Tuesday, June 2, 2015


By  ALLAN C. BROWNFELD, editor of the American Council for Judaism Issues magazine

June 2, 2015: Across the United States there is a concerted effort to limit free and open debate about the Middle East in the guise of fighting "Anti-Semitism."

In 2013, students at the University of California, Berkeley, filed a protest with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) concerning protests against Israel's occupation of the West Bank, a classroom discussion perceived as being hostile to Israel, and critical statements made in student government. This, the students argued, had created a "hostile environment."

The OCR investigated and rejected the "hostile environment" complaints.  It concluded that the incidents did not constitute actionable harassment, stating "In the University environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience."

    OCR cited its 2003 "Dear Colleague" letter on the First Amendment in support of its conclusion that "the offensiveness of a particular expression standing alone, is not a legally sufficient basis to establish a hostile environment."  

Three years ago, in response to similar concerns about allegedly anti-Semitic speech on campus, the University of California Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion issued recommendations to former UC System President Mark Yudof that included a call "to push its current harassment and nondiscrimination provisions further" and "seek opportunities to prohibit hate speech on campus."  The Council acknowledged the First Amendment concerns, but nevertheless advised Yudof to "accept the challenge  of the litigation that would surely ensue should its recommendation be accepted."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) pointed out in a letter to Yudof, that were he to adopt the Council's recommendations, he would risk personal liability for violating clearly established law.  FIRE warned Yudof that, "In a fight against the Bill of Rights, the University of California will not win---nor should it."  Yudof, who is Jewish, issued letters to "Concerned Members of the University  of California Jewish Community" and FIRE  recognizing the community's concerns but declining to stretch UC policies beyond the First Amendment breaking point.

By redefining anti-Semitism to mean criticism of Israel, or supporting academic boycotts, or advancing BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions), the advocates of limiting campus speech have been engaged in a frenzy of activity to make it appear that the nation's college and university campuses have suddenly become hotbeds of "anti-Semitism."

Writing in Mosaic (May 4, 2015), Prof. Ruth Wisse of Harvard, a right-wing Zionist, titled her article, "Anti-Semitism Goes To School."  She reports that, "The Louis D. Brandeis Center's 2014 survey found 'more than half of Jewish American College students have personally experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism.'"  Among the examples of such "anti-Semitism," according to Wisse are these:  "Last year, a petition by 'anthropologists for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions' garnered the signatures of the relevant department chairs at (among others) Harvard, Wesleyan and San Francisco State. The American Studies Association attracted the 'largest number of participants in the organization's history' for a vote endorsing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions."

In Wisse's view, "Anti-Semitism...infects American universities...anti-Israel campaigns achieve their aim by negatively singling out the Jewish state from among all others and forcing its supporters on the defensive...Prosecuting the war against the Jews is not an issue of free speech..Anti-Jewish politics are no more innocent when pursued by left-wing (groups) than they were when they were prosecuted by right-wing European blackshirts.  On what grounds do American universities...assail the only liberal democracy in that part of the world. The boycotters wrap themselves in the mantle of free speech only to silence those who stand for the kind of genuine individual and human rights that flourish in Israel."

A stumbling block for Wisse and others promoting this case is the fact that large numbers of Jewish students and faculty members, and groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, are members, and often leaders, of the mounting "anti-Semitism" on campus.  Wisse admits this is true when she laments that, "American Jews who propagandize and organize against Israel are the only members of a threatened minority who turn against the democratic homeland of their people on the pretext of promoting some higher cause. Whence such demoralization?"   

Similarly, Jerusalem Post (Intl. Edition, May13-21, 2015) columnist Caroline Glick, in an article headlined "Siding With The Victims of Aggression," notes that, "One of the great difficulties that those who fight the anti-Semites on campuses face is the fact that a significant number of Jews have joined the anti-Semites in their quest to expel Jews from the public square.  Organizations like J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace were established to give a Jewish stamp of approval to anti-Israel campaigns. And they aren't the only Jews stymieing efforts to force university administrations to side with the Jews against their attackers."

Using the word "Jew" as the subject of campus criticism by some activist groups rather than identifying the real target, Prime Minister Netanyahu's Israeli government and its policies, enables the promoters of limits upon free speech concerning the Middle East to falsely claim that they are simply opposing religious intolerance.  Even in Israel such an attempt to stifle free speech has come under attack.

Writing in Jerusalem Report (May 4, 2015), Prof. Asher Susser of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, declares:  "Israelis and their defenders cannot simply dismiss all criticism as anti-Semitism and thus absolve themselves of any responsibility for the evils inherent in post-1967 Israel. The Israeli occupation and settlement policies of nearly half a century, squeezing the Palestinians out of the little less than a quarter of historical Palestine that remains for their prospective statehood, is, indefensible.  One does not have to be an anti-Semite to see the blatant injustice embedded in that reality. Israelis must accept responsibility for their actions; they cannot just brush off legitimate criticism as anti-Semitic in a desperate effort to continue basking in a false sense of self-righteous innocence."

