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Yes it may hurt, but campus groups have the right to exclude Zionists

Universities should set a tone of inclusion and remind students of the importance of academic freedom, but they must let them define their politics

What should universities do when those Jewish students who are also Zionists are told they are not welcome in progressive spaces? After all, why should any student have to choose between their identity and their desire to be part of a political community? And if that’s the “ask,” pro-Israel Jewish students, whether desiring to join a progressive group or not, get the message, hurtful to them and harmful to the academic vibrancy of the campus: they either have to self-censor what they say about Israel, or risk the ostracism and pain of social shunning.

Some progressive students may understand Zionism as a term for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians; others may understand Zionism as most Jewish students do – the right of Jews to self-determination in their historic homeland (although a significant and growing number are agnostic about Zionism or anti-Zionist). Anti-Zionist students may feel that letting a Zionist work among them is the equivalent of overlooking whether someone is a Nazi, just as some Jewish organizations might feel that letting Jews in who support the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is overlooking antisemitism. I disagree with both assertions on their merits, but people on campus must be allowed to define their politics.

Some Jewish students are eager to work in progressive spaces on issues of racism, climate, and other concerns, but are told they can’t join if they don’t accept anti-Zionism as a principle. Because Zionism may be core – in fact essential – to their Jewish identity, it feels as if they are being discriminated against because they are Jewish. And there indeed have been instances when people say “Zionist” but really mean Jew. But not always. And the issue is more complex, involving questions of campus norms, political speech, and rights of association.

University administrators should work to ensure that no student is harassed, intimidated, or bullied because of their identity, or for any other reason, including their politics. Blanket discrimination based on race, religion, or other such criteria is also inappropriate for political associations. No political student group – whether focused on the Middle East, human rights, abortion access, or any other such issue – should say Jews (in the first and second hypotheticals) or Catholics (in the third) may not apply.

The right to be selective

Campuses may be most welcoming when any student can join any group. I cherish a college president’s story about a student who wasn’t Jewish but was president of the Jewish student organization. She had been friends with people in this group her first year, and was so liked by them they asked her to take a leadership role.

But groups also have a right to be selective, to set their own rules for membership. The potential benefits may include allowing members to feel they share something important (such as a women’s group or one based on ethnicity or religion). That applies to politics too. One wouldn’t want to force a Young Republican club to include a Bernie Sanders supporter (or vice versa).

But there are downsides to selectivity, and student groups would be wise to avoid litmus tests that are self-defeating. I’ve argued that campus Hillels make a mistake when they have rules prohibiting certain anti-Israel expressions; they should be a big tent for Jewish students. (A great example is the Narrow Bridge Project at Brown University, which modeled how Jewish students, whether strong Israel supporters or fervent anti-Zionists, can come together and have reasoned discussions.)

The debate about excluding Zionist students from progressive spaces is occurring in an environment where many (on the left and the right) want to oversimplify contentious issues in the name of social justice, define certain points of view as obviously correct, and try and silence or chill other perspectives, sometimes labeling them racist.

The effort to exclude Zionists from progressive groups working on issues that have nothing to do with Israel/Palestine is more about political fashion and feeling “righteous” and “pure” than being effective. Does it really help to exclude Zionist students from battles against police abuses or climate change?

Encouraging inclusion

Yet groups – including those on campus – have a right of association. Most famously, years ago the organizers of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City refused to include a gay Irish group. As much as I had wished the organizers had made a different decision, they had a right to decide what their march would stand for. Likewise Hillels have the freedom to choose what speech they will allow under their banner. So too does a UK campus Labour group that purged a pro-Palestinian student who questioned its adoption of an antisemitism definition — but was it really wise for the UK group to do so, effectively saying that once a position is adopted it can never be revisited?

Universities should discourage litmus tests and encourage inclusion, and can certainly point out that classmates who are excluded will likely feel discriminated against, even if that’s not the intent. Administrators should set a tone of inclusion through messaging – that regardless of differences, we’re all members of a community and should respect each other, including those holding opposing political perspectives. Universities should also remind students of the importance of academic freedom and free speech, and that in the past – whether the persecution of professors who opposed World War I or of communists in the 1950s – those doing the persecution believed, as some anti-Zionist students believe today, that they are engaged in something necessary and noble.

Yet universities must not tell groups what their principles have to be. If Israel/Palestine is a contentious issue on campus, there should be courses and other initiatives to encourage deep discussions of not only the issue, but why it is so divisive, and of how students might maintain their principles while avoiding the too easy temptation to paint classmates with different views as racists or antisemites. But if a group decides that in order to be a member, one has to have a particular view of Israel and Zionism, the right to make that decision must be respected. Those not invited in, even though exclusion hurts, can find other ways to express themselves, including by creating new groups and coalitions.

About the Author
Kenneth S. Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, and the author most recently of The Conflict over The Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee's expert on antisemitism, and he was also the lead drafter of the “Working Definition of Antisemitism."