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HR 35 & the Boundaries of Academic Free Speech

No sooner had the California State Assembly voted on and passed House Resolution 35 (HR 35) that calls upon California public universities to “increase their efforts to swiftly and unequivocally condemn acts of anti-Semitism” than the University of California Students Association (UCSA), a system-wide student organization with representatives from each campus, hastily passed a resolution denouncing the resolution, contending that it compels educational institutions “to directly suppress legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and Palestine solidarity activism, and stifles robust political debate on public university campuses.”

Scheduled to be voted on the day before the Jewish holidays, and allowing no debate from pro-Israel students or those with opposing views, the UCSA resolution suggested that “While HR 35 purports to oppose anti-Semitism, much of HR 35 is written to unfairly and falsely smear as ‘anti-Semites’ those who do human rights advocacy focusing on Israel’s illegal occupation, alleging that the UC faculty and staff involved in such work are motivated by anti-Semitism rather than by the political ideals of equality and respect for universal human rights they affirm, ideals UCSA and most California students share.”

Campus radicals who promote the Palestinian cause may purport to be guided by “political ideals of equality and respect for universal human rights,” but it will come as a surprise to no one that they are less than willing to extend those same rights and ideals of equality for Israelis or Jews, and for anyone on North American campuses—Jewish or not—who wishes to articulate his or her own support for the Middle East’s only democracy.

In fact, the problem on campuses across the country is that pro-Palestinian activists, in their zeal to seek self-affirmation, statehood, and social justice for the ever-aggrieved Palestinians, have waged a very caustic cognitive war against Israel and Jews as their tactic in achieving those ends—part of a larger, more invidious intellectual jihad against Israel led by some Western elites and those in the Muslim world who also wish to weaken, and eventually destroy, the Jewish state.

A central part of that cognitive war involves the speech and behavior that HR 35 specific sought to address, namely, the demonization and venomous intellectual attacks on the character, moral standing, legality, and social behavior of Israel, and its role as colonial occupier, brutal oppressor, and racist state. Where that anti-Israel speech and behavior has seemingly crossed the line of civil discourse, and why the California lawmakers passed their resolution in the first place, is in those frequently, and ever increasing, instances when what is described as activists as criticism of Israel has devolved into speech, representations, and tropes that can be considered raw anti-Semitism, not the political discourse or academic inquiry it is said to be by those who perpetrate it.

HR 35 was very specific in relying on working definitions of anti-Semitism used by, among others, the U.S. Department of State, Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, which, as the Bill states, observe “that in context certain language or behavior demonizes and delegitimizes Israel or attacks Israel with classic anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli police to that of the Nazis, and accusing the Jewish people, or Israel, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust”—exactly the type of expressed attitudes and accusations regularly seen in academia.

In fact, being pro-Palestinian on campuses today does not mean that one is committed to helping the Palestinians productively nation-build, or creating a civil society with transparent government, a free press, human rights, and a representative government. Being pro-Palestinian on campuses involves very little which actually benefits or makes more likely the birth of a new Palestinian state, living side by side in peace with Israel. What being pro-Palestinian unfortunately has come to mean is continually denigrating and attacking Israel with a false historical narrative and the misused language of human rights, peppered as it is with distorted truths in statements like that of Emiliano Huet-Vaughn, a member of the Berkeley chapter of the virulently anti-Israel group Students for Justice in Palestine, who welcomed the USCA vote because it was “evidence that UC students across the system do not share some people’s moral blindspot when it comes to profiting from Israel’s human rights abuses.”

And, echoing the accusations of other anti-Israel activists, BDS proponents, Muslim student groups, and others who regularly demonize Israel and the behavior and perceived moral defects of the Jewish state, Huet-Vaughn applauded the UCSA vote to condemn HR 35 because, in his words, it provides a “strong defense of the right of student activists and scholars to tell the truth about Israel’s racist and illegal occupation.”

The moral uprightness that anti-Israel activists feel in denouncing what they perceive to be Israel’s racist, apartheid character, combined with its role as the illegal occupier of stolen Muslim land, has manifested itself in paroxysms of ideological assaults against Zionism, Israel, and, by extension, Jews in general. And of great concern to those who have observed the invidious byproduct of this radicalism, including the California legislature, is the frequent appearance of anti-Israel sentiment that often rises to the level of raw anti-Semitism, when virulent criticism of Israel bleeds into a darker, more sinister level of hatred –enough to make Jewish students, whether or not they support or care about Israel at all, uncomfortable, unsafe, or hated on their own campuses. In fact, a recent study commissioned by UC President Mark G. Yudof to measure the climate faced by Jewish students found that anti-Israel activism and on-campus attacks on Israel and Zionism regularly “engender a feeling of isolation, and undermine Jewish students' sense of belonging and engagement with outside communities.”

Those findings aside, critics of HR 35 were quick to denounce the resolution as an attempt to suppress academic free speech, that instead of a measure to protect Jewish students and others from having to endure a hostile campus climate the resolution was actually a way of “chilling” expression and, more specifically, of suppressing what some believe to be legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and its policies.

Universities continually give lip service to how much they embrace the notion of “academic free speech,” using it as a license to permit both professors and outside speakers to hurl invectives at activists’ favorite targets, while simultaneously sheltering designated victim groups from any kind of critique or examination. Universities do that by designating speech they do not like—speech against perceived minority groups—as “hate” speech, further proscribing it with punitive speech codes, rigid codes of conduct, or other regulatory vicissitudes emanating from the campus “thought police.”

