Richard L. Cravatts

Pro-Palestinian Activists Claim ‘Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee’ on California Campuses

In her controversial book, From Time Immemorial, which examined the false narrative concerning the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Joan Peters referred to something she identified as “turnspeak,” “twisted rhetoric artfully aimed at the hearts and minds of the West, originated by the Arabs, and rivaling the Soviets, who are veterans of ‘semantic infiltration’ and the word war. Just as, in their lexicon, totalitarianism translates into ‘democracy,’ and degradation becomes ‘freedom,’ so has the flawed but democratic Israel been branded ‘Zionist imperialist’ and ‘racist.’” First used in 1939 to describe German propaganda after its invasion of Czechoslovakia, “turnspeak” in that instance was used to invert truth, enabling Germany to blame the Czechs for the aggression and belligerency they themselves were perpetrating.

On campuses today, turnspeak is still alive and well, the latest instance of its use being the case of Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz and co-founder of the AMCHA Initiative, an organization that investigates, documents, educates about, and combats anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in the U.S..

Rossman-Benjamin has been tirelessly campaigning for years against what she describes as “an advanced anti- Israel and pro-Palestinian discourse [that] has really dominated the campus square for over a decade, negatively affecting perceptions of literally hundreds of thousands of California university students,” and, more specific to this discussion, creating a hostile environment on California campuses for Jewish students and others who support Israel, or are assumed to, based on their Jewishness.

And those same activist student groups who have been spreading virulent anti-Israelism, often morphing into anti-Semitism, throughout the California public university system – and who have done so obsessively and without sanction – are now exhibiting turnspeak of their own by accusing Rossman-Benjamin of being a racist, not for attacking their beliefs or pro-Palestinian cause, but for her efforts to reveal the presence of anti-Semitism at her own university and elsewhere. She is now being branded a purveyor of hate speech and Islamophobia because she revealed the corrosive speech and behavior of pro-Palestinian campus activists.

Critics specifically pointed to a June 2012 speech which Rossman-Benjamin delivered at the Ahavath Torah Congregation in Stoughton, Massachusetts, during which she described anti-Semitic incidents at the University of California, and attributed some responsibility for contemporary campus anti-Semitism to two organizations, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Muslim Students Association (MSA). Rossman-Benjamin also conveyed widely-published reports indicating ties between the MSA and terrorist organizations.

In response, in April the student senate at UC Berkeley passed a resolution condemning Rossman-Benjamin’s “Islamophobic hate speech” by claiming that she “has been responsible for inciting racist and Islamophobic rhetoric,” that her comments and views are “hateful and inflammatory,” and that University of California President Mark Yudof should be called upon  “to condemn these inflammatory, hateful, and racist assumptions by  . . . Rossman-Benjamin against Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian students, and Palestinian rights activists.”

Campus radicals who promote the Palestinian cause may purport to be guided by “political ideals of equality and respect for universal human rights,” but it will come as a surprise to no one that they are less than willing to extend those same rights and ideals of equality for Israelis or Jews, and for anyone on North American campuses—Jewish or not—who wishes to articulate his or her own support for the Middle East’s only democracy. This is precisely why they responded so viciously to Rossman-Benjamin’s evaluation of their behavior and why riotous Muslim, pro-Palestinian students at UC Irvine, to cite another particularly egregious example, shouted down Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren and prevented him from speaking at all when he came to that campus in 2010.

The moral uprightness that anti-Israel activists feel in denouncing what they perceive to be Israel’s racist, apartheid character, combined with its role as the illegal occupier of stolen Muslim land, has manifested itself in paroxysms of ideological assaults against Zionism, Israel, and, by extension, Jews in general. A central part of that cognitive war against Israel and Jews involves the speech and behavior that Rossman-Benjamin sought to address, namely, the demonization and venomous intellectual attacks on the character, moral standing, legality, and social and military behavior of Israel, and its perceived role as colonial occupier, and racist and apartheid state. Where that anti-Israel speech and behavior has seemingly crossed the line of civil discourse, and why Rossman-Benjamin initiated her own campaign in the first place, is in those frequently, and ever increasing, instances when what is described by activists as merely “criticism of Israel” has devolved into speech, representations, and tropes that can be considered raw anti-Semitism, not the political discourse or academic inquiry it is said to be by those who perpetrate it.

In her assessment of the presence of anti-Semitism on campuses, Rossman-Benjamin relied on “working definitions” of anti-Semitism used by, among others, the U.S. Department of State, Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, which observe “that in context certain language or behavior demonizes and delegitimizes Israel or attacks Israel with classic anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli police to that of the Nazis, and accusing the Jewish people, or Israel, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust”—exactly the type of expressed attitudes and accusations regularly seen in the events, speech, and publications of Muslim student groups and other pro-Palestinian activists, prevalent in such events as “Holocaust in the Holy Land,” “Israel: The Fourth Reich,” “Israel: The Politics of Genocide,” not to mention the yearly Israel Apartheid Weeks that have sprouted up on campuses world-wide.

