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What’s Next: Higher Education for Jews: David Wolpe, Talia Khan, and Steven Pinker

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Harvard Divinity School visiting scholar Rabbi David Wolpe, MIT PhD student Talia Khan, and Harvard professor Steven Pinker about the new reality for Jews in higher education.

Since Simchas Torah, the hostile discourse regarding Israel has become something that no Jewish student can ignore. Jewish families have been asking: Is it even worth it to send our sons and daughters to these colleges? In this episode we discuss:

  • Is it better for Jews to change the system from within, or without?
  • What has changed about the Jewish experience at American colleges since Oct. 7?
  • What is the way forward regarding free speech and Jewish rights on campus?

Tune in to hear a conversation about how we might work toward a reimagined and refocused higher education.

Interview with David Wolpe begins at 4:27.
Interview with Talia Khan begins at 29:30.
Interview with Steven Pinker begins at 1:05:12.

Named The Most Influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek and one of the 50 Most Influential Jews in the World by The Jerusalem Post, David Wolpe is a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School and the Max Webb Rabbi Emeritus of Sinai Temple, a Conservative shul in Los Angeles. Rabbi Wolpe previously taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Hunter College, and UCLA. He is the author of eight books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. His new book is titled David, the Divided Heart.

Talia Khan is an MIT graduate student in mechanical engineering, the president of the MIT Israel Alliance, and a Fulbright Brazil alumna.

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He conducts research on language, cognition, and social relations, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time and The Atlantic, and is the author of twelve books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Sense of Style, Enlightenment Now, and Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.

References:

On the Hatred of Jews” by David J. Wolpe

Israel: An Echo of Eternity by Abraham Joshua Heschel

O Jerusalem! by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre

When Calls for Jewish Genocide Can Cost a University Its Government Funding” by Michael A. Helfand

A five-point plan to save Harvard from itself” by Steven Pinker

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

The Canceling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott

The Constitution of Knowledge by Jonathan Rauch

David Bashevkin: 

Hi, friends, and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast where, each month, we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin. And this month, we’re continuing our exploration of the war in Israel, and we are asking what’s next. 

This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy Jewish ideas. So, be sure to check out 18forty.org, where you can also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and weekly emails. We’ve been asking the question: what is next? as the world and specifically the Jews’ place in the world, our place in the world, seems to have been reordered since October 7th. 

And aside from asking what’s next for Jewish communities in Israel, we are asking what is next for Jews in higher education? There is a long history of Jews being second-class citizens and being marginalized in higher education. And for the past few decades, it seems to have been going really well, actually, until October 7th resurfaced so much of the anger and the outrage that people have been feeling towards Jews in ways that, frankly, have been jaw dropping. 

And we have an absolutely incredible episode where we are speaking with, quite literally, world-renowned leaders on this subject. People who have spoken before Congress, people who have been quite vocal in really the halls of power about this issue. And I’m so excited and really privileged to be presenting these voices today in one little bit long, but very important, episode. 

Our first guest is someone who I feel privileged to call a friend, somebody who I have known whose writing and whose approach to issues has really influenced my own in so many ways, and that is Rabbi David Wolpe. He was the rabbi for many years at Sinai Temple, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. Rabbi David Wolpe actually teaches at Harvard. He teaches at Harvard Divinity School and was part of the task force coalition at Harvard dealing with antisemitism. Of course, he publicly stepped down from that task force, which we discuss why he stepped down and what his general approach to this issue is and what our approach really should be. 

He recently wrote an op-ed that I think is really important. It was published in The Harvard Crimson where he lays out, for the students, how he sees this issue. And he doesn’t really hold any punches. I mean, he is quite forthcoming in the seriousness of this issue. The op-ed begins as follows, “An antisemite is someone who hated me before I was born,” Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz, said. Antisemitism is a denial of humanity of the Jew. The reactions that occurred at Harvard in the week of October 7th considered Jews oppressors and in some ways unworthy of human consideration.” I’m going to skip a little bit, and then he really addresses the issue as he understands it at Harvard. 

He continues, “One ideology common at Harvard is the colonial settler ideology. Colonialists are people who come from one place, take a land, and now have two. But Jews are far from being colonialists. Jews come from Israel. In this ideology, the colonialists are almost always white, but the Jews in Israel are quite diverse. Colonialists do not share the land, but Israel gave the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt and has many separate offers to share their land with Palestinians, which the Palestinians rejected. Further, Jews were kicked out of Israel by one colonial power, Rome, and returned by overthrowing the rule of another, Britain. Much of Harvard is captured by an ideology that centers oppression, but dividing all of the world into oppressor and oppressed is dangerous. Once you divide humanity by race or creed or nation into two camps, the good and the evil, you have adopted the mentality of the despot. This is bad for society as well as for Jews.” 

It is a powerful opening, and it really takes a leader, somebody like Rabbi David Wolpe, to not only write this but have the standing to have it published in The Harvard Crimson to speak gently but strongly and honestly about how he sees this issue playing out in higher education. So, it is our absolute privilege and pleasure to introduce our conversation with Rabbi David Wolpe. 

You have been really on the forefront of dealing with antisemitism on campus and some of the major issues that have emerged since October 7th, but I want to take you back one day, to October 6th. And I want to know, if I would’ve approached you on October 6th and asked you, “Is there an issue of antisemitism on the college campus you teach in Harvard’s Divinity School?” What do you think your response would’ve been? 

David Wolpe: 

I’m guessing that I would have said, “Yes, there is some issue and students have discussed it, and I actually even heard about it before I came to Harvard, but that I didn’t think that it was going to impact my time there or most students’ time there.” And I think that that actually was more or less true. I really remember telling my congregants who said, “What are you going to do when you get to Harvard?” And I said, “I’m not there to be an activist. I’m only there for a year. I’m going to read and write, and that’s pretty much it.” And, of course, then, it became completely unavoidable. 

David Bashevkin: 

Yes. So, I have a very real question that I think has implications even though it’s very directed at you and your specific decision. You were on an antisemitism advisory committee. I don’t know if I’m getting it correctly in Harvard? 

David Wolpe: 

Exactly right. 

David Bashevkin: 

And when some of this broke out, you publicly decided to leave the committee and to say, “You know what? This is not working for me.” I’m wondering if you can explain in this decision, but even something more broadly speaking on this issue. How do you decide when to work from within and when to work from without? I think it’s a question that’s actually even much broader than what we’re dealing with now. I face this question a lot. Is it better to work within an imperfect system and at least you have your voice, but you have to make these compromises and negotiations from within, or when is it appropriate or what are the circumstances that had you decide, “I need to step away from this and maybe work from without?” 

David Wolpe: 

First of all, it is actually a fascinating question, and a lot of people said to me, “You’re making a mistake. You should stay on the committee.” And I would say there are essentially three reasons why I thought, in this case, it’s better, and some of them may be applicable to other cases, some not. 

One is because, obviously, I didn’t think that we were successful in getting done what I really believed we should do and not because of the other committee members, I want to say, who are fantastic. I had no issue with the members of the committee themselves. I thought they were great and are great. 

The second is because I felt like I was giving the committee a certain credibility that was increasingly … It was like a diminishing return. People kept saying to me, “Look, you’re on the committee, and things are getting worse. Obviously you’re not doing anything, or the committee’s not doing anything. Or why are you giving cover to this?” All of that sort of thing. 

And then, third, if I was leaving Harvard, I think they would have a better case. But I still speak to the people in the committee. I still speak to the administration. I still speak to the students. And I would argue, if anything, my voice has gotten louder rather than softer by not being on the committee. 

And so, in this particular case, if you can actually work outside the thing that you believe in and you’re really … You’re not just saying, “I absolve myself of responsibility.” But, rather, you’re shifting it. Then, it makes sense. If the mechanism that you’re working in is effective. It’s just going to take a little more time, or it requires work. Then, I understand why people would want to work from within. But I did not feel like … 

And I would say the other part of it is I really thought anything the committee could achieve with me there, they could achieve without me there. They really could. I mean, they’re advising the president, and I trusted the other members. They were going to give the same advice, basically, whether I was there or not. So, for all those reasons. For me, I won’t want to say it was a simple decision, but it was a clear-cut decision. 

David Bashevkin: 

I fully appreciate that. I have a question. In terms of the work … You mentioned getting the work that needs to be done. What, in your opinion, still needs to be done to make sure that Jews on campus and, really, all those on campus are able to operate with safety, with security, with decency? What do you think are the major changes that need to make? And you could talk specifically on the Harvard campus or even more generally. 

David Wolpe: 

A good start would be to enforce the laws you already have. I mean, you’re not supposed to break into classrooms with protests. You’re not supposed to break into the library with protests. And there was a time, by the way … I mean during the ’60s … Let me just say something positive about the protestors in the ’60s. They were willing to take the consequences. It’s like … If you’re going to do civil disobedience, okay, so, you take the consequences of doing civil disobedience. But that’s not what’s happening now. People are protesting with no consequences, even when it’s clear that their protests are not legitimate. 

In the context of the university itself, I turn people all the time to what I think is one of the best pieces that … really, you can read on this … by Danielle Allen, who’s an African-American liberal professor of government at Harvard. Very well-respected, brilliant woman who wrote a piece saying basically that these protests are creating a climate of intimidation and that if she were sending her kid to a place where people were standing on the library steps screaming, “White power,” she wouldn’t send her kid to such a place. 

And it’s basically the same. So, I think the university has to figure out how to not let kids intimidate other students. Free speech is fine. You want to say from the river to the sea, as much as I hate it, I think that that should be allowed. But if you want to yell it at everybody who has a yamaka, that shouldn’t be allowed. That’s one thing. 