In the Israel/Palestinian debate this has had the pernicious effect in which outrageous extremists and academic cranks are regularly invited to speak against Israel, Jews, and the United States, but when conservative or pro-Israel speakers are invited to defend Israel, their speeches are interrupted or cancelled entirely because the speakers are accused of being Islamophobes, racists, or purveyors of “hate speech.” So while administrators and faculty have never had any difficulty in identifying so-called hate speech on campus when it is aimed at African Americans, Hispanics, GLBTs, Muslims, or other victim groups—and vigorously, and appropriately, denounce any speakers or events which have resulted in the sensibilities of those groups of students to be harmed—when the discussion is about Israel and the Palestinians, and the target of the virulent speech and demonstrations is Zionism, the Jewish state, or Jews in general, both administrators and campus radicals conveniently inoculate themselves from responsibility for what they would otherwise deem hate speech by invoking the protection of academic free speech.

But legal scholar Kenneth L. Marcus, President of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and former director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, accuses universities of using what he calls “First Amendment opportunism” when they provide moral cover for extremist speech on campus with which they seemingly agree, but seek to criminalize other speech on the same campus when it is deemed hate speech by those who disagree with its point of view—its content. In the context of allowing radical anti-Israel, anti-Semitic speakers to degrade the educational environment for Jewish students, the question for Marcus is: “When a state university permits the creation of a hostile environment for certain students, can it really hide from harassment claims behind the First Amendment, when the university actively controlled each of the elements which ultimately created the environment?”

No reasonable observer would suggest that criticism of Israel cannot exist in academia, or that borders, diplomacy, Palestinian statehood, the refugees, the status of Jerusalem—all of those legitimate topics for debate and scholarly inquiry—cannot and ought not be discussed on campuses. That type of debate is not only appropriate for academia, but that is precisely what universities are designed to do and do well, when, and if, scholarly inquiry and discussions are not biased, politicized, one-sided, or hijacked by a prevailing orthodoxy. HR 35 was necessitated, not because legislators wanted to stifle academic free speech or expression of ideology or beliefs, but because the speech and behavior around the Israeli/Palestinian issue by radicals is positioned as being honest academic debate, but has regularly violated the intent of the concept of academic free speech by the egregious excesses of its tactics, expression, and frequency.

When Amir-Abdel Malik-Ali, a frequent guest speaker at Muslim Student Union anti-Israel events in California, points to Jewish students in the audience on an American campuses and tells them that “y’all the new Nazis” because they support Israel; when on-campus events are sponsored with names like “Holocaust in the Holy Land,” “Israel:

The Fourth Reich,” “Never Again: The Palestinian Holocaust,” implying that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is comparable to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and that Palestinians are being randomly exterminated by Jews;

  • when 40 campuses worldwide sponsor “Israeli Apartheid Week” and Israel is denounced as a racist, apartheid regime that denies civil rights to Palestinian Arabs based on race;
  • when a sociology professor sends his class a grisly collection of side-by-side photographs comparing Jews under the hands of the Nazis to Gazans under the Israeli occupation and suggests the situations are historically or morally equivalent;
  • when a purported academic conference is held at Harvard University to discuss a “one-state” solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict—meaning the end of the Jewish state through what professor Efraim Karsh has termed “demographic subversion”—and every one of the 19 speakers at the event is a well-known anti-Israel activist or scholar;
  • when a student is physically assaulted by being rammed with a shopping cart by a member of Students for Justice in Palestine because she is a Jew;
  • when a Jewish attendee at an event during Israeli Apartheid Week at the University of Toronto attempts to ask a question he is told by security guards: “Shut the f**k up or I’ll saw your head off;”
  • when Jewish students at San Francisco State University are observing Holocaust Remembrance Day, pro-Palestinian counter-demonstrators physically assault the Jewish students, spit on them, and scream such epithets as “Too bad Hitler didn't finish the job;”
  • when York University’s Hillel invites Natan Sharansky to speak and radical pro-Palestinian student groups jeer him and scream “Get off our campus, you genocidal racist” and “you are bringing a second Holocaust upon yourselves;”
  • when a Jewish student at Columbia is “steered” out of taking a particular course because the professor has a well-known animus against Israel;
  • and when Jewish students and others regularly are confronted with mock “apartheid walls,” Israeli flags dripping with blood, the Star of David equated with a swastika, and incessant calls for academic and economic boycotts, sanctions, and divestment from the Middle East’s only democracy in which the central theme is that Israel is a racist, apartheid regime with no moral right to continue to exist and should be weakened and eventually destroyed

—when all of this takes place, as it does month after month on campuses, then the talk about protecting legitimate academic free speech is clearly disingenuous at best, and the reason that HR 35 was necessitated in the first place.

Pro-Palestinian activists have successfully hijacked the narrative about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on campuses, but in elevating the Palestinian cause by degrading Israel they have unleashed an ideological tsunami replete with virulent language, slanders, blood libels, inversions of history and fact, and, often, as former Harvard president Laurence Summers put it, have unleashed forms of expression that are “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.” That is the issue here, and why it is necessary and important that, in the effort to promote the Palestinian cause and help them to achieve statehood, another group—Jewish students on American campuses—do not become victims themselves in a struggle for another group’s self-determination.


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

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