The wrong approach to battling anti-Israel bias on California campuses.
A Jewish student at the University of California at Davis was told that the Star of David was a hate symbol. A student at UC Santa Cruz, a veteran of the Israeli military, was frequently called a “baby killer” on campus. Protests at various UC campuses regularly analogize Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazi genocide against Jews. Among these protests is an annual “Israel Apartheid Week” which features stunts like mock “die-ins,” in which students pretending to be Palestinians collapse as if they had been killed en masse by Israelis.
Together, these events illuminate a pattern of pervasive anti-Israel sentiment on UC campuses, at least some of which rises to the level of actual anti-Semitism. That disturbing pattern is set forth in detail in a July 9 report compiled by the UC Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture, and Inclusion created in 2010 by UC President Mark Yudof. The report concludes that UC campuses play host to a
“movement which targets Israel and Zionism through an ongoing campaign of protests, anti-Israel/anti-Zionism ‘weeks,’ and, on some campuses, the use of the academic platforms to denounce the Jewish state and Jewish nationalist aspiration.”
Those findings are deeply troubling, and if they have not received the media coverage they deserve it is mostly because they have been overshadowed by another part of the advisory council’s report – namely, it’s no less troubling recommendation that “UC should adopt a hate speech-free campus policy” as a way to silence the speech that dismays so many Jewish students supportive of Israel.
Thus, the report’s authors lament that “UC does not have a hate-free policy that allows the campus to prevent well-known bigoted and hate organizations from speaking on campus” and insists that “UC should push its current harassment and nondiscrimination provisions further, clearly define hate speech in its guidelines, and seek opportunities to prohibit hate speech on campus.” To that end, the council calls on President Yudof to task his general counsel with finding “opportunities to develop policies that give campus administrators authority to prohibit such activities on campus.” Most brazenly, the council notes that while banning speech on campus would likely provoke a legal challenge, it suggests “that UC accept the challenge” and adopt such policies anyway.
The council is right to worry about the legal implications of outlawing hate speech. Banning speech -- even extremely offensive speech -- is clearly illegal and has long been recognized as such by the courts. That is especially true in the context of academia, which has been seen as a preserve of free expression. The council’s call for bans on anti-Israel hate speech is thus an invitation to violate the constitutional right to free speech in the name of campus sensitivity. “The First Amendment guarantees that Americans have the right to engage in speech and this includes speech that others might deem hateful,” notes Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “There is abundant legal precedent for this proposition and what this report seems to recommend flies right in its face.”
If there were compelling reasons for running roughshod over the First Amendment, the council fails to cite them. It asserts that students should be protected from “harassment and intimidation” but never explains why this cannot be accomplished by the university's current policies on student conduct and discipline or why free speech should be sacrificed in the process.
The issue might be more complicated were the anti-Israel speech that students find offensive accompanied by physical threats but the council concedes that this is not at all the case, and in fact notes that “not one Jewish student indicated that they perceive the Jewish student community as physically unsafe at UC.” On the rare occasions when attacks on Israel have gone beyond permissible free speech, universities have punished the conduct. In 2010, for instance, 11 students shouted down a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine. That was a shameful incident and the school brought appropriate punishment against the offending students: Ten of the students were convicted on misdemeanor charges for civil disturbance and sentenced to three years of informal probation. In light of this precedent, it is perhaps not surprising that the best the council can do to justify a ban on speech is to allude to some unspecified “complex dynamics” of the student "experience" that ostensibly justify such a ban. More should be required to trump free speech, however objectionable the ideas it expresses.
This is not to suggest that the council's report is worthless. While its call for speech restrictions is misguided, it does point to several major problems with the anti-Israel climate on UC campuses. At both the faculty and administrative level, there seems to be a widespread double standard that tolerates attacks on Israel that would be tolerated against no other country. It’s not hard to imagine a campus uproar if pro-Israel students staged mock “bomb ins” in which they dressed up as Palestinian protestors and pretended to blow up Israeli civilians, let alone if they questioned Palestine’s right to exist, yet vicious attacks on Israel and its legitimacy are rarely deplored by UC professors, many of whom actively support anti-Israel (and arguably anti-Semitic) campaigns like the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign against Israel.
That the anti-Israel cause is embraced by many UC professors also highlights the demonstrable lack of intellectual balance on UC faculties. That lack of balance may also act to stifle debate about Israel on UC campuses. For instance, according to the council's report, many students complain that academic departments do not exhibit balance in their sponsorship or hosting of events like symposia and speaker series as they relate to Israel and Zionism. If true, this would be a serious indictment of the political and ideological rigidity of the UC system and its failure to uphold a genuine marketplace of ideas.
Both of these are real problems, to be sure, but neither one of them makes a ban on speech any more defensible. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, the best answer to bad speech is more speech, not enforced silence. In the end, Jewish students at UC schools would be best served by using their First Amendment rights to mount the kind of forceful and righteous defense of Israel against its campus critics that the faculty and administrators will not.
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