The second is that I really believe there are two kinds of training that should be going on at universities especially that have this problem. One is they should learn about Jewish history and antisemitism because Jews stand at the foundation stone of western civilization, and antisemitism is endemic. I am at the divinity school. If they don’t teach … And I don’t want to speak too generally, but if you’re at a divinity school at Harvard and kids don’t know how Jews have fared under Christian and Muslim rule for thousands of years, then your education is really deficient in divinity school. And there should be training on how to have civil discourse at campuses because, right now, as you know, free speech on campus is a severely lopsided issue. There are things about which you can speak as freely as you want, but then when you say other things, you can’t. 

David Bashevkin: 

I want to hear a little bit about how you counsel. I’m sure there are many Jews on campus, and this has energized in many ways. There are two things happening at once. There’s something where Jews feel less safe, and there’s something where there’s an upswelling of Jewish pride and Jews really feel an importance. 

I have two questions about your relationship to Jewish students themselves. Number One is they have a similar question that you did. Is it better to work from within or from without? Do you feel like now is the time for Jews to divest, so to speak, from the Ivy Leagues and find places where we are more welcome? Should this be a major factor, or is now the time to double down and say we are not going anywhere? I have a second question, but I’d like to hear what your thoughts are on this. 

David Wolpe: 

I’m on the one hand, on the other hand, camp on this. That is: I think it’s really important to support institutions that support Jews, campuses and otherwise, but I don’t want to abandon Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Penn, all these places, Stanford because I think that there are places of tremendous resource where, also, you can find a lot of support and a lot of people who are pretty strong on Jewish voices. I mean, certainly at Harvard, there’s a strong Jewish community, some wonderful students, some terrific faculty members. So, I wouldn’t want to give up on them, but I think that the default that, “Oh, my God. You have to get into one of these places, or you don’t count” is foolish and counterproductive, and there are a lot of other wonderful schools out there that Jews should start going to and supporting. 

David Bashevkin: 

One of the questions that comes up is that … There are Jews who are awakening to their Jewish pride because of this fight against antisemitism. And there’s this reminder that I feel like the point of Judaism is not to fight antisemitism. This is not what we want to be spending our time doing. How do you counsel students? What direction do you point them when they feel this awakening of Jewish pride and they feel this awakening of their Jewish identity? And obviously, so much of it is being channeled to activism about Israel, and that’s also incredibly important. Where do you take that energy? Where do you point them? You’re sitting on the Harvard campus. You have this awakening and upswelling. What do you tell students who, for the first time in their lives, feel this pain and this pull? “I am Jewish. What do I do with it?” 

David Wolpe: 

So, I tell them, I think, the same thing that you would tell them, which is … First of all, there’s Hillel. There’s Chabad. There are a lot of choices on campus. I’m starting to teach, in the spring, a course called Sources of Jewish Spirituality. We’re going to be doing Tanakh, Midrash, the Medievals. It was really Bahya ibn Paquda that led me to think about giving this kind of course called Chovot HaLevavot that there are spiritual and emotional aspects to Judaism, internal aspects that we’ll study. And I tell them that there’s this tremendous, rich tradition. There’s a reason why … Jews have not stayed Jews because people hate them. This is a canard that people believe. A lot of people have been hated through history. The reason you don’t know about them is because they’re gone, which is what it’s supposed to do. That’s what hating people and killing people is supposed to do is make them leave. 

The reason that Jews didn’t is because Judaism is so powerful and wonderful, not because hatred is so great. And so, depending on where they are on the journey, I try to involve them more to become Jewish, which is the best … And look. I say all the time. I mean, ignorance and assimilation are the biggest risks to Jews in America, not antisemitism. We lose many, many, many more people through just fading away. And so, that’s really the battle. The antisemitism battle in some ways is easier, more vivid, more “popular.” But the battle for neshamahs, the battle for souls, is really the one that we fight best. 

David Bashevkin: 

In that actual battle … And I couldn’t agree with you more in the way that you’re counseling and directing the Jewish student body in Harvard. But there is a wide percentage of the student body who are very adversarial to Israel right now. People who may not have known otherwise, and they’re swept up. They may not have any relatives or connection to Palestine, but all of a sudden they’re swept up on this train. I’m curious for you. You are probably one of the most visible, obvious Jews on Harvard’s campus. You’ve been very outspoken since this has happened. Have you had any productive interactions in prevailing upon the students of Harvard who are on the other side to help turn and steer that chip that maybe a lot of the outrage that you are feeling is misplaced or motivated by something more nefarious? 

David Wolpe: 

Not yet. I have invited a bunch of students to come and speak to me. So far, I have not had those encounters. I hope I will when I start to teach, and I’m there more than I was this semester. And also, I hope that I will reach them through some writing on campus organs that will be more directed towards the students. But I think that you’re right. It’s really important for people to know, first of all, that what you say at 20 might not be what you believe at 40. But also, that a lot of these students … There was this wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal that said, “Which river and which sea?” And most of the students had no idea, like the Nile, the Ganges. We don’t know. 

David Bashevkin: 

Mississippi. Who knows? 

David Wolpe: 

Right. Exactly. Some river. And that’s important for us to realize is that, when you’re 18 or 19 or 20 years old, you just want to be part of your peer group. And that doesn’t really mean that you share the beliefs that the core do because it’s a core of agitation on most of the campuses. So, on the one hand, there’s a big ideological battle to be fought, and I don’t want to diminish that. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that all these people are genuine antisemites. They’re not. I mean, most of them don’t actually harbor negative feelings towards Jews, although some do. So, you have to be careful. I always think you first start assuming ignorance before you get to malice, and then you’ll see. 

David Bashevkin: 

Stepping back. Your big picture … There are people who are very nervous about the direction of the United States of America. There has been an upswelling of antisemitism, which, as you notice, if I would’ve asked you on October 6th, this came as a surprise of how much and how vocal and how widespread this is as a country. Do you remain optimistic as this being a welcoming country to the Jewish people? And what do you think the Jewish community should be doing? 

I’m very outspoken. I’m online, as are you. And I’m at the point where I’m sometimes nervous, where if my advocacy is only making things worse, that we’re not really- 

David Wolpe: 

I know what you mean. 

David Bashevkin: 

… talking to each other. I want to stay productive. I want to stay on message. I want to stay positive and joyful, even with all of the horrors and the terrors that are surrounding us. So, what would be your marching orders for social media? You and I … We see eye-to-eye in a lot of these things. We’re outspoken, but I’m not an agitator. I never have been. Even my personality online the last couple months, I don’t recognize myself. I’m quote tweeting things. What would you say is the next step for how we speak as a community and how we try to steady the ship that we can all feel that sense of optimism and safety? 

David Wolpe: 

So, first of all, am I optimistic? Yes. I’m optimistic in part because I think that America is not like other countries, where there were Frenchmen and Jews and there were Russians and Jews, but there aren’t Americans and Jews. We are not the one identified other group that everyone looks at. There are lots and lots of groups in America, which leads to my second point, which is we need to recognize our friends as well as our enemies. We’re really good at attacking our enemies back, but we don’t always thank our friends. And so, I tell people all the time. When someone writes positively about Israel, send them an email. Thank them. Let them know that you appreciate it because we shouldn’t take friends for granted. And then, third, don’t make an automatic enemy out of somebody on the opposite side of the political spectrum. It doesn’t help if right only congratulates right, and left only congratulates left. It doesn’t help. 

We have to learn how to be able to speak to people on both sides and not to make automatically this side or that side, to demonize them, to be mentioned, to treat everybody decently. And that seems to me incredibly important. We’re so pugilistic. And this is part of the nature of social media. But I also think that it’s part of the reason why you and I often write such similar kinds of things is because neither one of us really is out there to antagonize people who disagree with us. We want to reach some kind of understanding. 

David Bashevkin: 

I appreciate that a great deal. On a personal level, to talk a little bit about your relationship with Israel … I wonder, when was the first time you visited Israel, and what kind of home did you grow up in regarding the connection to the state of Israel? 

David Wolpe: 

So, my father was a conservative Rabbi, and they went to Israel, I mean, many times before I ever went. The first time I went was before my bar mitzvah, and I remember that it was the first time that my father had gone back to Israel after the ’67 war. And I’ll never forget … I mean, I think I saw my father cry maybe twice in my life, and the one time was when he went tothe wall the first time. 

David Bashevkin: 

Wow. 

David Wolpe: 

That was enough for me. That was it for my life. I will never forget that. And so … I mean, I go to Israel usually around twice a year. I’m actually going shortly. I’m going in about a week-and-a-half. Actually, interesting. I don’t have that much family there, but I have a lot of friends there. And I feel like it is one of the greatest, maybe … In some ways as a Jew, the greatest blessing of my life is that I live in that sliver of Jewish history when we have in Israel. And if you don’t appreciate that and support it, you have no sense of the sweep of Jewish history. 

So, my parents were active in Soviet Jewry and active in Israel. They were wonderful parents to learn about what was important. And I still think that what it was that they believed were important is actually what’s important. So, I was lucky. 

David Bashevkin: 

I appreciate that notion of living in a sliver of Jewish history. Really, this moment has awakened me on a personal level to the gifts and the blessings of Jewish history. And I find myself immersed and drawn to Jewish history in ways that I haven’t been over the past few months. 

David Wolpe: 

I’m going to interrupt you for one second just to tell you a story that my father told me that I love to tell. It’s very short. In 1948, he was a rabbinical student, and they were all waiting outside Madison Square Garden in a huge long line to rush in when the state was going to be announced. And there was a man standing behind him who had a number on his arm, an old man. Obviously, a survivor. And they all rushed in, and my father saw him sitting right behind it. And he said, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe you made it. I was worried that you were going to get trampled, or you were going to not be able to get to the front.” And my father said, “How is it that you made it to the front?” And the man said, “Because I wasn’t running alone.” 

David Bashevkin: 

Wow. “Because I wasn’t running alone.” 

David Wolpe: 

That’s the story of Jewish history. You just have to know that you’re not running alone. 

