The Lie of Academic Free Speech

How campus brownshirts make sure only one side is heard in the Israeli/Palestinian debate.

When GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s March 11th rally at the University of Chicago Pavilion was shut down last week by hundreds of leftist protestors, comprised of activists from, Black Lives Matter, Muslim groups, and even unrepentant domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, the morally indignant protestors had one purpose: to disrupt the event, prevent Trump supporters from hearing the candidate’s speech, and, most importantly, suppress Trump’s ideas and beliefs. Having already decided the Mr. Trump was a veritable racist, Islamophobe, and neo-Nazi, the mob of rioters—inside and outside of the venue—took it upon themselves to decide that Trump, and those who share his vision and ideas, do not even have the right to express their opinions, that their views have been deemed unacceptable by the self-appointed moral arbiters of our day.

The disturbing campaign to suppress speech which is purportedly hurtful, unpleasant, or morally-distasteful—a sample of which was evident at the Chicago rally—is, for anyone following what is happening on campuses, a troubling and recurrent pattern of behavior by some of the same ideologues who shut down Trump: “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 to 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 intensified on university campuses, and pro-Israel individuals began answering back to their ideological opponents, the student groups leading the pro-Palestinian charge (including such groups as the radical Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)) decided that their tactic of unrelenting demonization of Israel was insufficient, and the best way to optimize the propaganda effect of their anti-Israel message was also to suppress or obscure opposing views.

The pronouncements of these groups are now frequently defined by the baleful whining of these ideological bullies intent on having only _their_ views aired while suppressing the contradictory views of others. In fact, a leaked memorandum from the Binghamton University Students for Justice in Palestine chapter revealed that members would be required to never even 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.

And 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, as the central example), just as the anti-Trump protestors wished to accomplish, SJP has characteristically tried to insure that no pro-Israel voices are heard, either by disrupting or shutting down pro-Israel events and speakers or urging administrators to disinvite speakers they deem to be 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 occurs with increased regularity, and marks another, more pernicious, aspect of the campus campaign against Israel, Zionism, and Jews.

At 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,” 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 very startlingly how nothing positive said about Israel is allowed to be heard, even from such a credible, though unsual, 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 could 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 protestors 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. A pro-Israel student group at Columbia University, Artists 4 Israel, were denied the opportunity to express views during Israeli Apartheid Week, during which the SJP chapter had erected their 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, and who publicly proclaim their desire for campuses where there will be vigorous discourse, on contentious issues, from many points of view, but allow the expression of only “acceptable” opinions, couched in the language of human rights and social justice—all of these individuals 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. And, as this otherwise noble purpose for the university has devolved, the first victim in the corruption of academic free speech has, unfortunately, been the truth.