Last Friday, I responded to an item published on the Website of the American Association of University Professors by Cary Nelson, the group’s president, and Kenneth Stern of the American Jewish Committee. They have now replied. My response follows their letter.
To the Editor:
Jonathan S. Tobin completely misconstrues our piece on campus anti-Semitism.
He suggests that the American Jewish Committee is against including Jews under Title VI for protection from a pervasively hostile campus environment. AJC actually convened the coalition which helped persuade the Department of Education to issue its clarifying letter in October. We not only noted that achievement in our letter, but also said that all allegations of anti-Semitism on campus demanded serious attention, and that some of them may indeed form the basis of a Title VI violation. Violence, threats of violence, treating Jewish students in a discriminatory fashion, and other similar acts may establish a case for such a pervasively hostile environment.
Our concern is that the recent cases also alleged that a pervasive hostile environment had been created where campuses allowed anti-Israel speech (from students, professors, and others) which may have transgressed the “working definition of anti-Semitism.” We applaud the use of the “working definition” to help universities identify and confront anti-Semitism—indeed AJC staffers were among the key drafters of the definition. But we reject its abuse, contorting it into a de facto “hate speech code.”
Both of us, in separate articles last year, made the point that students were wrong to disrupt Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at the University of California at Irvine. Students had the right to hear Oren.
Likewise students have the right to hear other speakers, including those whose anti-Israel stance impacts the “working definition.” Our point is that neither Title VI, nor the fight against anti-Semitism, is aided when universities are told that if they bring such speakers, their federal funding will be in jeopardy. That threat is just as much an effort of censorship as students shouting down Ambassador Oren.
Cary Nelson is President of the American Association of University Professors.
Kenneth Stern is AJC’s Director of the Division on Anti-Semitism and Extremism.
Jonathan S. Tobin replies:
The American Jewish Committee has a long and honorable tradition of bearing witness against anti-Semitism. However, the letter that Kenneth Stern signed with Cary Nelson stakes out a position that makes it unlikely that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act will ever be applied to protect Jews from anti-Semitism on college campuses.
Those who have requested that Jewish students be protected from the creation of a hostile environment are not asking for the creation of a “hate speech code.” What they are doing is seeking to compel the government to act when academic debate about the issues spills over into hostile actions that serve to suppress free speech and to threaten the safety of Jewish students. The egregious events at the University of California at Irvine in recent years is a classic example of this process. The debate over the situation at Cal-Irvine was the impetus for the Department of Education’s recent ruling that Jews are now covered by Title VI.
Nelson and Stern say they applauded that ruling in their letter. In fact, they merely noted the ruling’s existence without expressing an opinion and then went on to say how it should not be applied to a variety of subsequent incidents.
This is not an argument about whether universities should host “controversial” speakers. Obviously, not everyone need agree with Israel’s ambassador or those who oppose Israeli policies. Friends of Israel and the country’s critics have a right to be heard without being shouted down or banned. The question here is whether a consistent policy of encouraging genuine hate speech against Jews on campus—as was the case at Cal-Irvine—should be countenanced. Indeed, if the government were not to act there, then it must be expected that it was unlikely to act anywhere. While not every instance where Jewish students have complained may merit government action, anti-Semitism on campus is a real phenomenon, and aided by the movement to boycott, divest and isolate Israel (BDS), it is growing. The complaints by Jewish students on the campuses in question deserve better than the voluble dismissal they received by Nelson and Stern. Mere support for the principle of combating anti-Semitism is not enough if, when faced with instances of bias, those who should be speaking out instead counsel inaction.