David Bashevkin: 

That is absolutely beautiful. I cannot thank you enough for your time, especially at a time now, where Harvard, you, your work … It’s in the headlines more than you or anyone ever expected, and we are so thankful and appreciative to have you really on the front lines. 

David Wolpe: 

I’m grateful for you, David, and for all of your work and for your humor and your wisdom, both, which are both wonderful. 

David Bashevkin: 

That is very, very kind of you. Thank you. I always wrap up my interviews with more rapid fire questions. Speaking of the sliver of Jewish history, are there specific books that have awakened you to the blessing of Israel within the larger spectrum of Jewish history? Is there a book that you return to that inspires you, that you recommend to others to appreciate? What is the gift of the state of Israel that we have today within the larger spectrum of Jewish history? 

David Wolpe: 

Well, either Heschel’s Israel: An Echo of Eternity or … I know that it’s old, but the Lapierre book, O Jerusalem!, which I read the first time or second time I went to Israel. Really, for me, was an enormously influential book. It really made me appreciate what it took for us to be able to have what we have. 

David Bashevkin: 

An absolute classic. My next question, which is always strange for somebody who actually went back to school but to teach and not get a degree. If somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical, which you’re actually on, to go back to school and get your own PhD in any subject of your choice, what do you think the subject and title of your dissertation would be? 

David Wolpe: 

Well, I know, actually, because I started it. I just didn’t finish it. I started it, but then I started to write books and travel. And also, the professors that I was studying with … They went up north. But it would be a subject in Jewish theology that I might write about this year. So, I don’t want to talk about it too much, but it would be theology. 

David Bashevkin: 

But no spoilers. You’re not going to tell us which part. Okay. 

David Wolpe: 

Not going to tell you exactly what it is until, at least, I make some progress on it. 

David Bashevkin: 

Okay. We’ll have to wait for the book. I’ve enjoyed your others, particularly your book on David HaMelech. The Yale Jewish Lives series is my absolute favorite. My final question. I’m always curious about people’s sleep schedules. What time do you go to sleep at night, and what time do you wake up in the morning? 

David Wolpe: 

I have always been a morning person. I go to sleep as early as I can. So, basically, if I’m not subject to someone else’s schedule, I’ll go to sleep between 9:00 and 10:00 at the latest, and I get up around 5:00, and I go for a long walk early in the morning before I start everything, whatever I’m doing that day. I love the mornings and I’ve always been a morning person and I’m really no good at night at all. 

David Bashevkin: 

No, it’s believable. You have a morning person demeanor. I, unfortunately, have a night owl demeanor. You’re probably better off for yours. Rabbi David Wolpe, thank you so much for your friendship on a personal level and for your leadership. We are so grateful to you and for you. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

David Wolpe: 

Thank you, David. A pleasure as always, always, always. 

David Bashevkin: 

Rabbi Wolpe’s op-ed in The Harvard Crimson that I began with ends with a question where he asks, “If we cannot learn to argue civilly at Harvard, how can we hope for the civility of other places in the world?” And that’s a question that I think should haunt, obviously not just the Jewish community, but the entire world. I think when we see antisemitism in the way that it has manifested, where you see students who are not galvanized about any of the other issues taking place, all of a sudden feel so strongly and have such intense feelings specifically geared towards Israel, you need to wonder what is motivating this pronounced outrage, which is why our second guest, who is a student, a PhD student- 

David Bashevkin: 

Which is why our second guest, who is a PhD student at MIT is somebody whose voice I think is so important. I was introduced to Talia Khan on the same day that the world was introduced to all of the presidents of major Ivy League schools. There were a handful of students who were also given a moment to speak about what they had experienced on college campuses, and this is what Talia Khan, our next guest, said when she was given the opportunity to speak on that famous congressional day. 

Talia Khan: 

Thank you so much, Representative Foxx and Representative Stefanik for inviting me here today. My name is Talia Khan. I am an undergraduate alumna of MIT and a current graduate student at MIT. I am the daughter of a Jewish mother and an Afghan Muslim immigrant father. I am the proud president of the MIT Israel Alliance, and I am a Jewish student currently immersed in an extremely toxic antisemitic atmosphere at MIT. The MIT administration, namely, President Sally Kornbluth, has failed to address the crisis of rampant antisemitism on campus. 

There is a radical anti-Israel group at MIT called the CAA. In recent weeks, the CAA’s antisemitic rhetoric has shifted the culture on campus to such an extreme of intolerance that 70% of MIT’s Jewish students polled feel forced to hide their identities and perspectives. An Israeli student, whose identity and personal info was sold online for a bounty, has not left his dorm room in weeks out fear due to death threats. For my part, I was forced to leave my study group for my doctoral exams halfway through the semester because my group members told me that the people at the Nova Music Festival deserved to die because they were partying on stolen land. 

After a postdoc at MIT said that Jewish Israelis want to enslave the world in a global apartheid system. He falsely claimed that Israel harvest Palestinian organs and implied that the “average Israeli is a Nazi.” The DEI officer of his department replied by telling us that nothing he said was hate speech, and that the organ harvesting conspiracy theory was “confirmed.” Day after day, the MIT administration has failed to enforce its own rules on antisemitic actors such as the interfaith chaplain intimidating Jewish students, DEI staff publicly declaring that Israel has no right to exist, faculty dismissing student concerns for their safety by telling them that if they are scared, they should just go back to Israel. 

CAA protestors blocking the hallways, storming the offices of the MIT Israel internship offices and harassing the staff and faculty there and inviting dangerous outsiders to campus to join them in yelling hateful and violent chants. This is the same climate of antisemitism that has led to massacres of Jews throughout the centuries. This is not just harassment, this is our lives on the line. The MIT administration has punted disciplinary processes to a faculty committee on discipline, which has thus far not received a single one of our complaints. 

MIT admin has even failed to staff a new task force against hate, which will dually combat antisemitism and Islamophobia. This atmosphere is intolerable. Jewish students do not believe that the MIT administration has done an adequate job to make students feel safe on campus. President Kornbluth, please let me go back to being a scientist. Let me go back to being a student. I don’t want to have to keep advocating for Jewish student safety on campus. It’s not my job, it’s your job. Please do your job and act now, and if you can’t, I’m asking Congress to do it for you. Thank you. 

David Bashevkin: 

When I heard this, I immediately knew that this was someone whose perspective I very much wanted to center and hear more from. She’s an incredible person, somebody who has taken really a leadership position in a Ivy League school, president of the Israel Advocacy Group. And what obviously I found so fascinating was this mention of coming from a family where her father is Muslim and her mother is Jewish, how that plays a role in shaping her views towards Israel. It’s obviously an incredibly important perspective in many ways because it upends the typical boxes that Jewish voices and Jewish perspectives are placed in, particularly on college campus. This is obviously someone who does not fit neatly into any box, which is why I consider it such a privilege to be able to speak today, for our conversation, with Talia Khan. 

I wanted to talk and begin with a question about antisemitism on campus, but I wanted to start with what was your feelings on antisemitism on campus and your experience up until October 7th, but not including, meaning prior. On October 6th, if I would’ve come to you and said, “Talia, what does it feel like being Jewish on campus?” What do you think your answer would’ve been? 

Talia Khan: 

I think I would say that I felt supported by the Jewish community and certainly I didn’t generally feel any hostility from the non-Jewish community. Of course, there were always people who didn’t like Israel, and this is my eighth year at MIT, I did undergrad here and now I’m a graduate student. 

David Bashevkin: 

Wow. 

Talia Khan: 

And occasionally, you would hear stories of people saying nasty things to Israelis who were in the idea, but they were one-off and we knew that we had an anti-Israel club on campus, but they weren’t super active. And you were mostly able to ignore those people and it didn’t seem like the vast majority of MIT students or faculty or whatever, it didn’t seem like the vast majority of campus aligned with them in any way or had hostility towards Israel or Jews. 

David Bashevkin: 

How do you understand what changed following October 7th that I want to give two possibilities that they’re not mutually exclusive? Do you see it as that the average Jew on campus became either through your own activism and your own affiliation more intertwined with the state of Israel, or do you feel what really changed wasn’t the way you’re perceived or even the way you feel towards Israel becoming more intertwined, what changes is there’s been an up swelling of the students looking at Jews on campus differently? What do you think changed in your experience? When did you first notice something has changed campus-wide in America following this horrific terrorist attack that took place in Israel? 

Talia Khan: 

I think it’s a few things. First, in terms of the Jewish community, there were a lot of people who prior to October 7th, maybe identified as Jewish, didn’t feel any particular affinity towards Israel, or even maybe actively disliked Israel. And after October 7th, I had a lot of people coming to me saying, “I finally realized why Israel needs to exist.” And before, I had no connection towards Israel, and now I’m living in a situation where my romantic partner hates Israel and isn’t Jewish, and everybody who’s in my living community hates Israel and isn’t Jewish. 

And I feel uncomfortable and unsafe in my living community expressing that I am Jewish and supportive of Israel and understand why Israel deserves the right to exist. So that certainly happened was that more people became more keenly aware that every single Jew, no matter if you’re Jewish or Orthodox, people see you as Jewish and you would be targeted no matter what, by people who hate Jews. And then I think the second thing is, so when I was answering your first question you asked about prior to October 7th, I said, it seemed like nobody had these feelings towards Israel or towards Jews. 

I’m now seeing, we’re all seeing that, unfortunately, it’s just seemed that way, but under the surface, there was deeply embedded, not only at this institution at MIT, but in the entire world there was under the layer of whatever, this antisemitism, this anti-Israel sentiment being anti-Israel, I think that being anti-Zionist is anti-Semitic, of course, we could get into that another time, it’s a big thing, but this sentiment. And that after October 7th, more and more people felt more comfortable exposing those opinions and those viewpoints. 

