Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August, 2015, pp. 30-31

Israel and Judaism

Efforts Grow to Limit Campus Mideast Debate in Guise of Fighting “Anti-Semitism”

By Allan C. Brownfeld

Across the United States there is a concerted effort by pro-Israel groups and individuals to limit free and open debate about the Middle East in the guise of fighting “anti-Semitism.”

In 2013, Jewish 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” for Jewish students. The OCR investigated and rejected the “hostile environment” complaints. 

Three years ago, in response to similar objections to 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.” Acknowledging the First Amendment concerns, the Council 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, 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.”

Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of Hillel International, says that the BDS movement on college campuses threatens not Israel but the lives of American Jewish students and the integrity of the university. He declared that the BDS movement is “at its heart an anti-Semitic movement.” In Fingerhut’s view, Jews should enlist the university community in rejecting BDS because “they’re not just attacking the Jewish community. They’re attacking the university’s academic integrity.”

A new website, Canary Mission, has been initiated to document the names and photographs of pro-Palestinian campus activists around the country, with links to their personal details, social media and print-out profiles. The database, as stated on its website, “was created to expose individuals and groups that are anti-Freedom, anti-American and anti-Semitic in order to protect the public and our democratic values.” According to Jonathan Paul Katz, writing in the May 28 Forward, “Organizers are not listed, but the public is invited to submit ‘a sourced profile of someone involved in anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel activities’ for [anonymous publication]. Mondoweiss and Jewish Voice for Peace are listed as equivalent to Hamas; many students’ LinkedIn profiles are attached in a probable effort to prevent their employment.”

Describing such tactics as “a disgusting perversion of Jewish values,” Katz goes on to note, “I have not seen a major Jewish organization come out to condemn the website...Nor have many organizations similarly condemned Pamela Geller’s racist diatribes or even the constant buzz of Islamophobia and racism present in many synagogues across the country.”

The effort to stifle criticism of Israel on the nation’s college and university campuses is part and parcel of the Israeli government’s response to all criticism, whether regarding its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, its dispossession of Bedouins or its treatment of African refugees. On May 31, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israel faced “an international campaign to blacken its name,” based not on its policies toward the Palestinians but “connected to our very existence,” likening the mounting boycott movement to anti-Semitic “libels” of previous eras. 

In a May 21 radio interview, 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. 

State Department Definition

The State Department 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 goes on to cite as 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.

According to FIRE, “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.”

FIRE elaborates: “...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, United 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 Israeli policies and efforts to call attention to them through such things 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.” Indeed, if it were anti-Semitism, Jewish students and faculty members would not be a significant part of such efforts. 

Defenders of Israel would better serve their cause by finding answers to the criticism which they instead are now doing their best to silence. 


Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.

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