The Lie of Academic Free Speech

The disturbing campaign to suppress speech that is purportedly hurtful, unpleasant, or morally distasteful is a troubling and recurrent pattern of behavior by "progressive" leftists and "social justice" advocates from Muslim-led pro-Palestinian groups.  Coalescing around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, this unholy alliance has been formed in a libelous and vituperative campaign to demonize Israel, attack pro-Israel individuals, and promote a relentless campaign against Israel in the form of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.  As the ideological assault against Israel and Jews intensifies on university campuses, and pro-Israel individuals begin answering their ideological opponents, the student groups leading the pro-Palestinian charge (including such groups as the radical Students for Justice in Palestine [SJP]) have decided that their tactic of unrelenting demonization of Israel is insufficient, and the best way to optimize the propaganda effect of their anti-Israel message is also to suppress or obscure opposing views.

The pronouncements of these groups are now frequently defined by baleful whining.  For instance, a leaked memorandum from the Binghamton University Students for Justice in Palestine chapter revealed that members would be required never even to engage in dialogue with pro-Israel groups on their campus.  They would be prohibited from "engaging in any form of official collaboration, cooperation, or event co-sponsorship with [pro-Israel] student organizations and groups."  And  SJP members "shall in no manner engage in any form of official collaboration with any student group which actively opposes the cause of Palestinian liberation nor with groups which have aided and abetted Zionist student organizations" – meaning, of course, that the so-called intellectual debate that universities purport to promote in exactly this type of discussion will never take place when SJP is involved.

Because they cannot win an honest, open ideological debate about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict  – because they deal almost exclusively in misrepresentations and untruths (the allegation of Israeli apartheid being the central example) – SJP has characteristically has tried to insure that no pro-Israel voices are heard, by either disrupting and shutting down pro-Israel events and speakers or urging administrators to disinvite speakers they deem Islamophobic, too pro-Israel, or critical of their own tactics and activism.

The thuggish substitution of event disruption and the shutting down of other people's speech for what is supposed to be two-sided academic dialogue and debate occur with increased regularity.  These methods mark another, more pernicious, aspect of the campus campaign against Israel, Zionism, and Jews.

At the University of California, Davis this month, for example, George Deek, a Jaffa-born Arab Christian, planned to give a speech entitled "The Art of Middle East Diplomacy" when some 30 pro-Palestinian activists stood up and blocked Deek with banners and took over the event by screaming, "From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free" – meaning an Arab state in place of present-day Israel – and chanting such toxic ditties as "long live the Intifada," "Allahu Akbar," and "When Palestine is occupied, resistance is justified."  These activists further employed ghoulish calls for the murder of Jews and "Israel is anti-Black" and "Palestine will be free, fight white supremacy" – an intellectually clumsy way of trying to frame Israel as a racist state.

In February, Bassam Eid, a Palestinian himself and the founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, witnessed how nothing positive said about Israel is allowed to be heard, even from such a credible, though unusual, source as a Palestinian.  During his speech, in which he was critical of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority for their failure to seek peace, Eid was verbally attacked by a student attendee, who said in Arabic, "Dr. Bassam, do not dare talk about us [Palestinians] anymore. You have shamed our God … you've shamed us, disgraced us, you are a traitor, you are a traitor, in the name of God you are a traitor. … You are worse than the Jews and we will hunt you down and find you in every place.  Be prepared."  When it became obvious that his speech would not be able to continue uninterrupted, Eid cancelled the event and had to be escorted off site by the police.

Last November, the University of Minnesota Law School sponsored a lecture by Hebrew University professor Moshe Halbertal, an expert on Israel's military code of ethics, entitled "Protecting Civilians: Moral Challenges of Asymmetric Warfare." The lecture was delayed for 30 minutes by the unruly heckling and chants of some 100 protesters from the Minnesota Anti-War Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), who indignantly rose from the audience, interrupted, and accused Halbertal of war crimes and complicity in the 2014 Gaza incursion.

Also in November, as yet another example, the University of Texas at Austin's Institute for Israeli Studies hosted an event with Stanford University's Dr. Gil-Li Vardi, who was to present a study on "The Origin of a Species: The Birth of the Israeli Defense Forces' Military Culture."  At the event, twelve members of a so-called "Palestine Solidarity Committee," intent on disrupting the speech, created a human wall in the back of the room with the purpose of not allowing the event to begin.  The anti-Israel activists tried, without the benefit of actually knowing what the speaker would say, to prevent her from presenting her viewpoint by shrieking out such taunts as "You are a former IDF soldier; we do not listen to you."  

Sometimes the silencing of pro-Israel voices is more subtle, but no less pernicious.  This month, for instance, the student association at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) decided to exclude Hasbara Fellowships – an organization that promotes Israeli advocacy on campus – from a campus "Social Justice Fair" because UOIT's student government had passed a pro-BDS motion.  It therefore apparently seemed perfectly reasonable to exclude the Hasbara Fellowships program, since the "organization seems closely tied to the state of Israel."  

A pro-Israel student group at Columbia University, Artists 4 Israel, was also denied the opportunity to express views during Israeli Apartheid Week, during which the SJP chapter had erected its version of a mock "apartheid wall," emblazoned with anti-Israel slogans and symbols.  To counter the display with a pro-Israel one, Artists 4 Israel had set up a 15-foot inflatable figure, a "pro-Israel Pinocchio," replete with a long nose and a sign that read "'Apartheid' Week Compassion Abuse" as an effective, sardonic swipe at SJP's toxic campaign.  The chair and vice chair of Columbia's student government, who not coincidentally are members of Columbia's SJP chapter and pro-BDS activists, ordered the removal of the Pinocchio figure, offering the disingenuous justification that Pinocchio's long nose might be construed as anti-Semitic and that the pump used to inflate the figure was too loud for use on the Columbia grounds.

The university officials and student groups who now try to suppress all thought of which they disapprove have sacrificed one of the core values for which the university exists.  In their zeal to be inclusive, and to recognize the needs and aspirations of victim groups, they have pretended to foster inquiry, but they have actually stifled and retarded it.  As this otherwise noble purpose for the university has devolved, the first victim in the corruption of academic free speech, unfortunately, has been the truth.

Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, author of Genocidal Liberalism: The University's Jihad Against Israel & Jews, is president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.