And it really exposed at MIT how deeply embedded this anti-Israel, anti-Semitic sentiment is among not only students, among faculty, staff, even chaplains, DEI. And that’s been the most shocking and disappointing part is to see the normalization of antisemitism on campus and just the morphing of how antisemitism has gone over. There’s always been anti-Semitism throughout our entire existence, our entire history as a Jewish nation, and how it has morphed into, “Oh, it’s just anti-Israel, it’s just from the river to the sea intifada.” 

David Bashevkin: 

It’s in the sophisticated wrapping. 

Talia Khan: 

Absolutely. And how that is now socially acceptable to be screaming in the hallways and posting on social media. So I think it’s just been shocking to see how it’s been morphed into something that’s normalized socially acceptable. 

David Bashevkin: 

Do you have a clear memory of the first time following October 7th that you were like, “Wow, something has changed,” where you were the witness, you were party to just a type of vitriol that you never had expected? Again, you mentioned you were on MIT for eight years. You mentioned that you’re a scientist. Maybe you could tell us what area you’re in. You’re not exactly studying the Middle East in MIT. Not to say that would make it any more okay, but when was the first time that you remember post-October 7th where you almost had like, “Wow, something has clearly changed”? 

Talia Khan: 

I am a graduate student in mechanical engineering and I am preparing to take my doctoral exams, my qualifying exams. And in order to prepare for these exams, you join a study group of people who are taking the same subjects as you. I was studying with two Arab students, and these people were my good friends, I thought. And we spent a lot of time studying together and I was thinking, “Oh, kumbaya, Jewish, Muslim, whatever.” One of them was even Palestinian from Qatar. And I thought like, “Wow, this is awesome. We’re getting along. We’re studying. MIT’s so international, interdisciplinary science breaks borders.” 

David Bashevkin: 

All the good stuff. 

Talia Khan: 

Yes, that’s what I thought. And also, I really thought that these people were my good friends. I felt very close to them. And immediately after October 7th when I turned on my phone after Chag, I saw that they were posting on social media free Palestine flags and reposting some pretty horrible things about Hamas’ resistance and celebrating this. 

David Bashevkin: 

Meaning even before the counter-attack, even before what’s happening in Gaza. 

Talia Khan: 

Yes. 

David Bashevkin: 

This was the immediate reaction. 

Talia Khan: 

Nothing had happened. 

David Bashevkin: 

The immediate reaction was this was justified resistance that what we saw properly as a horrific terrorist massacre as a 9/11, so to speak, that took place in Israel, they immediately framed it as resistance. 

Talia Khan: 

Yes, absolutely. And I was shocked to say the least, especially because as you just mentioned, at that point, there had been no counteroffensive, only people who had been killed were people on Israeli soil. And of course, as you know, it wasn’t even just Jews who were kidnapped, killed, et cetera. And I reached out to them and said like, “Hey-” 

David Bashevkin: 

I was going to ask you, you reached out directly to them. Wow. 

Talia Khan: 

Because, again, I’ve been spending 10-plus hours a week studying with these people for a while, and I thought that they would be able to have a constructive conversation with me. And I thought, “These are reasonable kind people, of course they’re going to understand why I find this problematic.” And we had a conversation and I explained, “Of course, I understand that you’re scared.” Because at that point, again, the counter-offensive hadn’t happened, but we all knew what was going to happen. 

And I said, of course, especially for the Palestinian student that I understood that they were concerned about maybe family or friends or whatever, that they had in advance of the ground offensive retaliation, whatever. But I was a little bit shocked at the way that they were speaking about Israel, the way that they were speaking about Hamas and the attack. And we tried to have a conversation about it, and it kind of went to a place where, “Israeli soldiers also rape women and behead babies and la-la-la,” just kind of spewing lies and propaganda. And then to the point where the Palestinian student told me that the people at the Nova Music Festival massacre deserved to die because they were partying on stolen land. 

And when this person who I thought was my friend, I thought cared about me, and was going to be able to understand me, as Jewish mother, Muslim father, I tried to be very understanding. I come from a very multicultural upbringing. The fact that she would say something like that, I still can’t possibly begin to understand how people justify killing of innocent civilians. And it took me a few days to really accept that is how this person feels, and that is how a lot of people feel. They really believe that there is justification for what Hamas did to these innocent people at a music festival. 

And of course, after that, the rhetoric across campus, across the world, on social media especially, just got worse and worse. But that, for me, was the moment when I realized something has changed. And there are people who I felt were my friends who are clearly not. 

David Bashevkin: 

Let me ask you, you mentioned, and you gave, it was a little bit more, just under four minutes of testimony that you gave to Congress, and we could have multiple hours of conversation unpacking what you said. It was quite powerful. One of the things that you mentioned was your disappointment, not with your friends, but with the faculty at MIT. 

I’m curious if there were specific incidents in mind where you felt unsupported or even worse, just outright discriminated against on campus. What does that look like for a faculty member to kind of step in your mind out of bounds on this issue? Were you reaching out for support? Was it an incident you were involved in or somebody else? I’m just curious if you could unpack that a little bit more what you were referencing. 

Talia Khan: 

Sure. I’m the president of the MIT Israel Alliance, which is an organization that we started after October 7th because there was clearly a lot that needed to be dealt with and we needed to organize. And as such, I receive a lot of the stories of antisemitism on campus. But I can start by explaining one situation that I was present for, and that was we were talking to a faculty member, me and some other members of my executive board. And an Israeli student was saying how scared she was being on campus with these calls for Intifada. And, for example, one Israeli student got doxxed, his video was shared online, and his information was sold for a bounty. And then he got death threats. And he was so scared that he left MIT’s campus and went to Israel. He felt more safe in a war zone than he did on MIT’s campus. 

So this student was explaining this to this faculty member, and the faculty member told her, “If you are so scared, go back to Israel.” And there is no situation in which it is acceptable for an institution to be saying, “We’re not going to do what we are supposed to do to protect you. If you feel scared, just leave. Go back to Israel.” And this line of go back to Israel is what we’ve been hearing in various forms for generations, “Get out of Germany. Get out of Poland- 

David Bashevkin: 

Go elsewhere. 

Talia Khan: 

… go be with your Jewish people. Yeah, we don’t want you here. Stop complaining. You guys are the ones causing the problem.” So it’s shocking that. And then of course, we’ve had tons of issues with the DEI infrastructure at MIT as we’ve also been seeing across university campuses across the United States. And Jewish students are being told that “Jews are not a protected class, so we can’t file certain types of reports.” And then we have had direct intimidation and bullying by, for example, an interfaith chaplain at MIT who, during a lecture on Native Americans, interrupted the event four times to talk about how Israel is an evil, white supremacist, colonial, apartheid, et cetera, et cetera, state. 

And then had all of the Jewish students who are keeping kosher, raise their hands that she could individually give them a kosher dessert. And somebody who is not even Jewish emailed us after that event to report her conduct and said that even as a non-Jew, they felt so uncomfortable because they could see that she was sizing up these Jewish students as she was handing out this kosher food to them to see how they felt about what she had said. And this non-Jewish student said that they felt so uncomfortable, even as a non-Jew, that they can’t imagine how the Jewish students felt, and they can’t imagine how the Jewish students would be comfortable in an event with this interfaith chaplain going forward. 

There’s countless examples of other students, faculty, staff, DEI officers just not behaving in a way that should be socially acceptable, but has somehow become socially acceptable and normalized on campus. In all of last year, approximately 250 complaints were reported to our IDHR. It’s the Discrimination and Harassment Resources Center at MIT. And in just the past month, they’ve gotten 400 of these reports. 

David Bashevkin: 

Just the last month? 

Talia Khan: 

Just the last month. So it’s skyrocketing these cases all over campus. And I’m certain that I haven’t even heard a 10th, and I have heard many, many, many. So it’s just pervasive and it’s at all levels. 

David Bashevkin: 

I’m so sorry. It is harrowing to hear about the experiences. I’m wondering, there was this reckoning because of the congressional testimony of the university presidents. You testified that day, which is how I discovered, and I thought your address was pitch perfect and quite powerful. Do you have any thoughts as a student, you’re clearly an intelligent student, you’re in the MIT mechanical engineering program for your eighth year on campus, what do you think needs to be done on MIT’s campus going forward? What are you looking for? There was a reckoning on some campuses. We saw there was a lot of movement in the leadership on Penn, much less movement that we saw on MIT on Harvard’s campus. Is there something specific, specific policy changes that you think are absolutely necessary to see going forward? 

Talia Khan: 

Sure. There are some things that we have asked for, such as required Holocaust training for faculty staff, and certainly, these DEI officers need that. But I think the problem we’re seeing is that I think a lot of people are saying, “Oh, if we get rid of the university president, everything will be fine. It’s the presidents who did poorly at the congressional hearing. If we got rid of them, it’ll be fine.” 

I think everybody I know on campus understands that it is much deeper than that. It is embedded in the infrastructure at MIT. And I’ll give you another example. I put up Israeli flags and a banner that says, “We stand with Israel,” and a banner that says, “No excuse for terror.” I put these up in my windows in my office on campus that face Massachusetts Avenue. 

David Bashevkin: 

In your personal office? 

Talia Khan: 

Yes. And again, I’ve been on campus for a long time, putting flags and posters up is a very MIT thing to do. It was a very quirky campus. And certainly there’s lots of Ukrainian flags up, Black Lives Matter flags up, LGBTQ flags up. And that’s something that’s part of the quirkiness of MIT is people kind of- 

David Bashevkin: 

Sharing their identity, their causes, et cetera. 

Talia Khan: 

Yeah, exactly. So I put these things up and six days after I put these up, MIT changed their policy on postering for the first time since 2007 to ban flags and large banners. And they threw a series of, not even contacting me directly, but sending messengers to intimidate me into taking them down, finally forced me to take them down. And still, if you walk throughout campus, you’re going to see Ukrainian flags, you’re going to see a Black Lives Matter banner. 

