Richard L. Cravatts

Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee at UC Davis

Since its founding in 2001, the radical campus group Students for Justice in Palestine has had as its mission to demonize Israel and promote a campaign to accuse the Jewish state of apartheid, racism, brutal occupation, and crimes against humanity, among other accusations. Its radical behavior has created a toxic atmosphere on campuses where its programs and events have regularly morphed into what has been categorized as being anti-Semitic in nature.

Now, apparently in an effort to bring that same vituperative ideology to the faculty, a group on the UC Davis campus calling itself Faculty for Justice in Palestine recently decried a letter sent to the UC Davis administration by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) which warned that “In the wake of the recent crisis, anti-Israel organizations are placing increasing pressure on academic institutions to engage in… ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ (BDS) activities,” and that school officials should be aware that groups were undertaking a campus campaign “all in an effort to isolate and demonize Israel and Jewish communal organizations. These efforts serve only to polarize students on campus, inflame existing tensions, and often isolate and intimidate Jewish students.”

In an opinion piece that ran in The California Aggie, the UC Davis student newspaper, professor of English Joshua Clover and professor of Asian American studies Sunaina Maira preposterously claimed that the ADL, far from being a civil rights organization, “is an avowedly Zionist lobbying organization with a long history of attempting to silence criticism of the Israeli state,” and claimed that the group’s intention was actually to suppress Palestinian activism and obscure the predations of Israel, a view that professor Maira was bound to harbor, given that she is a member of the American Studies Association Council, which voted for an academic boycott against Israeli scholars and an organizer in the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

The paranoid notion that the ADL’s letter amounts to “unacceptable interference by off-campus interests” which is “baldly racist,” and which somehow “chills” political advocacy on the UC Davis campus, is, of course, ridiculous. More troubling is that this statement reveals that the professors naively believed that pro-Palestinian activists can institute an ideological assault against Israel, call for Jewish academics to be shunned from the community of world scholars while simultaneously singling out and attacking the Jewish state as an illegal, colonial occupier on stolen Palestinian land, and libel and harass Jewish students and other supporters of Israel by making them complicit in, and responsible for, the actions of their government in perpetrating what activists define as an “illegal occupation” without anyone with opposing views answering these slanders with counter-arguments and opposing views.

The faculty members’ motivation was purportedly to “show support for Palestinian solidarity activism,” but several working definitions of anti-Semitism, including those by the U.S. State Department and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, suggest that such actions, in targeting Israel and holding it to a different standard of behavior than all other nations — something which the actions and speech of UC Davis’s Students for Justice in Palestine and the organization American Muslims for Palestine clearly do — is one criteria by which speech and actions can be considered anti-Semitic, which of course the professors here conveniently ignore or of which they are sadly ignorant.

Whether or not these Professors for Justice in Palestine believe the activism they support is anti-Semitic is not relevant; anti-Semites rarely admit to their behavior, or to the consequences of their actions and speech. And their accusation that the ADL sent its letter to Chancellor Katehi, not on its own merits, but in an underhanded attempt to “silence criticism of the Israeli state” is also consistent with a pattern that David Hirsh of Engage in Britain has termed the “Livingstone Formulation,” part of which is “the counteraccusation that the raisers of the issue of antisemitism do so with dishonest intent, in order to de-legitimize criticism of Israel. The allegation is that the accuser chooses to ‘play the antisemitism card’ rather than to relate seriously to, or to refute, the criticisms of Israel.”

So not only did the professors reject some of the claims of underlying anti-Semitism in the ADL’s letter itself, they also decided that those organizations and individuals who made efforts to expose that anti-Semitism were not authentic, but were merely attempting to promote their own, pro-Israel agenda.

Protestations and defenses aside, the issue is far more obvious than the UC Davis professors care to realize, and much less insidious. Those who speak back to ideologues do so not to suppress criticism of Israel; academic freedom grants the professors the right to spew forth any academic meanderings they wish, but it clearly does not make them free from being challenged for their thoughts.

