Daniel Chamovitz
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Lessons on campus protests from an Israeli university

When a pro-Palestinian rally at BGU posed a potential clash between free speech and public order, we set out rules of engagement
Students stage pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protests at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba on May 23, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
Students stage pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protests at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba on May 23, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

A shocking wave of anti-Israel demonstrations has roiled American university campuses over the past weeks. From the lush quads of the Ivy League to the sun-drenched plazas of West Coast schools, large-scale pro-Palestinian encampments and rallies have sprouted amid the Israel-Hamas war. At prestigious institutions like Columbia, NYU, and Yale, protests have disrupted campus life, prompted mass arrests of students, and seen university leaders erect security barricades while rattling free speech principles.

The scenes are jarringly anti-academic — tent cities in an ecstasy of activism, not calling for a peaceful resolution of the current war or the age-old conflict, but replete with annihilatory anti-Israel rhetoric, antisemitism and harassment of Jewish students. Claims of disruption in the name of justice have created an environment where many students feel psychologically and physically unsafe expressing their identities, beliefs and opinions. In this morally stifling climate, university leaders find themselves damned from all sides, accused simultaneously of trampling speech rights through heavy-handed policing while failing to protect vulnerable campus populations.

The vigorous open exchange of ideas is vital to any academic institution’s mission. However, such roiling debates must unfold within a framework of mutual respect, democratic discipline, and recognition that all communities deserve a platform and sanctuary. Under normal conditions, with moral leadership and participatory processes, universities can move beyond the repression-versus-chaos impasse now afflicting their quads and communities.

At Ben-Gurion University in Israel, we navigated a similar predicament two years ago regarding whether to permit a pro-Palestinian rally on our campus in Beersheba. As university president, I faced immense pressure from political figures and advocacy groups to prohibit commemorations they viewed as inflammatory, anti-Israel, and even dangerous. However, after careful consultation with students, faculty, legal experts and security professionals, we ultimately decided to allow the rally while instituting reasonable guidelines negotiated with all sides.

The “rules of engagement,” developed through robust dialogue between left-wing pro-Palestinian organizers, right-wing counter-protesters, administrators and campus security, outlined clear parameters enabling free expression while maintaining public order. Agreed conditions included designating protest areas, respecting campus access, avoiding hate speech and allowing the events to proceed for a defined period.

Though the pro-Palestinian rally inevitably drew widespread condemnation from those who reject any public expression of Arab identity, it proceeded peacefully. Students across the ideological spectrum respected the mutually agreed guidelines, followed by a peaceful return to classes. We demonstrated that a diversity of viewpoints, even on one of the world’s most contentious issues, could be accommodated at an Israeli university through democratic negotiation, moral leadership and judicious oversight.

In the wake of this milestone, I faced strong, at times violent, criticism from hardline political factions claiming I had undermined Israel’s national interests. However, by upholding BGU’s bedrock principles of academic freedom, civic pluralism and rule of law, these attacks quickly lost momentum. Our approach showed that unpopular perspectives have a place when expressed through legitimate, regulated channels.

In contrast, the current situation on American campuses reveals a shocking abrogation of those same democratic norms and judicious leadership. Rather than engaging in good-faith dialogue to establish reasonable protest parameters, pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel groups have instigated sustained disruptions and demonstrations involving alleged hate speech against Jewish and Israeli students. That many of these young, so-called justice warriors celebrate fanatical jihadist groups that border on death cults and stand in direct opposition to the liberal values upon which Western education is based is confounding.

University administrators, caught in a seeming binary of either quashing campus dissent or permitting total chaos, have responded with heavy-handed security crackdowns in lieu of collaborative solutions. Scenes of mass arrests, lockdowns and discord may be the only way to fight such dangerous radicals, but they also underscore the failure to fulfill the obligation of educating students on the tenets of upholding free speech while ensuring all students’ safety and access to the open exchange of ideas.

The path forward lies in the model demonstrated at BGU – rejecting both paths of capricious censorship and a Hobbesian free-for-all in favor of an inclusive process that sets out reasonable guidelines for protests and counter-protests. By bringing together pro-Palestinian, pro-Israel and all other stakeholders, universities can negotiate clear and evenly-enforced rules of engagement for this divisive debate.

Only when protesters from across the spectrum understand their speech rights are being protected within firm boundaries of public order and mutual respect can academic communities move beyond the current polemic. Dispassionate dialogue and moral leadership in establishing sensible rules –  however imperfect – is the difficult but necessary path American universities must walk to uphold their institutional missions and democratic values.

About the Author
Prof. Daniel Chamovitz is President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
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