Commentary Magazine


Protect Free Speech on Campus–For Jewish Students Too

Back in 2010, pro-Palestinian groups at the University of California-Berkeley staged a protest of Israel during which they set up checkpoints around certain parts of campus asking people if they were Jewish before deciding to let them through, and then watched as Jessica Felber, a Jewish pro-Israel student, was allegedly assaulted trying to participate in a counter-protest. To many, the incident typified an uncomfortable reality about pro-Israel students on campuses around the country, though it has been particularly hostile at UC schools.

The harassment—which, as in Felber’s case, can sometimes turn violent—has been all-too-common at universities, even (sometimes especially) at schools with a vibrant Jewish community. Anti-Israel activity doesn’t always take the form of physical intimidation; as Brooke Goldstein and Gabriel Latner revealed in COMMENTARY last year, it can take the form of university-funded events that raise money for groups that aid terrorists. But though the latter example presents a clear solution—don’t enable such fundraising—the question of what to do about harassment, especially nonviolent harassment, has been more difficult for universities, which often try to err on the side of free speech, to answer.

So the University of California school system dispatched a task force to its campuses to interview students and try to get a sense of how bad things truly are for Jewish students. They found that things were just fine for liberal Jewish students who openly criticized Israel, but far less comfortable for Jewish students who supported Israel openly and even for those who refused to join in the routine condemnation of Israel found around campus and in classrooms. (More on this task force in a moment.)

But the issue is now somewhat out of the university’s hands, as the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office announced this month that it has opened an investigation into whether the school is fostering a hostile atmosphere for Jewish students by permitting anti-Semitism to thrive on campus. This has led to some well-founded concerns about whether free speech is in jeopardy at institutions of higher learning. Wendy Kaminer offers a welcome defense of free speech and incivility, but completely misrepresents the students’ complaints to the task force and displays her own snide hostility to the Jewish groups bringing the complaint. Kaminer writes:

But combine popular support for restricting hate speech with ardent Zionism, and you have a recipe for categorically equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and restricting anti-Zionist protests in order to protect Jewish students from “harassment” and “intimidation.”

But the story isn’t about “ardent” Zionists on the march. The issue is about Jewish students who are the targets of repeated displays of anti-Semitism. That may be protected speech, but to paint the young Jews here as the true threat turns the case upside-down. And since violence was deployed against a Jewish counter-protester, isn’t Kaminer at all concerned that the Jewish groups’ free speech rights are at risk? Also, Kaminer never explains why “ardent” Zionism is a potent ingredient in the threat to free speech. And what makes Zionism “ardent”–bringing a law suit after being physically assaulted for being Jewish? Kaminer continues:

Still the U.C. fact finders’ recommendations are worth noting: They recommend vigorous regulations of political speech, partly to deter “bigoted harassment,” yet their fact finding mission apparently uncovered no instances of serious harassment or intimidation: “No students indicated feeling physically unsafe on U.C. campuses,” they report. I guess they didn’t interview the students whose complaint sparked the current Department of Education investigation, for whom vitriolic anti-Zionist protests were the equivalent of Nazi propaganda, threatening incitement of violence against Jews, if not another Holocaust.

Put aside the absurdity of regarding Jews in post 9/11 America, who’ve been embraced by right wing Christian Zionists, as more at risk than Muslims.

First of all, Kaminer must be kidding about the supposed invulnerability of Jews compared to Muslims. As the FBI has made clear, Jews are far more often the targets of hate crimes than Muslims are. That doesn’t mean Muslims aren’t also at risk, but they are, statistically, at far less risk than Jews.

More importantly, Kaminer is misleading her audience about that fact-finding task force and the complaints of the students. UC’s Jewish students claim a double standard: they believe that free speech rights have been granted to only some groups, or some criticisms. The students also said that the university has been less than accommodating when it comes to the religious needs and observance of its Orthodox students. Thus, there is an issue of religious freedom here as well.

Additionally, the Jewish students raised an objection to what they see as a consistent use of university resources and university-sponsored offices or activities that promote bigotry against Jews. That’s not about nasty students, but an institutional bias against Jews. And finally, Jewish UC students feel they’ve been excluded from working for campus groups specifically because of their views on Israel or religious affiliation.

Kaminer is right to defend free speech, but she should do so without distorting the facts of the case and railing against “ardent” Zionists and “right wing” Christians.

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