The level of anti-Israel hostility proliferating at our universities is hardly any great secret. Yet what to do in the face of this challenge has proven far less apparent. Putting aside the fact that many of the academics quietly, and not so quietly, approve of the actions taken by students seeking to demonize Israel, university authorities tend to be deeply wedded to high-minded notions about not “censoring” the free exchange of ideas. At Northeastern University, however, matters were getting so out of hand that there was no longer any escaping the fact that the kind of intimidation taking place on the campus clearly had nothing to do with legitimate political debate. With the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) pointing out to Northeastern that Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects students from racial and ethnic discrimination at federally-funded educational institutions, the university eventually felt compelled to temporarily suspend the Students for Justice in Palestine group operating on its campus.
Now, however, the activists are appealing that decision in a stunningly cynical attempt to invoke arguments about freedom of expression and open discussion so as to allow them to continue in their harassment of students. The readiness of the most illiberal forces to hijack the liberties afforded by liberal democracy, for no purpose other than to use this freedom against itself, is something that should concern all of us. There is little hope of being able to make Israel’s case fairly to those willing to listen, while open displays of bigotry are being allowed to drown out reasonable discourse and shut down discussion through the tactics of intimidation.
The kinds of activities engaged in by SJP at Northeastern are shocking to say the least. As well as storming a Holocaust commemoration event and vandalizing the statue of a Jewish donor to the university, the group’s faculty advisor M. Shahid Allam told members that they should consider being called anti-Semites a badge of honor and boasted that their tactics had helped make pro-Israel students feel too afraid to speak out. Under pressure to be seen to be doing something about all of this, the university authorities attempted to engage with SJP in an effort to have them tone down their tactics. Yet, during this year’s anti-Israel “Apartheid Week” SJP posted mock eviction notices under the doors of student dorms, telling them that this is what Israel does to Palestinians. When Northeastern’s Hillel put out an online message trying to reassure Jewish students, SJP saw fit to mock this too. That was the final straw provoking the temporary suspension.
The activists in question are now attempting to fight the suspension by invoking the most disingenuous arguments about the First Amendment and the importance of free discussion. The Jewish leader and spokesperson for Northeastern’s SJP group, Max Geller, has been at the forefront of speaking out against the suspension. During an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, who was eager to emphasize Geller’s Jewishness, the talk was all about how Jewish students identify with universal human rights and equality. Geller claims that he is “troubled” by attempts to stifle debate of the “Israeli-Palestinian question.” According to him his activities are just about helping students make “informed decisions,” claiming that it is actually his group’s “viewpoint” that is being demonized.
Yet, this peace and love act couldn’t be more cynical, for Geller himself cuts a pretty macabre figure. This student’s apparent affinity with the most murderous forms of anti-Semitic terrorism is truly chilling. As well as having been photographed in the West Bank posing with a PK-class machine gun and sporting a bullet-belt strung around his neck, Geller has attended demonstrations and campus wearing an Islamic Jihad headband and a Hezbollah T-shirt. By all accounts he favors a bipartisan approach to the glorification of terror groups, yet the indiscriminate murder of civilians is the defining characteristic that both of these Islamist factions hold in common. And perhaps most disturbing of all is the photograph of Geller boldly showing off his T-shirt emblazoned with an image of the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nazrallah, a man who has said he welcomes Jews gathering in Israel so as to save Hezbollah the trouble of having to pursue them worldwide.
The story of the hard-left’s attraction to the most brutal and nihilistic forms of violence is a long and apparently unending one. As with the Baader-Meinhoff gang, Jews seem to be a common fixation for those mesmerized by such bloodlust. But to see those who revel in this kind of thing operating so openly on American college campuses is more than just a little disconcerting. And the idea that the First Amendment protects those seeking to target and intimidate Jewish and pro-Israel students simply does not stand. Freedom of expression should not be limited at universities or anywhere else, but there is a clear dividing line between free speech and the sustained campaign of intimidation used to target students.