David Bashevkin: 

You’ll see the LGBTQ flag. 

Talia Khan: 

Exactly. 

David Bashevkin: 

For sure. 

Talia Khan: 

Exactly. So they created a rule, essentially, to silence a pro-Israel voice. And insanely, an MIT alum from 20 years ago reached out to me and said the same thing happened to me. And he shared some articles from The Tech, which is the MIT school newspaper, talking about exactly what happened to him. 

David Bashevkin: 

From 20 years ago? 

Talia Khan: 

20 years ago. He put an Israeli flag on his window in his dorm at MIT, his graduate dorm, and MIT began to make up rules against flags, even though there were flags all over campus. And they said, “Oh, it’s a fire hazard. Oh, it’s going to damage the building’s infrastructure, this little flag.” 

David Bashevkin: 

And it was covered in the MIT newspaper? 

Talia Khan: 

Yes, it was, 20 years ago. And they threatened to kick him out of the dorm if he didn’t take it down. So clearly, there is a problem that is at least 20 years old on MIT’s campus of trying to silence pro-Israel voices. And I could never begin to understand where these tendencies come from. 

David Bashevkin: 

I have a guess. 

Talia Khan: 

Sure, but it’s just mind-boggling to me that they think that they can get away with this stuff, and honestly, that they have. But to go back to the root of your original question, I think that a lot of institutional change needs to happen. MIT is the only institution of the three that testified in Congress that didn’t issue any even half-baked apology for the now infamous genocide question, it’s calling for the genocide of Jews harassment. MIT is the only one that didn’t issue any kind of apology. And indeed, the MIT Corporation Executive Board sent a letter in support of President Kornbluth’s testimony saying that she’s doing an excellent job combating antisemitism on campus, again, continuing to just gaslight us. We had a similar letter from a lot of senior faculty at MIT. We’re just being gaslighted continuously. 

And really, these people all need to go and we need a new group of people in place who will aid Holocaust training. Apparently, we need that. And really, transparency and disciplinary processes is another thing. The whole disciplinary process has been incredibly opaque. In President Kornbluth’s testimony, she spoke about the faculty committee on discipline and that these cases are being referred to this committee. When last week, I spoke to a professor on the faculty committee on discipline who said that he hasn’t received a single case yet. And when he asked if he should be expecting more, he was told that some other group is dealing with it. So the faculty committee on discipline doesn’t know what’s happening. We don’t know what’s happening. It’s very opaque and people are still getting harassed. My friend got harassed in the elevator the other day. Someone said that there should just be a one-state solution and obviously not a Jewish state. 

David Bashevkin: 

It’s so incredibly disappointing to hear this. I’m wondering in your mind, a lot of people are faced with this question of, “Is now the time where Jews say, ‘We’ve had enough of the Ivy Leagues and we’re going to go elsewhere. We’re going to find other institutions where we can really feel more agency and that we’re seeing more,’ or is now the time to almost double down and say, ‘We’re not going anywhere. This is a problem that we need to solve together’”? And I’m curious for you how you think of that question about the relationship of the Jewish community to higher education in general. Do you feel even more of a will to stay? And I’m wondering if as a part of your answer, you can reflect a little bit about how this experience has changed, if at all, to your own personal Jewish identity and affiliation. 

Talia Khan: 

First of all, of course, there’s a lot of different opinions, two Jews, 50 opinions, and even in our own organization, lots of different thoughts and ideas for approaches to these many problems on campus. I personally think that this is the time that we need to double down. MIT, Harvard, these institutions are creating, supposedly, ideally, the next generation of leaders in science, technology, et cetera. And we can’t just say, “They’re not supporting us, we’ll leave,” because then what are we going to do? These institutions are just going to produce a bunch of antisemites who’ve never met a Jew. That’s unacceptable- 

Talia Khan: 

… just going to produce a bunch of anti-Semites who’ve never met a Jew, that’s unacceptable and that’s just going to make everything worse for us. 

So I believe firmly that this is the time to double down and get these institutions to change. I clearly feel incredibly strong about that. I’ve been putting this effort ahead of everything in my life, ahead of my studies, which is unfortunate. I would love to just get back to studying. 

David Bashevkin: 

Every time I contacted you, I felt guilty. I’m like, you’re probably so busy. It’s end of the semester. We’ve been back and forth for a couple of weeks. I’m persistent with the right guest. I needed to hear from you. I need to connect. You’ve been very patient with me. I hope I haven’t overstep, but yeah, I could admit- 

Talia Khan: 

No. 

David Bashevkin: 

You said, “I want to go back to being a scientist.” That’s what you said. 

Talia Khan: 

Yes. 

David Bashevkin: 

I appreciate that. 

Talia Khan: 

I do. That’s all we want. You know, I didn’t come to MIT to be some sort of like political activist. I came here to do science. 

But I feel incredibly compelled as a Jewish person that, as somebody who I feel that I have the capability to help amplify the voice of Jewish students and even, again, faculty at MIT because it’s not just students who are being harassed, it’s faculty as well and staff as well, I feel that it is my responsibility to make this community safe for Jewish people. 

And we know that these problems are only going to get worse. We’ve seen the recent polling that says 18 to 25-year-olds are- 

David Bashevkin: 

Terrifying. 

Talia Khan: 

Yeah. 

David Bashevkin: 

This terrifies me. The support for Israel craters- 

Talia Khan: 

Exactly. 

David Bashevkin: 

… among the younger generation. 

Talia Khan: 

Support Hamas, believed that what Hamas did on October 7th was an acceptable act of resistance. Just astounding. 

So we know this problem’s only going to get worse. So if we don’t create change on these campuses now and set the precedent for how campuses need to behave and how they need to protect Jewish people, I don’t want to think about what’s going to happen in five, 10 years. I mean, we’ve seen it. In the past 2,000 years, we’ve seen it. 

David Bashevkin: 

I’m sure you have a fascinating Jewish journey of your own. One thing you mentioned in your congressional testimony, which I assume you drafted beforehand, it was incredibly eloquent and you chose to mention, it was a choice and I think it was an important and the right choice, where you mentioned that you come from a home where you have a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. That was an important choice to say that to Congress where you kind of see you’re not somebody who has never been exposed, you’re growing up, to somebody outside, so to speak, of what we normally call the bounds of, quote-unquote, “our community.” 

I’m curious, in your own Jewish journey and your identity, how has that factored in? I can only imagine your relationship to a father who’s Muslim. That’s a really important and fascinating relationship to look into. But secondly, your own Jewish identity post-October 7th. How, if at all, has it changed? 

Talia Khan: 

As you just said, my mother is Jewish. My father is from Afghanistan, he’s Muslim. All my family pretty much on his side is Muslim. I have female cousins who cover their hair and I guess also I have two half-siblings, one of whom my half-sister from my father has an Indian mother and my half-brother from my father is Christian, and I went to Catholic high school. 

David Bashevkin: 

Like a UN. That’s impressive. 

Talia Khan: 

Yeah, very multicultural upbringing, for sure. My mother did raise me and my brother Jewish. We went to a Reform Jewish day school before Catholic high school, and I always identified as Jewish though, of course, having the last name Khan, K-H-A-N, rather than K-A-H-N, it’s not the Jewish spelling. And my middle name is Malalai, which is an Afghan name. So it’s obviously very much a part of who I am, eating certain traditional Afghan foods when I was growing up and having family friends who are Muslim, people who I called my aunt and uncle, not actually- 

David Bashevkin: 

Sure. 

Talia Khan: 

… but very multicultural. I always was interested in learning about all of these other religions that I was surrounded by. 

And the reason that I included that in my speech is because I think right now people are trying to play this like anti-Semitic versus Islamophobic or like this is about like people attacking Muslims. 

David Bashevkin: 

To weaponize the harassment and the pain of the Jewish community against the Islamic. Like one always has to come at the expense of the other. 

Talia Khan: 

Sure. And that’s exactly what I was trying to explain is couldn’t possibly happen with me. I’m the president of the MIT Israel Alliance. I love Israel. I stand for Israel, I stand with Israel, and I will continue to support Israel as much as I can. 

And my saying that and my saying that I’m Jewish does not mean anything about how I feel about Muslims or my whole Muslim family. And I think that people like to put people in boxes and assume like, “Oh, this Jewish girl’s probably never met a Muslim. They don’t understand how scary it must be to be a hijabi woman walking down the street right now.” But I do. I’m obviously not a hijabi Muslim, but again, I have family members who are, and I think that it’s important for people to know that, while I feel very strongly about Israel, I understand that there are many people feeling scared right now and it shouldn’t be a one or the other. 

Calling for the safety of Jews on campus doesn’t say that we don’t also want the safety of other groups on campus. Every single student on a campus should feel safe, period. Jews, Muslims, African Americans, Asians, whatever, insert any group here. Calling for the genocide of any group is wrong on campus, period, end of story. 

And I guess I just wanted to highlight that because people like to put people into boxes and I very much do not fit into a box and I want to increase dialogue as much as possible. I think that’s why I did it. 

And then I guess to the other part of your question about if this has changed my view of Judaism in any way, I think that my Judaism is what is propelling me to be so strong and forceful in this fight and to put this above everything else because I know that it’s not about me. It’s not about Talia being safe on campus. It’s about my whole community here being safe on campus. It’s about the next generation of Jewish students being safe on campus. Because even the people who I don’t know who are going to come to MIT, they’re still my Jewish family. And it’s not about me, it’s about all of us and I think in these days, every Jew has felt more of a sense of community than ever before, I think. I certainly have. I think everybody’s been able to connect on a much deeper level than before. 

And in a lot of ways I think that’s really awesome and beautiful that we’ve all been able to connect more and feel much closer as a Jewish family internationally. So yeah, I guess that’s how my Judaism has kind of shaped what I’m doing right now. 

