is at stake and even what is happening are starkly divided. Many faculty members have been personally affected by the Hamas attack and by the war. Faculty members empathize with, and want to support all their students, whether they are Israeli or Palestinian, Arab, Jewish, or Muslim. But the most basic language choices and theoretical frameworks have been so politicized that they might trigger outrage. When asked about the primary reasons for limiting the speech about the Palestinian-Israeli issue in an academic or professional capacity, nearly 60 percent cited “concern about campus culture or offending students.”

The very experts who have dedicated their lives to understanding the region feel the least able to speak about it.

But such well-intentioned sensitivity is only a small part of the story of today’s self-censorship on Israel and Palestine. More than half the respondents offered the second-most-common response: “concern about pressure from external advocacy groups.” An astonishingly wide range of respondents described an intensely toxic atmosphere where polarized opinions run hot, external groups fan the flames, and administrations do little to help. The open-ended comments to the survey were filled with examples small and large of such external-pressure campaigns and the fear they provoke in professors and graduate students. Even where faculty are ultimately exonerated from allegations of bias, several respondents noted, the time, cost, and emotional energy expended take a grinding toll.

We asked scholars about their impressions of the prevalence of different types of prejudice and racism related to the Middle East on campus. Slightly over half said that anti-Palestinian sentiment was prevalent “a lot” or “somewhat” in their institution, while 36 percent said the same about anti-Israeli sentiment. Nearly 18 percent said the same about antisemitism, reflecting awareness of a critically important but too often blurred distinction between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. For comparison, 41 percent said anti-Muslim sentiment was prevalent “a lot” or “somewhat.”

Many respondents perceived a disproportionate sympathy by their institutions toward the fears and sensitivities of their Jewish students and staff compared with their Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim students and staff.

There have been a number of widely reported episodes since October 7 of professors suspended for comments made during classes or on social media, including cases at the Universities of Arizona and Southern California, and at Stanford and Syracuse Universities. The director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center recently stepped down over the administration’s refusal to allow the screening of a film about Israel. Students at Harvard and Columbia have faced doxxing campaigns and reprisals for pro-Palestinian speech, while pro-Palestinian student groups have been suspended at BrandeisColumbia and George Washington Universities.

But there are other forms of silencing which rarely make the headlines that emerged clearly in the open-ended comments to our survey. Many Middle East experts reported being quietly sidelined or silenced by administrators, department chairs, and other campus authorities. They described incident after incident of their scheduled talks being canceled or of not being invited to speak at panels related to their professional expertise. They spoke of being instructed by their department chairs to not sign petitions or of being informally advised by superiors to keep quiet. As one respondent put it, “despite the fact that the Dean said not to worry, I still do.”

Those pressures from above are often related to institutions’ fear of the media spotlight. Respondents mentioned being required to pass any commentary through public affairs’ offices for approval or of being told to avoid social-media postings on Israel or Palestine. Sometimes, they self-censor for fear of who might be in the audience. University administrators fear right-wing media attacks, as well as potentially provoking students. “It’s been a complete nightmare. There is no sense of academic freedom, and the administration has done nothing to support Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students,” as one respondent put it.

Few scholars at U.S.-based institutions reported concerns about government regulations, though a number of respondents did mention concerns about legislation in several states regulating permissible speech in classrooms and limiting tenure protections. This could change: The presidents of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania have been called to appear before Congress over their alleged mishandling of antisemitism on campus. Respondents mentioned their concerns that views deemed controversial could be mobilized against research or teaching deemed insufficiently pro-Israel — or which could receive greater popular support in the midst of controversies about Israel during the war.

Sometimes, Middle East scholars act as their own source of self-censorship. Respondents complain of a professional culture in which their colleagues demand that they take sides, at the risk of professional ostracism. Graduate students especially report keeping quiet to avoid affecting their job prospects. Such silencing and enforced conformity stifles scholarship when it closes down lines of inquiry, prejudges the correct answers to difficult questions, or blurs the line between academic rigor and activism.

The experience of Middle East scholars since October 7 illustrates the risks of the repression of academic freedom when it comes to Israel and Palestine. The very experts who have dedicated their lives to understanding the region feel the least able to speak about it. Academic administrations, which never tire of expressing their devotion to academic freedom, either go silent or actively contribute to the suppression of discourse on the topic.

Israel and Palestine are often the canary in the coal mine for attacks on academic freedoms. Sure, the issues at stake in Israel/Palestine seem particularly challenging and fraught. But if scholars cannot provide honest analysis of challenging conflicts even in their professional settings, our societies are doomed to repeat the mistakes that lead to cyclical eruptions. It falls on campus leaders to defend the integrity of the academic enterprise. The stakes go well beyond Israel and Palestine.

Marc Lynch

Marc Lynch is a professor of political science and the director of the Middle East-studies program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is also director of the Project on Middle East Political Science.

Shibley Telhami

Shibley Telhami is a professor of government and politics and the director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.