The Berkeley resolution against Rossman-Bernjamin also asserted that her “attempts to mischaracterize and chill Palestinian activism [emphasis added] . . . on Berkeley’s own campus, with a lawsuit [she] filed [contained] extremely Islamophobic and anti-Arab rhetoric referring to Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslims Students Association as ‘anti-Semitic’ and ‘pro-terrorist.’” But this view of the darker side of pro-Palestinian activism, channeled through Muslim Student Associations, is not merely conjecture on Rossman-Benjamin’s part; in fact, there is considerable evidence that there was, and remains, a sinister and dangerous side to anti-Israel activism on college campuses.

In October 2009, for example, the U.S. Justice Department initiated an investigation into possible illegal fundraising on behalf of Hamas participated in by UC Irvine’s Muslim Student Union. Based on a formal complaint by the Zionist Organization of America, the investigation would look into allegations that the far-Left, Israel-hating British MP, George Galloway, had raised funds at UC Irvine for his Viva Palestina project, a “philanthropy” with the purported purpose of providing humanitarian need to Palestinians blockaded in Gaza, but which has been revealed as a funding device to provide cash directly to Hamas—designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the U.S. State Department, Canada, and the EU.

Galloway, who has referred Hamas “as heroes [who] are opening the eyes of the world to the siege in the Strip,” had attended a May 2009 event on the Irvine campus sponsored by the University’s Muslim Student Union, and used the opportunity not only to condemn Israel for its many alleged transgressions, but also to raise money to assist its enemies in arming themselves to further their ambition of extirpating the Jewish state.  His real intention, and the spurious purpose of Viva Palestina’s fundraising, was on full display later that year when Galloway presented a satchel of cash to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

The Muslim Student Association is actually an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical, terroristic group founded in Egypt in 1963 with the express purpose of destabilizing democratic movements and imposing Islamism on the Middle East. And while the purported intent of MSA chapters is to provide Muslim students with some social interaction, discussion of religious practices, and programs for interfaith understanding, a look at a strategy memo from the Muslim Brotherhood reveals a far more sinister and pernicious tactical purpose for the creation of the MSA. During the 2007 trial by the Justice Department against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), which was accused of being a front used to channel funds to Hamas and other terrorist organizations, an interesting 1991 document was offered as evidence. In it, the true intent of the Brotherhood was exposed as being a subtle, gradual process of subversion, and members were advised of an overarching strategic objective to their movement: they “must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.”

The way that would be accomplished would be to establish, through “charities” and other social organizations, ideological beachheads in America—in mosques, in clubs, and, not insignificantly, on university campuses.

And the record of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is hardly pristine, either. Paralleling the moral incoherence of anti-Israel activists demonstrating elsewhere in American and European cities, SJP members from Northeastern University in Boston sponsored a November 15th rally in support of Gaza and, presumably, its genocidal thugocracy, Hamas. The members of SJP who attended that demonstration in Copley Square, only blocks away from where the Boston Marathon terror attacks were to occur in April, apparently were not sufficiently concerned when some 12,000 rockets and mortars were launched almost daily into southern Israeli towns from Gaza by Hamas over the past seven years, aimed at civilian targets for no other reason than the intended victims were Jews.

What was also particularly revealing, and chilling, about the Boston rally was the virulence of the chants and messages on the placards, much of it seeming to suggest that more sinister hatreds and feelings—over and above concern for the current military operations—were simmering slightly below the surface. Several of the morally self-righteous protestors, for instance, shrieked out, to the accompaniment of drumbeats, “Long live Intifada,” a grotesque and murderous reference to the Second Intifada, during which Arab terrorists murdered some 1000 Israelis and wounded more than 14,000 others.

Another deadly chorus emanated from protestors during the rally: “When people are occupied, resistance is justified.” That is an oft repeated, but disingenuous and false notion that stateless terrorists have some recognized human right to murder civilians whose government has purportedly occupied their territory. When pro-Palestinian activists and critics of Israel repeat the claim that Palestinians somehow have an internationally-recognized legal “right” to resist occupation through violent means, they are both legitimizing that terror and helping to insure that its lethal use by Israel’s enemies will continue unabated, and this is the point made by Rossman-Benjamin in her speech.

The core issue at hand is not that Rossman-Benjamin, or anyone else for that matter, wishes to stifle or, as it is normally described by the supposed victims of such efforts, “chill” the speech of pro-Palestinian activists, or anyone else on campus, for that matter. The issue is that just as the activists 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 on campus with opposing views also have the right under the same precepts of free expression to question the activists’ views, and to call them anti-Semitic, or racist, or genocidal, or merely historically inaccurate or incorrect if, in fact, that is the case.

The pro-Palestinian activists who are currently vilifying Rossman-Benjamin may, of course, believe that they are entitled to express themselves and to have their point of view accepted without reservation because they are morally committed to it and feel that there is a special righteousness to their cause. But every proponent of every cause feels the same way and should not presume that they can reasonably be inoculated from critique of their ideas merely because they feel that their ideas are morally and ideologically superior to all others.

The concept of academic free speech, and the reason that the university is supposed to be a place where unfettered speech and a free exchange of ideas can take place, is based on the notion that vigorous debate will result in strong ideas emerging from weaker ones. The fact that pro-Palestinian activists do not like someone critiquing their tactics or their ideology is beside the point. And it is naïve of them to think that they can enjoy the protection of academic free speech themselves and not have others enjoy the same freedom, as well, to critique and evaluate what they do and say, that it would ever be reasonable or equitable that one group could claim “free speech for me, but not for thee.”

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.