Indeed, while Ruth Wisse may describe Israel as a "liberal democracy," Jews throughout the world have expressed dismay with the anti-democratic trends evident in the new Israeli government. The new Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely has instructed Israeli ambassadors to quote the Bible as giving Jews sovereignty over the entire Holy Land, including the West Bank. A top ministerial position went to Ayalet Shaked, who has called for the murder of Palestinian women and children. The new Deputy Defense Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-David declared on Aug. 1, 2013 that, "Palestinians are beasts, they are not human." On Dec. 27, 2013, he said, "A Jew always has a higher soul than a gentile, even if he is a homosexual."  By what definition does a government such as this qualify as a "liberal democracy."

     We could fill pages with Jewish---and Israeli---voices pointing out that the current Israeli government is in the process of turning its back on both Jewish moral and ethical values and the norms of democratic government.  Writing in The New York Review of Books (April 23, 2015), Prof. David Shulman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem declares:  "...the Israeli electorate is still dominated by hyper-nationalist, in some cases proto-fascist, figures. It is in no way inclined to make peace. It has given a clear mandate for policies that preclude any possibility of moving toward a settlement and that will further deepen Israel's colonial venture in the Palestinian territories, probably irreversibly."

          Beyond this, argues Shulman, "I think that deeper currents are also at work...for example, the ongoing, ultimately futile effort to squeeze Jewish civilization, in its tremendous variability and imaginative range, into the Procrustean confines of the modern nation-state with its flag and postage stamps and proclivity to violence. modern nationalism always makes a distorted, very limited selection of the available cultural repertoire, flattening out the potential richness;  fanatical atavistic forms tend to take the place of what has been lost...Netanyahu was actually speaking the truth, a popular truth among his traditional supporters. He explicitly renounced his pro forma acceptance of the notion of a two state solution...He made it clear that Israel would make no further territorial concessions anywhere...Israel has, in effect, knowingly moved further toward a full-fledged apartheid system. Those who don't like the word can suggest another one for what I see each week in the territories and more and more inside the Green Line."

As Israel moves away from democratic values ---consider segregated roads on the West Bank and the recent proposal for segregated buses---and away from any effort to achieve peace with the Palestinians, it is understandable that opposition to such policies should become increasingly vocal on the nation's campuses.  Those in the Israel lobby seem to have decided that they cannot defeat critics in free  and open debate and that their best course is to label such criticism as "anti-Semitic" and attempt to stifle it. That so many of the critics they seek to silence happen to be Jewish, they regard as a small stumbling block.

In a radio interview on May 21, University of California President Janet Napolitano stated that she believes the UC system should adopt the U.S. State Department's definition of anti-Semitism. Responding to calls from rabbis, faculty and alumni of the University of California system to adopt the definition, Napolitano said that the Board of Regents would vote on the proposal in July. FIRE argues that, "If adopted and used as the basis of discipline by a public university system, the State Department's definition of anti-Semitism would likely violate the First Amendment by prohibiting protected expression."

The definition reads: "Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.  Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish institutions and religious facilities."

The State Department provides further examples of anti-Semitism:
     *Calling for, aiding or justifying the killing or harming of Jews (often in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view on religion).
      *Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as a collective---especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
      *Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, the state of Israel, or even for acts committed by non-Jews. 
     *Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
        *Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
In FIRE's view, "...as government actors, public university systems like the UC cannot lawfully maintain and enforce policies that prohibit free speech protected by the First Amendment. With the exception of certain well-defined categories of speech implicated by the first example provided here---speech that constitutes incitement, intimidation or true threats---the expression described here by the State Department are generally protected by the First Amendment. If these examples are turned into enforceable restrictions on free speech, certain criticisms of the Jewish faith or of Israel would be grounds for punishment, a viewpoint-based restriction on expression. That these criticisms may be bigoted or even false does not mean they may be silenced or punished by government action...There is no doubt that many would find the expression outlined in the examples to be gravely offensive. But one foundational principle of First Amendment jurisprudence, reinforced in decisions dating back decades, is that speech does not lose protection simply because some, many, or even all find it offensive."

As the Supreme Court observed in Texas v. Johnson, a decision vacating a man's conviction for burning the American flag under a state flag desecration statute, "The government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."  In another case, Unjted States v. Alvarez, the Supreme Court declared: "Suppression of speech by the government can make exposure of falsity more difficult, not less so.  Society has the right and civic duty to engage in open, dynamic, rational discourse. These ends are not well served when the government seeks to orchestrate public discussion through content-based mandates...Truth needs neither handcuffs nor a badge for its vindication."

The fact is, of course, that those who seek to limit free speech on campus are not concerned about a campaign to deny the Holocaust or to disparage Judaism as a religion or to express concern about "Jewish control of the media."  What they seek to silence are criticisms of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and efforts to call attention to this through things such as campaigns for academic boycotts or BDS. .  Whether one agrees with such campaigns or not, they are legitimate criticisms of a foreign government and of  U.S. aid to that government.  Only by changing the meaning of words entirely can this be called "anti-Semitism."  If it were anti-Semitism, Jewish students and faculty members would not be a significant part of such efforts. 

Israel's defenders would better serve their cause by finding answers to the criticism which, instead, they are now doing their best to silence.