The core issue is that just as the pro-Palestinian activists on the UC Davis campus and elsewhere have the right under the umbrella of academic free speech to express their views – no matter how factually inaccurate, vitriolic, or repellant they may be – those within and outside academia with opposing views also have the right, under the same precepts of free expression, to question the those views, and to call them anti-Semitic, or racist, or genocidal, or merely historically inaccurate or incorrect if, in fact, that is the case. Also, a recently-leaked memorandum from the Binghamton University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine revealed that the true intention of the anti-Israel activists on campus is not, as it regularly claimed, dialogue and debate, but a strategy, not only of refusing to engage in conversation with any pro-Israel groups or individuals, but to actively, and corruptly, interfere with, shut down, and otherwise suppress any pro-Israel sentiment on campuses.

That type of behavior violates the concepts of academic freedom and academic free speech—rights that campus radicals prefer to exploit themselves while denying the same freedoms to others and deeming speech with which they disagree “hate speech.” Spirited debate between people with opposing views is acceptable; shutting down or preventing the speech of one side of the argument, and not permitting those views to be aired in the marketplace of ideas, is not. Even though the professors claim that “the rhetoric of ‘civility’ has become the new discourse through which administrations seek to suppress political engagement,” what thoughtful administrators are trying to achieve by calling for civility in scholarly debate is reasoned, thoughtful, and fact-based discourse—not riotous, offensive, and violent expressions, regardless of the supposed sanctity of the cause.

That may have been the motivation for the 2013 resolution passed by the ASUCD Senate, Senate Resolution 21, which sought to condemn and identify Islamophobic speech at the UC Davis. The resolution, which was passed after a controversial Ayn Rand Society event on radical Islam, “Islamists Rising,” was held, defined Islamophobia as “the irrational fear of Islam, Muslims or anything related to the Islamic or Arab cultures and traditions.” The authors of the resolution wished to use the resolution to suppress speech by critics of radical Islam, and were successful in categorizing any view about Islam with which they did not agree to be outside the bounds of acceptable speech; in fact, it was henceforth categorized as “hate speech” and unwelcomed on campus. Presumably criticizing the genocidal charter is Islamic Hamas, or the group’s unending attacks on Israeli civilians for the purpose of murdering Jews, could thereby be considered a type of hate speech, Islamophobic, or contrary to the accepted values of the UC Davis campus.

The suggestion that people be careful with their speech when assessing other people was apparently overlooked during a 2012 event at UC Davis at which two Israelis – a Jewish man and a Druze woman — were to speak and whose appearance was effectively shut down by members of Students for Justice in Palestine and others who had decided, in advance, that “Events like these are not welcome on our campus anymore.” During the presentation, a protestor used the “heckler’s veto” to silence the speakers, standing up and screaming to the podium that Israel has “turned the land of Pales­tine into a land of pros­ti­tutes and rapists and child moles­ters,” and ask­ing the speaker, “How many women have you raped? How many chil­dren have you raped? You are a child moles­ter.”

And pro-Palestinian activists on the Davis campus obviously were not concerned about civility when three Jewish students tried to speak on behalf of Israel at UC Davis at a November 2012 protest against Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense. The Jewish students were first shouted down with chants of “Leave our space!” “Shame on you!” “F**k Israel,” and “Long live the Intifada!” and then forced against a wall of windows while angry protestors threatened them with closed fists and physical aggression.

When pro-Palestinian activists shout “Long live the intifada,” it is, of course, a grotesque and murderous reference to the Second Intifada, during which Arab terrorists murdered some 1000 Israelis and wounded more than 14,000 others, so the fact that this is what passes as intellectual debate about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on campus is clear evidence that any hope of rational discourse or productive discussion has vanished. Civility has devolved into acrimony, and one can reasonably wonder, based on their language, what the true intentions are of those who defame, demean, and libel Israel in their effort to promote Palestinian self-affirmation.

Liberal-leaning academics at UC Davis and on other American campuses seemingly hold the notion that free speech is only good when it articulates politically correct, ideologically-acceptable views of protected victim or minority groups—and especially, as in the case, the perennially suffering Palestinians. But true intellectual diversity — the ideal that is often bandied about but rarely achieved — must be dedicated to the protection of unfettered speech, representing opposing viewpoints, where the best ideas become clear through the utterance of weaker ones.

For Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, for instance, the protection of free expression for all views was essential, not only to allow discourse of popular topics, but, even more importantly, in instances where unpopular or currently-controversial speech is deemed offensive and unworthy of being heard. “If there is any principal of the Constitution,” he observed, “that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principal of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

About the Author
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of the forthcoming book, The Slow Death of the University: How Radicalism, Israel Hatred, and Race Obsession are Destroying Academia.
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