Remembering first principles

‘To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance’

In Short

The crippled state of moral integrity within elite U.S. campuses should not be seen as a threat to the Jewish community alone.

On Aug. 18, 1790, during his tour of Newport, R.I., the newly elected American President George Washington was greeted by the town’s representatives. Among them were members of the Jewish community. Moses Sexias, warden of the local Jewish synagogue, was one of a group of residents who wrote a letter on behalf of their co-religionists to present to the president. “Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens,” wrote Sexias, “we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People — a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Washington’s written response to the letter, which echoes Sexias’ own words, has long been celebrated. “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. … May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” As historian Jonathan Sarna rightfully observes, “Though Washington directed his address to a small community of Newport Jews, it was understood, from the beginning, that his words carried far wider significance […]: George Washington set a higher bar, not only for his successors, but for Americans of every faith and creed.”

Bust of George Washington on the campus of George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
Bust of George Washington on the campus of George Washington University, Washington, D.C. Photo by Robert Knopes/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Washington’s statement signifies a vision that must resonate these days with all Americans and any decent human worldwide. While the statement was made before the United States did in fact grant equal rights to all, fighting against bigotry and resisting persecution is a foundational American value, and violations should be regarded a perilous onslaught that undermines the strength of America’s diverse social fabric and poses an imminent threat to the resilience of its ethical fortitude.  

The atrocities committed by the Hamas terrorists in Israel were met with unequivocal condemnation and support for the Jewish state by President Joe Biden and scores of state, city and community leaders across the U.S. and the free world. Shamefully, quite a few presidents and key administrators of prestigious U.S. universities and colleges have opted to either comfortably mumble their way through or outright trample all over Washington’s pledge. Such institutions — whose mandate is to reinforce principles such as intellectual honesty, moral clarity and the sacred safe environment for all students — are hiding behind their pseudo-intellectual hypocrisy and ambivalence, not to mention dangerously absurd claims for “moral equivalency,” “diverse perspectives” or “nuanced interpretation” in regard to the barefaced massacre and defilement of Jews and Israelis. These so-called leaders of higher education institutions, whose shields and banners proudly feature “truth,” “ethics,” “knowledge” and “freedom,” have been either turning a blind eye or actively walking a path that reeks of moral decay, faltering rhetoric, cheap populism and the exertion of no ethical authority whatsoever. 

Messages reading “Glory To Our Martyrs” and “Divestment From Zionist Genocide Now,” along with others, are projected onto the side of a building on George Washington University’s campus in Washington, October 24, 2023. Image source: StopAntisemitism via X

On their watch, these institutions have become hotbeds for cohorts of mob-like simpletons, vacuous minds and loudmouths, whose entire raison d’etre seems to be the dissemination of what I once called “junk food for thought, offered on a cheap plate colored only black and white.” Elite institutions that once produced some of the greatest intellectual, scientific, moral and spiritual beacons our world has ever seen are now squirming their spineless selves into becoming fertile grounds for the lowest forms of human stupidity, blind rage, deformed conscience, illiberal totalitarianism, indoctrination and blatant Jewish and Israel hatred. For shame.    

This disgraceful reality should alarm any decent U.S. citizen who — irrespective of his or her political stance, race, ethnicity or religious affiliation — still regards America’s liberal and democratic vitality as existentially necessary. As already noted by Moment Magazine’s Amy E. Schwartz in an opinion piece back in March, the Jewish community needs “to appreciate the many allies currently eager to stand with us against antisemitism and threats.” We need to and can stand unified in condemning and actively removing voices on certain U.S. campuses — students and faculty alike — that openly describe the massacre of Jews in Israel as “exhilarating,” call for the “utter destruction of Israel” or wish for “the return of Jews to 1940-1945.” We also need to stand unified in openly holding the presidents and key administrators of these institutions fully accountable for forfeiting their right to leadership.  

The crippled state of moral integrity within key U.S. campuses should not be seen as a threat to the Jewish community alone: it is a threat to the U.S. and the free world, which has entrusted such institutions with a mandate to be the bastions of its moral resilience and social progress. As of now, some of them are failing miserably — a reality no proper society should accept. 

Zohar Raviv serves as international vice president of educational strategy for Taglit-Birthright Israel. He is also a scholar in residence for the U.S.-based iCenter for Israel Education.