David Bashevkin: 

Talia, your voice, your efforts, your story are so incredible, so moving and so valuable. Exactly as you said, I’m sure they’re valuable for Talia and your immediate friends, but they’re even more valuable really for how they articulate, I think, what our collective community is going through. And your efforts and advocacy and thoughtfulness and sensitivity are something that really, really inspires me and I am so incredibly grateful for your time speaking today. 

Talia Khan: 

Thank you so much for having me and letting me blather for so long. 

David Bashevkin: 

You are absolutely wonderful. I cannot thank you enough. 

I do hope that we have the opportunity to hear more from Talia. I found her perspective, especially how she negotiates her contemporary views and how they’ve shaped her, given her familial background and she’s a voice that I think is so important, specifically in this moment right now. 

On 18Forty, on our website, we recently published an article by our friend Michael Avi Helfand entitled, When Calls for Jewish Genocide can Cost a University Its Government Funding, where he really gets into the weeds, so to speak, about how free speech should be governed on campus. And it’s really not as simple as a lot of people, including myself, would think. 

Avi, I always call him the educator-in-chief of all legal issues. He writes in a way that really lays out the legal issues. So you really understand that you’re not just speaking from your emotion because as I have found, certainly with myself, our community, the Jewish community is just as capable as speaking with emotion, obviously, on such an important issue as others and it’s not always clear what exactly we should be advocating for. 

He lays out some of the difficulty based on the 1964 Civil Rights Acts, which has a provision that prohibits institutions receiving federal funding, including indirect funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. And what Avi points out is that, importantly, the anti-discrimination rules prohibit more than just direct discrimination. They also prohibit schools from acting with deliberate indifference to severe, pervasive and objective offensive harassment, including peer-to-peer harassment. Again, you can go on the 18Forty website if you really want to see and understand how he breaks this down as a lawyer because nobody does it like Avi Helfand. 

But he does point out the difficulty over here. “Applying these rules,” he writes, “to anti-Semitic harassment, however, presents a bit of a puzzle. Jew hatred does not, at first glance, fall under the three categories of discrimination prohibited by universities under this 1964 Civil Rights Acts, race, color, or national origin. It would more naturally fall under religious discrimination, which Congress expressly omitted from the kinds of discrimination prohibited under this Title.” So it is quite tricky and you can read what he says in this article. 

One voice I have always found to be absolutely illuminating on these issues is the voice of Professor Steven Pinker. Steven Pinker is somebody who I’ve long sought to have on the podcast, an incredible voice, really not just on campus. This is something he’s only recently been vocal about. 

Steven Pinker is a world-renowned cognitive psychologist. He is a philosopher and specifically in the philosophy of language. He also has done incredible work, if you haven’t seen his book already. He’s written a few books, but he has a famous book called The Better Angels of Our Nature, which talks about how violence in human society has declined over time. That is an absolute classic. 

I was introduced to him from the book The Language Instinct, which I borrowed from Yoni Statman, and it actually belonged to his older brother David Statman. I am not sure if I ever returned that book. 

I’m extraordinarily lucky that he was willing to come on. He has a thousand podcast requests and really a lot of the credit is owed to our longtime listeners and our chief grammarian. Grammarian. Is that how I pronounce it? Well, we’ll find out how I should pronounce it because that person is Mel Berenholtz. Mel and his son Daniel Berenholtz are actually, Mel is Steven Pinker’s brother-in-law. Steven Pinker is married to Rebecca Goldstein, that’s Mel’s late wife’s sister. And Daniel Berenholtz is a member of my community and comes to my shiurim. When Mel is in town, he comes, too. They’re absolutely wonderful. 

And I called it a favor. I try not to, but sometimes when you know somebody has connections to somebody whose voice you think is that important, sometimes you call in a favor. And they were incredibly gracious in reaching out to Professor Pinker, their brother-in-law-slash-uncle, and he was incredibly gracious. Like boom, right away, he said, “Sure, no problem. Let’s do it.” Somebody who appreciates family. And I just need to say over here because the real familial connection is to Rebecca Goldstein, that’s Professor Pinker’s wife, whose books have influenced me for quite some time. She’s an incredible writer. She wrote a book on Kurt Godel. She herself has a fascinating story, fascinating upbringing. That is not for today, but hopefully, one day we’ll be able to speak directly with her. 

But I am so grateful that Professor Steven Pinker, who has been a really important voice on what is the way forward for Jews on college campus, how should campuses be thinking about free speech. You’re not always going to agree with his answers, but I think he is playing a long-term game in really understanding the consequences of limiting speech or, on the flip side, just letting anything goes. 

He wrote an article, if you want to read just a basic distillation of his approach. In mid-December, he wrote for The Boston Globe what he calls A Five-Point Plan to Save Harvard from Itself. And in this article, he discusses what he believes is necessary in order to reinstill some measure of trust in the university community with how they deal and approach speech. And the five-point plan, I’ll go through it quickly, we discuss it more in depth. 

Number one is free speech. He does believe that there needs to be free speech on campus. What he calls they should “adopt a clear and conspicuous policy on academic freedom.” 

His next, which is something we have lost over the last couple decades, and not everyone will agree that universities should be taking this stance, I do appreciate where he’s coming from, and that is institutional neutrality where he writes, “A university does not need a foreign policy and it does not need to issue pronouncements on the controversy and events of the day.” 

I actually hear two sides to this, maybe the exact point of a university, I’m sure. In many universities, particularly in Yeshiva University, there is a sense of being a values-driven education, but sometimes that can be very upsetting, especially what we are seeing now in higher education, where so many of the values in the Ivy League schools are so dissonant to what we think is basic truth and decency. But his second point is institutional neutrality. 

His third point is non-violence, which isn’t just talking about punching or fighting or kicking. He talks, “Some students think it is a legitimate form of political expression to drown out a speaker, block the audience’s view with a screen, obstruct public passageways, invade a lecture hall chanting slogans over bullhorns, force administrators out of their office and occupy the building or get in the face of other students. Universities,” he writes, “should not indulge acts of vandalism, trespassing and extortion. Free speech does not include a heckler’s veto, which blocks the speech of others.” That’s certainly something that we’ve been seeing too much of. 

His fourth point is viewpoint diversity, making sure that there are people from a diverse points of views in universities and not just parroting all the same partisan points. 

And his final point, it’s wild how quickly this has become a mainstream call, but he does write disempowering DEI. This is what he writes in The Boston Globe. “Many of the assaults on academic freedom, not to mention common sense, come from a burgeoning bureaucracy that calls itself diversity, equity and inclusion, while enforcing a uniformity of opinion, a hierarchy of victim groups and the exclusion of freethinkers.” He feels that this needs to be dismantled, “expose their policies to the light of day and repeal the ones that cannot be publicly justified.” 

Steven Pinker is an absolute leader on this issue and, again, all of our guests on this episode who are really at the front lines of this issue. There are so many other issues I would rather be talking to them about, but this is the issue of the day and it’s really important that we’re able to speak with them and ask what’s next. And here is our conversation with Professor Steven Pinker. 

I want to ask you the following question. If I would’ve come to you and asked you on October 6th, the day before the terrorist massacre on October 7th, that has really upended a lot of the ways we’re thinking about anti-Semitism in the United States, if I would’ve asked you on October 6th, what is the state of college campuses’ treatment of anti-Semitism, how would you have approached that issue? Would you have said, “Oh, it’s going fine, it’s going great, there’s not much of an issue?” Or do you think that there was a larger issue that existed before what we’re seeing now in reaction to October 7th? 

Steven Pinker: 

Well, I knew that in big sectors of universities there is a kind of hatred of Western civilization, not throughout the university, but in some sectors. And that could include the Jewish community and Jewish students who’ve, of course, prospered in the West. I would not have predicted that the sympathy for, in particular Palestinian terrorist groups, would be as high as it was. The letter from the 34 student groups at Harvard did come as a unpleasant surprise. 

David Bashevkin: 

You were surprised by that. So you have stepped forward in the aftermath of October 7th to talk about how universities should be treating speech on campus has been given a great deal of attention for balancing the values of free speech with the larger issues of how do we make sure students feel safe and you published in The Boston Globe

Did you feel compelled to speak out on this as a Jewish person or as somebody who has explored language, explored philosophy and explored sociology? Before we get into the details of what you shared, what compelled you to weigh in on this? 

Steven Pinker: 

I would say it’s not in particular as a Jewish faculty member. It is from my commitment to the whole point of scholarship, of science, of universities of higher education, namely, that we are in pursuit of the truth. It’s actually emblazoned on the crest of my employer, Harvard University, Veritas. And in many ways universities have departed from this noble ideal by criminalizing certain opinions, by allowing for forceful disruptions by protest groups, as opposed to reasoned argument, by a narrowing of the range of opinion that is explored on campuses, by a bureaucracy that has increasingly infringed on the rights of students and faculty to explore ideas. 

So these are longstanding concerns. They’re salient to me for two reasons. One of them is I am in a field that tends to explore some controversial issues, nature and nurture, differences between men and women, whether humans have violent, aggressive impulses. 

David Bashevkin: 

Sure. 

Steven Pinker: 

All of these are issues. And if you’ve got people saying, “Oh, you can’t think that thought,” you’re just never going to understand what makes humans tick. 

Humans are a complex species. We’ve got some ugly sides and it’s better that we understand them, so I say. And if you’ve got a regime that says “Let’s only talk about theories of humans that make us look nice or that make us into blank slates so that we can program people into whatever kind of creatures we want,” I’m going to say that’s really getting in the way of what I do, which is to try to figure out what kind of animals we are. 

David Bashevkin: 

Exactly. 

