Jewish Students in the Free Speech Crossfire
The free speech defense of anti-Semitism is phony.
Dear University President,
I write to you about anti-Semitism on your campus.
Over the past few years, Jewish students and faculty have regularly reported instances of anti-Semitic speech and behavior. These include the following:
-A coalition of minority students issued a formal demand that university funding be increased to all student clubs except those that have a Zionist focus—-effectively singling out Jewish clubs for second class treatment. You made no public statement to defend the Jewish student clubs on campus.
-Students in the Jewish fraternity house reported regular drive-bys in which people shouted anti-Semitic slurs.
-For many years a history professor regularly included anti-Semitic and anti-Israel content in her courses. On the pretext of the professor’s right to free speech, you did nothing.
-Recently, your Office of Diversity and Inclusion, as well as academic units, sponsored a panel presentation that was anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Among the false “lessons” taught was the claim that the Jews cooperated with the Nazis in carrying out the Holocaust; and that Israel is a “settler colonialist” state in which an alien group of Jews evicted Arabs from their homes and stole their land.
Finally, the local Jewish community had had enough. We sent you a letter signed by Jewish community leaders. In that letter we asked you to take action against anti-Semitism on campus and to sponsor a speaker to balance the views of the anti-Semitic panel presentation.
So far all we have received from the university is a letter with high-sounding words about your obligation to support “all forms of free speech.” You noted that “true inclusion is making space for those who don’t think or believe in the same things.”
The “Free Speech” Ruse
On university campuses across the country, the free speech argument you cited has become an all-purpose shield for acts of bigotry and an excuse for tolerating attacks on unpopular groups. Among the most unpopular groups today are Jews.
The free speech defense of anti-Semitism is phony. It pretends that free speech rights are routinely upheld for all groups, when they are not.
Appeals to free speech rights are noble. But these appeals, when issued in an environment where out-of-favor groups are routinely deprived of free speech, are not a defense of free speech at all. They are a bludgeon against it. In the severely constrained environment of today’s universities, only prevailing views are allowed. In this environment, appeals to free speech empower majority views and quash minority views.
Like many precepts of the progressive movement, the public claim is the opposite of reality. Thus, intolerance masquerades as tolerance and racism as anti-racism.
Proof Positive that Speech is Constrained on Campus
It is oft-said that the purpose of higher education is to allow for the free and open debate of ideas, especially controversial ones. That may have been true once. But to pretend it is true today is disingenuous. In today’s morally calcified environment, only a narrow range of ideas is permitted expression.
I challenge you, and other university leaders, to sponsor a debate on any of the following assertions:
- freely available abortion encourages disrespect for human life
- father absence in the home causes criminality among young persons
- the best environment for child-rearing is a home with one father and one mother
- black African slavery was more brutal in the Islamic world than in the West
- Jew hatred is pervasive in majority-Muslim countries
- under the US Constitution everyone has the right to carry a concealed weapon in public
Today, none of these assertions can be openly expressed on campus. Any violation of this rule is enforced through a variety of means that have become all too familiar: ostracism of violators; verbal threats; physical acts of violence; mob actions, such as shouting down speakers; blocking the entrance to events; and packing auditoriums to prevent the public from hearing controversial speakers. Students who express prohibited ideas face censure, down-grading and career damage.
The latest enforcement tactic—-one that prevents the expression of any prohibited idea, even before the culprit speaks—-is Diversity Pledges. In this tactic, faculty and staff are required to sign a “commitment to diversity” pledge as a requirement for employment. Today’s enforcers will not take any chance that a “violation” may pop up.
It Doesn’t End with the Jews
Jews on campus have been among the first targets of constrained speech. Ask any student who seeks to join an environmental club only to be told that he cannot be a member unless he denounces Zionism.
But as is always the case, “What starts with the Jews doesn’t end with the Jews.” In every period of history, the movement against Jews is a symptom of a deeper malady that inevitably goes on to degrade the society as a whole. So for example, the expulsion of Jews from Spain was followed by centuries of economic and intellectual decline. The Nazi genocide of Jews ended with the collapse of civilization in Europe.
Anti-Semitism on the US campus is of lesser magnitude than these disasters, but it may be no less catastrophic in the future.
My Challenge to You
If, as you say, you are truly committed to free speech, I have a challenge for you.
Sponsor a series of public debates on your campus: a forum for Issues of the Day. Recruit academics, political advocates and others to debate the assertions I listed above. There are many others you can include as well.
Think of it as First Aid for free speech.
Raymond M. Berger