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Campus Conflicts regarding Israel/Palestine

Students on many university campuses are demonstrating this Spring (2024) against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, especially in Gaza. May Jewish students fear these protesters as possibly violent antisemites. How should we view this situation?



I think these conflicts reflect increasing intolerance of free speech. In 2017, students at Berkeley convinced the university’s administration that allowing Ann Coulter to speak was dangerous. This year the same reason was given for cancelling the commencement address, and then the whole commencement ceremony at USC. In both cases, speech was curtailed because activists didn’t want to hear the speaker’s message, and didn’t want anyone else to hear it either.


Increasingly, K-12 education is being constrained in what it can teach by a minority that wants children to be ignorant of truths that this minority wants our country to ignore. We shouldn’t teach children the truth about slavery because, they say without evidence, it could make children feel guilty for being white. Why would that be?



The real motive is to get everyone to ignore slavery and Jim Crow so that current disadvantages of black Americans can be ignored. The role that speech can play in a democracy, furthering social progress and promoting a more perfect union, is subverted to protect lingering injustice.


Some state legislatures have done this regarding Israel/Palestine. In Arkansas, Tennessee, and some other states, no state money can be given to anyone who has spoken in favor of Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) which calls for companies and governments to peacefully boycott Israel, divest (sell current investments), and sanction Israel politically and economically for its internationally illegal policies regarding Palestinians, such as allowing Israeli settlements on the West Bank.



Current protests on university campuses regarding the Israeli treatment of Palestinians call for BDS in general and for the US to cease providing weapons and funds that support Israel’s current campaign in Gaza.



This classic political speech has been labelled antisemitic by those who don’t want anyone to hear the message. Antisemitic speech is hate speech, which people feel entitled to discourage and ignore. Denying peaceful protest is another way of discounting the message, because suppression of peaceful protests, as at Columbia, leads to violence which justifies vilification instead of conversation.



Censorship to avoid emotional discomfort among Jews or others who don’t want to hear a message should be ignored. To date, antisemitic violence has been as rare in these protests as in society at large. Another tactic of suppression is to consider one aberrant misdeed of speech or action to taint an entire cause no matter how uncharacteristic it is of demonstrations for that cause.



In society at large most generalized hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. No one was charged with illegal speech in Charlotteville, Virginia, for chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Expressing antisemitism is legal, ergo the legality of the Nazi Party march in Skokie, Illinois, in the 1970s. Some people legally express hate for all gays, or all transgender people, or MAGA Republicans. But you can’t legally threaten individuals with harm.



On college campuses, however, generalized hate speech can be prohibited because it interferes with the institutions’ educational mission, which is to promote learning. Fruitful interchanges of ideas are inhibited if members of one group express hate and wish death to all members of another group. “Jews will not replace us,” and Nazi flags can be prohibited on college campuses, but not in the larger community.



Other restrictions applicable to the current protests concern damage to property and interference with the university’s functioning. Administrators and staff should be able to perform their normal tasks and students should be able to get to class. The removal of protesters from occupied buildings is justified.



However, peaceful protests that draw attention to a cause by occupying a part of land on campus, such as the encampment on the quad at Columbia, but do not threaten or cause harm, should be allowed, perhaps even facilitated with provision of mobile toilets and grills. Counter protests should be treated in the same way with the same restrictions in an equally prominent location if one exists.



Those who violate rules concerning hate speech, property damage, and non-interference with university functions should be disciplined, and others not affiliated with the campus can be denied entry to it. But there’s no better use of a university quad as a learning instrument than to have it occupied by a bunch of peaceful demonstrators, tents and all.



Students learn from one another in these situations. A student at Columbia, Khymani James posted a video in January for all Zionists to be killed, but after joining the April protests recognized that he was wrong to do so, saying, “Every member of our community deserves to feel safe without qualification.” The university should seize the teachable moment. 


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