In the United States, we do not hear a lot of positive news about how Jews and Israel are treated on college campuses in the United Kingdom. In fact, we mostly hear horror stories. It was refreshing, therefore, to hear that a “Jewish Equality Act” was adopted by the Students’ Union at the University of London that approved offering kosher dining options, access to multi-faith rooms and rescheduling events conflicting with Shabbat and Jewish holidays. This was an especially impressive decision given that the University of London constituent college has just 39 students who identified themselves as Jewish during the application process.
Sadly, even this triumph of common sense was marred when one clause was dropped from the measure that was approved. The exclusion says a lot about the distinction between the treatment of Jews and other minorities on campuses in the UK, but it applies equally to the US.
What was the offending clause?
It said that “Jewish students should be given the right to self-determination and be able to define what constitutes hatred against their group, like all other minority groups.”
The President of the SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] Jewish Society, Avrahum Sanger, proposed the act. “Removing this line,” he said, “tells me and my Jewish peers that we are not able to define our own oppression, that we are not able to self-determine our identity…that it is one rule for them and another for every other minority group.”
This was just the latest example of a type of bias we see on US campuses where non-Jews tell Jews how they should feel, what offensive language and behavior they should tolerate and what constitutes anti-Semitism. It is outrageous.
Jews are treated like no other minority. Worse, university officials allow this discriminatory treatment and often defend it.
Imagine if African American students protested statements made on campus that they considered racist. Then the people who made the statements said they are not racist because the African Americans are not the arbiters of what is and is not racist. No one would accept this argument on any campus in America. The same test could be applied to issues of sexism or attacks on gays.
The situation regarding Jews is the only exception. Inexplicably, people making anti-Semitic statements can tell Jews they are not permitted to define anti-Semitism.
This perversion of language and human rights has allowed anti-Semites to openly criticize Jews and Israel on American campuses. Have you ever heard administrators defend the free speech rights of racists, sexists or homophobes? No, feckless officials only grant those rights to anti-Semites. Hate speech directed against any other group is shut down immediately. If there is the slightest hesitation, protests are mounted until the offensive speech is curtailed and the speaker is punished.
Remember, for example, the uproar when members of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma were filmed singing a racist song on a bus off campus? University President David Boren expelled two students who were involved, an action several law professors called unconstitutional. Even before that incident, the university had created a five-hour course on diversity for faculty and first-year students apparently in response to rumors of a planned “Cowboys and Indians” themed fraternity party.
Now let’s apply the same standard to the students who are sponsoring Israel hate weeks on campuses over the next several weeks, and the promoters of the BDS campaign. Jewish students (and Jews around the world) have said many of these programs are anti-Semitic. In 2015, the heads of more than 60 international Jewish organizations from all sides of the political and religious spectrum agreed:
The BDS movement is antithetical to principles of academic freedom and discourages freedom of speech. The movement silences voices from across the Israeli political spectrum. By pursuing delegitimization campaigns on campus, proponents have provoked deep divisions among students and have created an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred.
Moreover, the signatories said: “We recognize and accept that individuals and groups may have legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. Criticism becomes anti-Semitism, however, when it demonizes Israel or its leaders, denies Israel the right to defend its citizens or seeks to denigrate Israel’s right to exist.”
Jews decide what constitutes anti-Semitism. The boycotters and sponsors of speakers, movies and other programs attacking Jews directly, or under the facade of criticizing Israel, do not determine whether their actions are anti-Semitic. If Jewish students tell officials these are anti-Semitic, the administration should react the same way it would if African American students complained about peers engaging in race baiting.
One problem is the timidity of Jewish students. Other minorities do not hesitate to organize protests. Jews, for some reason, have never had the fortitude, the interest, or the training to mobilize large numbers of their peers to demonstrate for their rights. Imagine if hundreds of Jews at campuses where thousands are enrolled, such as UCLA or NYU, marched to demand that administrators take measures to prevent anti-Semitism on their campuses. Such shows of force would change the dynamic on campus and force officials to take the anti-Semitic behavior of groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) seriously.
Protesters should demand that Israel hate weeks be banned, using the same justification given for barring fraternities from hosting parties with “offensive” themes. SJP and other groups espousing anti-Semitic views (typically with student and taxpayer funding) should be banned from campus.
So far, Fordham University is the only campus that has had the courage to do this despite the howls of protest from defenders of anti-Semitic speech. In a statement that should be a model for other universities, Fordham Dean of Students Keith Eldredge explained:
While students are encouraged to promote diverse political points of view, and we encourage conversation and debate on all topics, I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country (Israel)…
He added, “the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding.”
First Amendment advocates may object to banning hate speech. Let them. It didn’t stop Oklahoma from expelling students for singing a racist song. If, however, anti-Semitism is protected speech, then no university should be allowed to prevent other forms of offensive speech by anyone on campus. The Constitution will not win that confrontation.
For too long, universities have been the one place in America where anti-Semitism is tolerated. It is time that university officials respect Jews’ right to “define our own oppression.”
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel, After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.