Steven Pinker: 

And the other reason is as a cognitive psychologist, as someone who studies how people reason, in particular who deals in my last book, Rationality, with the paradox that our species has managed to do some amazing things and we’ve explored other planets, we discovered DNA, we invented vaccines, we’ve doubled our lifespan. But if you look at any given human being, we’re filled with these biases and irrationality and we’re vulnerable to conspiracy theories and fake news and quack cures and mystical woo-woo. How did one species manage to be so irrational and so rational? 

And the answer is we form communities that explore, that seek the truth that are designed to circumvent our biases. Namely, one person proposes an idea. It might be right, it might be wrong, probably wrong because most new ideas are wrong, but everyone else gets to say what’s wrong with it. And that’s how we advance. We have peer review, we have fact-checking, we have editing, we have rabbinical commentary, and you can’t just say something and impose it by force. You’ve got to argue for it. 

If you disable that process by saying, “Some ideas you can’t say, we have an official doctrine of what’s true or what’s false,” then you have short-circuited the search for truth based on what we know about the human mind. 

David Bashevkin: 

You’ve done some incredible work in wide-ranging fields that really bear upon the moment that we’re in now. And I’m curious, you have been a faculty member in the upper echelons of academia for many, many years. You’ve seen many crises, I’m sure you were teaching during September 11th, you were teaching during the Ukraine and Russian War, and now you’re looking out and you were seeing the conflict between Palestine and Israel are animating students in a way. We’re both Jewish, but to an outside observer, it does strike me as somewhat strange that this has become a cause that has captured the passions of the contemporary students and universities throughout the country. 

How do you understand why this issue has become so divisive and why you see people marching outside the Jewish community and outside the Palestinian community? It is galvanizing so much more than the actual people affiliated with these countries or these populations. What do you make of the reason why Israel and Palestine captures the attention specifically of contemporary college students? 

Steven Pinker: 

No, it’s a good question and it’s not a completely new thing. Because when I was an undergraduate back in the 1970s at McGill University in Montreal, our student paper was obsessed with Israel. It was highly anti-Zionist, anti-Israel. It’s almost a campus joke as a, I think, a spillover from the 1960s radicalism that kind of pits the oppressors, namely Western civilization against victim groups. 

Now, that has gotten much worse, but the seeds were sown back then and it is, to a large extent, the campus radicals of the ’60s and ’70s, who then grew up and became deans and presidents. I don’t think they explicitly carried over the ’60s hard left radical ideology with them. But there was still a bit of a sympathy, like if students are occupying a building, “Well, that kind of reminds me of my youth when we occupied buildings.” 

And so there’s rather than a serious, principled analysis of what is a legitimate protest, what crosses the line into criminality, what is a legitimate criticism of, say, Israeli policy and what is a division of the world into oppressors and victims, I think there’s a lot of soft thinking on the part of many of our university leaders. 

Going back to your question, it is a mystery why, especially as someone who looks at numbers, how serious are different wars in terms of the number of people are killed. As horrible as the wars in Israel, Palestine, Egypt are, by those accounts of world history, they’re pretty small wars. Even in recent memory, the Syrian Civil War has killed at least 10 times, maybe 20 times as many people as will be killed in Israel versus Gaza. So why didn’t you have student protests demanding an immediate ceasefire in the Syrian Civil War? The war, which almost no one has heard of in Ethiopia last year between the Tigray rebels of the Ethiopian government, has killed far more people than in Israel and Palestine. Why weren’t there protestors for a ceasefire then? It is a legitimate question. Some of it may tie into traditional anti-Semitism. 

David Bashevkin: 

I’m kind of asking that, meaning, I look at you as somebody who really calls it by the numbers, so that’s why this question fascinates me so much for you. Like obviously, you are Jewish in whatever affiliation you have to Israel, maybe we could ask about later, but do you see kind of that old hatred anti-Semitism animating some of this? Or do you think it’s something else or a combination? 

Steven Pinker: 

It’s got to be some of it. It’s certainly not continuous with the kind of genteel WASP country club anti-Semitism. They kept Jews out of Harvard for much of the 20th century. It’s quite different. It’s coming from the left, rather than the moderate right or the extreme right. We did see some of it with the birth of radical leftist politics in the 1960s and the 1970s so it is blown up from the kernel that existed back then. 

And it’s hard to deny that it has something to do with anti-Semitic impulses. You’ve got a highly visible, highly successful minority where it’s a kind of natural human tendency to envy and resent success, to blame it on nefarious greed and conspiracies, rather than intrinsic features of the culture, like emphasis on education, entrepreneurial spirit, cosmopolitanism. 

But those are not intuitive. It’s naturally just to assume if someone has more, they must have stolen it. So it does engage a primitive part of our prejudice that throughout many centuries has manifest itself against Jews. 

And in other countries other successful sometimes entrepreneurial middlemen minorities like the Indians in Uganda in the 1970s, the Chinese and Vietnam in Philippines and Fiji, ethnic minorities that are successful, that occupied middleman niches are frequent targets of vicious ethnic hatred. And Israel as a country, it doesn’t have a lot of resources, how did it get so rich and militarily successful? It’s a natural human tendency to say, “This must be something nefarious there.” 

You plug that into the growing narrative that the world is divided between oppressors and victims, something that doesn’t begin in universities. A lot of our elite private high schools have it, sometimes elementary schools, in part because the hard left radical ideology found its way into many institutions because that is part of the playbook for how the radical left chooses to transform societies. 

It’s no longer get the proletariat to seize power from the bourgeoisie. It’s become presidents of school boards and deans of colleges and bureaucrats in the diversity, equity, and inclusion enterprise, go into high schools, take over curricula, take over- 

Steven Pinker: 

… Enterprise, go into high schools, take over curricula, take over journals, and there is a strategy of transforming society by taking over institutions from inside and that has had a cumulative effect as well. 

David Bashevkin: 

Your article weighed in on what you hope to see the future of how we treat speech in universities. I’m wondering if you could give some advice to those who want to make the case for Israel on campus or even to understand what comes next in the aftermath of so much of the divisiveness that has arose on campus. Oftentimes extreme left ideologies produce just extreme right ideologies, and then you get caught in this wave and mess of shouting and information and this partisanship. What steps do you think need to be taken to restore a middle on university campuses to make that moderate way of thinking for that to reemerge? 

Steven Pinker: 

Yeah, and you’re right to note that there is also, of course, a very old street of anti-Semitism from the right, from the, “We will not be replaced Slogan-Chanters, and I get email from the right saying, “How come Jews are only 2% of the population, but X percent of the faculty at Harvard or X percent of the owners of major media?” Those traditional tropes certainly are popular on the right as well. I think that the background has to be a rededication to the ideals of the pursuit of disinterested truth. Knowing facts, spreading facts, viewpoint diversity so that you don’t get entire programs taken over by a particular ideology, which in practice on university campuses becomes a intersectional critical theory, social justice warfare ideology, often taking over entire departments with no one to give them a sanity check of, “Hey, maybe let’s actually look at some history here and let’s consider all sides to a controversy,” certainly free speech so that people who dissent from orthodoxies are not censored or punished. Nonviolence. That is no matter what you believe, you can hold up your signs, but you can’t take over a university building, you can’t get in the faces of other students. You can’t drown out speakers, can’t take over campus spaces and redecorate them as propaganda billboards. That is the university has to take ownership of its own spaces for the protection of all students. What this does resist is an attempt to just add Jews to the list of victim groups. We got to give priority to gay people and African-Americans and transgender people. Oh, and Jews. 

David Bashevkin: 

That’s not what you’re advocating for. Exactly. 

Steven Pinker: 

As soon as you do that and the next day it’s going to be, “Yes and Muslims.” If you criminalize anti-Semitic speech, then it’s going to be criminalizing Islamophobic speech where Islamophobic speech can be pointing out certain truths about radical Muslim movements, for example. They’ve got to be content neutral. This means putting up with a certain amount of frankly hateful rhetoric. The First Amendment protects hate speech, and I think universities have to as well, as long as they don’t cross over into intimidation, or incitement of imminent violence, or direct threats. But assuming that the facts are on our side, the truth is on our side, the arguments on our side. We shouldn’t be afraid of a marketplace of ideas in which we can state the facts about the history of Zionists and the history of Israel and come down like a ton of bricks on the canard, for example, that Israel is a colonial settler state, which is nonsense. 

It was not a colony of Portugal, or Spain, or Britain. The people who came there were not seeking to acquire more land for an empire. They were obviously fleeing persecution. Jews are the indigenous to the area called Israel and so on. Just the UN had a partition plan, which the Arab states rejected that there was proposal for a Palestinian state at various times that the Palestinian factions rejected. Those facts, which many of our students are completely ignorant of, ought to be out there, and I think we have to have the conviction that if we do have a case, if we are morally justified in our beliefs, we can state the case and in a true fair marketplace of ideas, then these will have a chance that it’s the repression of debate, the repression of speech that has allowed these good versus evil oppressor versus victim ideologies, which can turn into antisemitism to dominate big chunks of campuses. 

David Bashevkin: 

One question I have based on your suggestions, which I think were remarkable and did resonate a great deal with me, who gets to determine what is considered violent or nonviolent, and this came up with regard to chance for Intifada, Globalize the Intifada. According to your structure, whose job would it be to figure out whether calls for Intifada on campus qualify? Again, according to your own metrics or your own guide in this, whose job would it be to determine whether or not that does in fact fall within the lines of nonviolence? 

Steven Pinker: 

Well, something like that would not directed at an individual, not calling for imminent violence would pass, would go through, and as despicable as they are, and I think they are, but we should point out what’s despicable about them. The problem is that if you say you even calls for political violence in the abstract should be censored or punished. Well, what do you do about someone who says that the invasion of Gaza is morally justified? We know it will result in the death of more than 10,000 Palestinian Gazan civilians, but it’s justified anyway. Again, this is independent of the merits of that. 

David Bashevkin: 

Correct. 

