Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel frequently complain about a “Palestinian exception” to free speech. Never mind that whole, albeit small, segments of the academy are openly committed to the view that Israel is America’s accomplice in crimes of imperialism. People who criticize Israel, they say are not allowed to speak—often they make this point at university-sponsored events, or during “Israeli Apartheid Week,” a yearly ritual on many American campuses.
The claim, to be sure, refutes itself. But it is nonetheless heartening that an article in InsideHigherEd, a mainstream higher education website with no dog in the hunt, recognized that it is pro-Israel speakers who are uncommonly subject to disruption by—you guessed it—“pro-Palestinian” activists. Just last Thursday, at the University of Virginia, a panel of Israeli military reservists was interrupted by a group “shouting anti-Israel slogans through a megaphone, preventing the speakers from being heard.” Rabbi Jake Rubin, executive director of UVA’s Brody Jewish Center, which sponsored the panel, invited the protesters to stay and ask questions, but the “protesting students refused to do so and continued to shout at the speakers, making it impossible for the event to proceed as planned,” until the police arrived.
As Scott Jaschik, the author of the report and co-editor of InsideHigherEd, observed, this is hardly an isolated incident. He detailed seven instances of disruption, and he could have named many more. For example, he described a 2016 incident at UC-Irvine in which “protesters disrupted a screening of a film Beneath the Helmet, about the lives of five Israeli soldiers. The protest involved shouting that made it impossible for people to hear the film.” But he did not describe another incident at UC-Irvine in 2017, also featuring Israeli reservists, which earned the school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine two years of probation.
Anti-normalization—in this case the attempt to render Zionism unspeakable—is the raison d’etre of the BDS movement, and shutting down speakers is one of its primary techniques. Before activists looked to shut down genuine white nationalists, like Richard Spencer, BDS was shouting down people like Bassam Eid, a Palestinian whose primary thought crime is denying that Israel is demonic. I guess there is a Palestinian exception to free speech after all.