As you are certainly aware, in recent weeks a series of troubling incidents has occurred on your respective campuses. While the events in question were distinct, they all shared a common impulse by a groups on your campuses who believe that they, and they alone, are able to set standards for free speech—in these particular cases, involving the debate about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and how Jewish students and other Israel supporters are treated as part of the university community.
As you well know, the notion that a vocal minority of self-important ideologues can determine what views may or may not be expressed on a particular campus is not only antithetical to the purpose of a university, but is vaguely fascistic by purposely or carelessly relinquishing power to a few to decide what can be said and what speech is allowed and what must be suppressed; it is what former Yale University president Bartlett Giamatti characterized as the “tyranny of group self-righteousness.”
At McGill, Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights unilaterally decided to purge the student government of a Jewish student because she had accepted an educational trip to Israel, stating that it somehow created a conflict of interest. Also at McGill, The McGill Daily has a long-standing policy by which any pro-Israel articles or opinion pieces are intentionally excluded from the newspaper’s pages while pro-Palestinian views not only appear with regularity in the newspaper, but the Daily’s own board publishes editorials attacking Israel and Zionism and promoting Palestinianism. At the University of Toronto, the Graduate Student Union, the only student union in Canada with a committee dedicated to promoting the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, outrageously rejected Hillel’s request to have kosher food offered on campus since, as the Union decided, Hillel is pro-Israel and therefore kosher food should not be allowed. And at York University, with its own decade-long history of anti-Israel extremism including violence towards Jewish students, Students Against Israeli Apartheid at York University (SAIA York) riotously disrupted a November event featuring Reservists on Duty, former IDF soldiers who would be discussing BDS and the particular challenges facing the IDF in its interaction with terrorism. That event culminated in 600 activists heckling speakers, chanting death threats to Jews through bull horns, and even physically assaulting other students—all aimed at shutting down the event and preventing attendees from hearing what the guests from the IDF had to say about negotiating for peace.
Apparently, however, the universal condemnation of SAIA’s behavior that evening went unheeded by the group and its supporters. The next week, York’s Federation of Students (YFS) passed a motion to create a policy of excluding any and all pro-Israel voices from campus in the future, that they will confront “representatives of the Israeli state or any other imperialist power [that are] invited [to campus] to gather support for war and occupation in Palestine and elsewhere [by organizing] mass mobilizations of students, workers, marginalized communities in opposition.”
Each of these is an outrageous example of how universities in Canada have been hijacked by anti-Israel activists whose default position is that there is something inherently wrong with supporting Israel, and that any pro-Zionist, pro-Israel, even pro-Jewish, speech, writing, or events should not even be allowed on campus. In addition to being contrary to the whole idea of what a university represents, with competing ideas and dialogue about different points of view, the notion that one group of students can decide who can be on campus and what people can and cannot say is breathtakingly wrong, not to mention, in these cases, bordering on anti-Semitic.
These campus activists couch their language and ideology in the language of human rights and social justice, which is their furtive way of promoting their corrosive agenda and which is why administrators are often hesitant to question their tactics and the toxic nature of their ideology. But if one scratches below the surface it is obvious that they are interested only in justice for one group—the Palestinians—at the expense of and to the detriment of Israel and its Jewish population. More sinisterly, they seek justice for the long-aggrieved Palestinians not through negotiation and compromise, the manner in which civilized nations arrive at diplomatic resolutions, but through terrorism and the murder of Jews, something they unashamedly declare in their public cries for intifada—exactly what occurred in the grotesque demonstration at York.
The sententious activists fueling this ideological bullying may well feel that they have access to all the truth and facts, but even if this were true—which it demonstrably and regularly is not—it certainly does not empower them with the right to have the only voice and to disrupt, shout down, or totally eliminate competing opinions in political or academic debates. No one individual or group has the moral authority or intellectual might to decide what may and may not be discussed, and especially young, sanctimonious students—whose expertise and knowledge about the Middle East, in particular, is frequently characterized by distortions, lies, lack of context, corrosive bias against Israel, and errors in history and fact.
This is a troubling pattern, not only in Canada but throughout the United States, as well. Increasingly, groups like Students Against Israeli Apartheid, Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, and, in the U.S., Students for Justice in Palestine, have decided unilaterally what views may be expressed on campus and which ideas they have decided are unworthy of any recognition. What that has meant in practice is that pro-Israel speakers have been repeatedly heckled, disrupted, or driven off of campus by these radicals who feel that their view having to do with the Israeli- Palestinian debate is the only truthful and valid view, and they feel morally-empowered to not even allow for alternate views to be expressed, let alone views that are contrary to theirs.
Of course, this violates the very fundamental notion of academic free speech and the idea that the university is a place where competing views need to be aired so that people can come to a conclusion about which views are stronger and which should be rejected. When anti-Israel groups and individuals only allow one side of the story to be told, they are of course eliminating all debate, all nuance, all different ways of looking at an issue. They have no right to appoint themselves the thought police, and they do your universities at large a great disservice by setting themselves up as the arbiters of truth, particularly when, in fact, they are toxic extremists with a bigoted, libelous, and often historically and factually inaccurate view of the Middle East.
Each of your respective institutions has codes of conduct which proscribe the behavior of these campus extremists, and which should be strenuously enforced when violated. York’s Community Standards for Student Conduct, for example, “prohibits: disruption of, or interference with, University activities, such as: causing a substantial disorder . . ; creating dangerous situations (intentional or not); making or causing excessive noise; disrupting classes, events or examinations . . ; [and] blocking exit routes,” and by punishing students when they violate these regulations, the university is punishing behavior, not speech. These policies have to be clearly articulated to entering students at orientation and re-stressed every year thereafter. And when student organizations are recognized on campus, they have to be made aware that if they violate any of the university’s codes of conduct and participate in the disruption of school activities, they will be punished, including being suspended and de-funded. And all students have to realize that academic free speech gives them license to express whatever ideas they have and not be punished for expressing them; what it does not do is insulate them, once they have expressed themselves, from counter speech from others with opposing views, and they should expect that competing ideas will present themselves, and they must be heard without interference or suppression.
When members of the academic community ignore those values and violate regulations, there have to be swift and significant consequences, and these sanctions must be publicized in advance of any event. Students should not and cannot be allowed to take over a campus and hijack the robust exchange of ideas—even if they think they have the best intentions and are promoting what they believe is a virtuous, progressive agenda.
“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education,” observed the champion of free speech, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.