Steven Pinker: 

But I wouldn’t want someone who made that argument to be censored or punished even though it is a call for violence, and now maybe some violence is morally justifiable if it results in less net violence over the long term. But you can’t have a coherent policy that says no one may ever advocate political violence because then it would rule out a lot of Israeli factions who do call, let’s be frank, calling for the invasion of Gaza to remove Hamas knowing that it will result in more than 10,000 civilian deaths is a call for violence. 

It may be justified, but you can’t say that where no one’s ever allowed to make such an argument without shutting down everyone. In terms of when it crosses the line, well, if the campus already has offices for the punishment of intimidation and bullying, that is if it’s directed at an individual student, if it’s a crime such as vandalism, such as physical intimidation, such as threats of violence, such as actual violence, then it would be just like any other act of vandalism or violence on campus. The campus police should deal with it. And I think by the way, universities including Harvard have been remiss in indulging students who clearly crossed the line from holding up a sign to taking over campus buildings or intimidating Jewish students. 

David Bashevkin: 

I think you were unique and I actually appreciated it a great deal that you were one of the people who actually said in the congressional hearings the answer that they gave, what prompted so much outrage of whether or not calling for Jewish genocide qualifies as harassment. By the numbers, you said they actually answered correctly, however, a lot of the hurt or a lot of the pain and the outrage was the fact that there was so much distance between the way they answered that question and the way they’ve been dealing with all other forms of speech that have been deemed harassment and bullying. Is that correct that you feel just playing it by the books because what you are thinking about is not necessarily the answer to this question, but what happens when we weaponize speech on both sides, our own speech can eventually be weaponized as well. 

Steven Pinker: 

That’s exactly right, and Lardin Gay, there’s much to criticize in her congressional testimony including just the whole emotional tone that she ought to have expressed, but she was literally correct that there is no rule on the Harvard books that say, “You can’t say, ‘Globalize the Intifada.’” Just as there’s no law in the United States criminal code because we’ve got the First Amendment. And there’s no law in any state that says, “You may not say, ‘From the River to the Sea,’” and likewise at Harvard, there’s no rule against saying that and there shouldn’t be because if there is, it could also be used to punish someone who says, “We should invade Gaza, remove Hamas regardless of the cost.” 

She was literally correct. She didn’t have a leg to stand on though because Harvard had this sorry history punishing all kinds of speech, far more innocuous than From the River to the Sea, and you can’t suddenly become a First Amendment absolutist when it comes to genocide against the Jews and say, “You’re allowed to say that, but if you say there are two sexes, then we can make your life a living hell.” That’s the problem that Harvard found itself in because of its own, sorry history of not upholding free speech. You can’t uphold it selectively and suddenly say, “I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death you’re right to say it,” the quote attributed to Voltaire. You can’t suddenly pull that out of the air when it comes to genocide against Jews and say, “Yes, but it’s saying that they’re two sexes is punishable.” 

David Bashevkin: 

And I noticed that and I really did appreciate that you referred to October 7th in your Boston Globe article as a pogrom, but I’m curious for you if you have any sense of connection, if you’ve ever visited Israel. I don’t know if you’ve written about it. I’ve tried to read a lot of your books. I’m just curious on a personal level. A friend of mine happens to be your brother-in-law and nephew are really special. He calls in all the time. I’ll give him a shout out, Mel Berenholtz, if that’s okay. He’s a common fixture on 18Forty and he is beloved and his son Dan. But I’m curious on a personal level for you. Did you grow up in a home that had any connection to Israel or do you personally have any memories or sense of affiliation with Israel? 

Steven Pinker: 

Oh yeah. I grew up as a Reform Jew where probably the biggest commitment to Judaism was Zionism, and this ranged from on that Tu BiShvat paying quarters to stick little leaves on diagrams of trees to buy trees to plant in Israel. I went to a Zionist camp. We pretended to be Chalutzim. We sang the Palmach battle song and my father was active in the Canadian Zionist organization. I’ve been to Israel many times. I’m going back in May. I’m going to speak to the Academy of Humanities and Sciences there giving a lecture. See, and I’ve been there a number of times. Honestly, I wouldn’t say I’m a Zionist, but I’m an anti-anti-Zionist. I think that a lot of the laws and international standards that we apply to all the other 192 countries in the United Nations should apply to Israel as well. Namely that its existence should not be up for debate. 

I think there’s much to criticize in the current government of Israel, not least leaving its own citizens vulnerable to murder, kidnapping, and rape. Where was the IDF in defending Israeli soil? I do think that Israel has the rights that other states have. It should not be governed by a halacha. All citizens I think, should have equal rights. I think it needs a more coherent policy of what’s going to become of the West Bank. There’s much about the Netanyahu government that I detest, but still the question, “Should Israel exist,” should not be a live question. It’s been around for… 

David Bashevkin: 

It’s been around for far too long. 

Steven Pinker: 

Other countries have a much more tenuous claim to a coherent existence and also just knowing about the various crimes and migrations in human history. Palestinians should live in better circumstances, have more rights, but then an awful lot of displaced peoples who have not nursed a seventy-five year resentment. It’s just a fact that in the late 1940s, lots of people were moved around the global chessboard. Millions of ethnic Germans were forcibly uprooted from Eastern Europe. Many of them murdered, in Cyprus, in the partition of India, in Greece and Turkey. People moved around a lot in the 1940s and they got over it and they became citizens of a country and they forgot about dreams of returning to where their grandparents lived several generations ago. I think that’s the idea that Israel bears some particular moral stain for doing what the whole world did in the late 1940s is a real moral pathology. Not to deny that the Palestinians have been treated badly, not least by other Arab governments, but including by the Israeli government. 

David Bashevkin: 

I am so grateful for your time and wisdom. I’ve been following and reading your books for many, many years, and I’m really grateful for your time. I always close my interviews with more rapid fire questions. Now is a time, and you’ve written about this a great deal, but I’m curious about what are the books that helped inform that you would recommend to a popular audience for people who are trying to find a way for how to approach political issues in a more thoughtful way, they’re trying to clear through a lot of the typical biases that people have. What are the books that influence you that you would recommend to a wider audience? 

Steven Pinker: 

Well, the book by John Height and Greg Lukianoff called, The Coddling of the American Mind. Then a follow-up book by Greg Lukianoff called, The Canceling of the American Mind, just came out a few months ago, are both good guides to I think some of the present crises we find ourselves in. A book by Jonathan Rauch called, The Constitution of Knowledge, on how did we get to a point where there is so much fake news, conspiracy thinking, which he points out are the default through much of human history. We should flip the question of, “How did we ever manage to arrive at objective, scientific, disinterested truth?” That’s the hard part, but it flips that question. Let’s see. I find a couple of fairly new online magazines, invariably stimulating Persuasion, founded and edited by Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins, and Quillette Magazine out of Australia, edited by Claire Lehmann and Canadian Jonathan Kay. These are sources that I look at pretty regularly. There are a lot of good substacks. Jonathan Haidt has—

David Bashevkin: 

Yes, former guest of 18Forty. 

Steven Pinker: 

Yes. Okay. 

David Bashevkin: 

My next question, I always ask people, if somebody gave you an unlimited amount of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical for as long as you need to go back to university and get a second PhD in a different field, you’ve already carved out quite a broad set of academic disciplines that you have waited on, but let’s say you were to approach a totally new field. What do you think the subject and title of that dissertation would be? 

Steven Pinker: 

It might be in computer science, including artificial intelligence. It’s a field that I track because it’s so closely related to cognitive psychology, my own field. That is, we’ve got an intelligence system, the human brain, we can develop our own intelligence systems. What do they have in common? How do they differ? How might they differ? What is computable in principle, the questions that are associated with Alan Turing? 

David Bashevkin: 

Sure. 

Steven Pinker: 

Going deeper into that, I would find deeply interesting, constitutional law, that is what are the principles by which governments are constituted with the consent of the governed. 

David Bashevkin: 

Those are two great ones. My final question, I’m always curious about people’s sleep schedules, especially storied academics like yourself. What time do you go to sleep at night and what time do you wake up in the morning? 

Steven Pinker: 

Usually about approximately 1:30 to 8:30. 

David Bashevkin: 

Oh, okay. That’s very doable. Professor Stephen Pinker, I am so grateful for your time today. Thank you so much for joining us. 

Steven Pinker: 

Thank you, David. It’s an honor. 

David Bashevkin: 

There is something that resonates with me deeply when Talia Khan in conversation and in her congressional hearing said, “I just want to be a scientist.” In some ways I feel the same way. I would rather speak to any of these three people about a hundred other topics because their work, their background, their life story is that fascinating and there was so much more to discuss, but I am so incredibly grateful and it really is a privilege to speak to the absolute leading voices. People who through their own experience, their own leadership, are really at the front lines of asking and answering this question, “What is next for higher education in the aftermath of October 7th?” And I am so grateful to Rabbi David Wolpe, to Talia Khan, and to Professor Steven Pinker for joining us today. They chart a path. They’re not always in agreement, and our listeners may not always agree with them, but these are people who I believe have the vantage point to really understand what are the policies, procedures, and institutional approaches that are necessary to reimagine higher education, to refocus higher education on what it should have been focused on all along, which is providing a place for the development and sharing of great ideas for the next generation of society. 

Thank you so much for listening. This episode, like so many of our episodes, was edited by our dearest friend, Dina Emerson. If you enjoyed this episode or any of our episodes, please subscribe, rate, review, tell your friends about it. You can also donate at 18forty.org/donate. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. You can also leave us a voicemail with feedback or questions that we may play on a future episode. That number is 516-519-3308. Again, that’s 516-519-3308, and we have that episode planned, God willing for a few weeks from now. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18forty.org. That’s the number 18, followed by the word forty, forty.org, where you can also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and weekly emails. Thank you so much for listening and stay curious my friends.