Fighting discrimination and protecting the First Amendment on campus, not a zero sum game

Combating discrimination means clamping down on free speech. Upholding the First Amendment means anything goes on campus.  Encouraging civil discourse and condemning when debate becomes hate is bubble-wrapping students.

With college and high school commencement time upon us, stories emerge daily that student safety measures come at the expense of free speech and critical thinking.  Preventing discrimination and protecting the First Amendment, however, should never be at odds. They are not competing issues.  Both are paramount responsibilities of a university. Schools must do both and they can. 

{mosads}A close look at the evolution of a recently adopted intolerance policy at the University of California (UC) is a case in point.

A few years ago, UC students, parents, faculty and community members began sharing troubling accounts. Jewish property was vandalized with swastikas after students spoke in favor of Israel, Jewish students on multiple campuses were questioned about their eligibility to hold office and vote on Israel-boycott measures simply because of their religion, and Israel and Jews were blamed for 9/11.  “Hitler did nothing wrong,” “Zionists to the gas chamber” and “grout out the Jews” were found on multiple California campuses in the wake of heated anti-Zionist BDS campaigns.

As a university instructor by trade, free speech is something I hold dear.  Discourse and disagreement on the Middle East or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is appropriate.  Debate on these issues and others, particularly those that hit a nerve, belong on a college campus.  In fact, there’s no better place for such discussions. Protecting free speech is paramount.  However, as the director of a non-profit that monitors and combats campus anti-Semitism, I know protecting safety, fairness and equal access to education is too.

From what we were hearing, debate was veering into hate. A serious erosion of civil discourse was taking place.  Lines were being blurred. We were wading into dangerous and threatening waters.  Bias, harassment, threats, assaults and vandalism against Jewish students, and suppression of their freedom of speech were becoming commonplace.  And this wasn’t happening in a vacuum.  It was in the context of an increase in heated anti-Zionist activity.  My organization led a coalition of concerned students, professors, parents, rabbis, school principals and many non-profit advocacy groups and we brought this information to the University of California’s Board of Regents. And board members acted.

A University of California task force was formed.  Members convened a public forum for students, faculty and members of the community to share views.  They heard testimony from leading First Amendment, diversity and anti-Semitism experts.  They set up a hotline for students to share any and all views.  And they gathered written testimony from multiple sources. 

What the task force found and detailed in its report is that “historic manifestations of anti-Semitism have changed and that expressions of anti-Semitism are more coded and difficult to identify.  In particular, opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture.” 

Regularly on UC campuses, Jewish students were being held responsible for Israeli actions or policies. Far too often, expression about Israel morphed into ugly and divisive centuries-old anti-Semitic stereotypes, and it led to harmful action directed against Jewish students, including physical assault, destruction of property, harassment and suppression of speech. Jewish students were becoming drive-by victims when anti-Israel expression crossed the line into blatant anti-Semitism.

Therefore, the University of California’s Board of Regents unanimously condemned “anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism” and called on UC Chancellors to respond to this discrimination as swiftly and firmly as they would racism, sexism, homophobia or any other type of discrimination.  It was a balancing act. They made clear that criticism of Israel’s settlements or separation barrier, expressions of concern for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or other minorities are welcomed and encouraged. However, applying classic anti-Semitic tropes to Israel, condoning violence against Israel or its citizens, calling for the destruction or elimination of the Jewish state, even when brought up in the context of political speech, are anti-Semitism. And they all too often incite anti-Jewish hostility on campus. Just like racism, sexism, homophobia and Islamaphobia, anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel that veers into anti-Semitism have no place at the University of California.

Debate on college campuses is critical.  We should put ourselves in uncomfortable situations.  We should challenge our beliefs and be open to others’ views, even when they run completely contrary to our own.  Debate grows our mind.  Hate, though, shrinks it and cannot and should not be tolerated. Our campuses can be places of civility and respect, even when we fiercely and deeply disagree. The way UC handled that critical balance should serve as a model to universities across our country.

Rossman Benjamin is faculty at the University of California and the director of AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit that combats anti-Semitism at colleges and universities nationwide.


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