Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

The answer to surging antisemitism on campus is not to curtail free speech. Anguish over mounting anti-Jewish sentiment, and the seemingly ad hoc scramble of American universities to define their duties toward targeted students, is understandable. But in a pluralistic society predicated on the right to speak, antisemitism cannot be eliminated by banning or punishing noxious sentiment. Too many university administrators, Members of Congress, and other influentials mistakenly believe that, when it comes to hateful speech, the choices are to prohibit it outright or instead let its pollution seep freely through communities. That is a false choice. Antisemitism, like other forms of bigotry, must be unequivocally repudiated and countered. But the U.S. Constitution and our private universities’ commitments to free expression and academic freedom demand that the tools to accomplish this goal respect rather than restrict speech.

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The recent surge in antisemitism on campus and in the wider society is alarming. While various forms of bigotry – including anti-Palestinian and Islamophobia are also surging – incidents of antisemitism are at a record high. The main threats come not from speech but from actions: violence and violent threats against Jews disruptions of classes or talks; vandalism; and ideological litmus tests being applied in classrooms. Commonplace slogans can be interpreted as annihilationist. The tearing down of hostage posters, including those depicting the elderly and children, send a message that innocent Jewish lives don’t matter.

The menacing of Jews has uncorked fear that age-old hatreds were only dormant, lying in wait. Campus norms have evolved to shield other marginalized groups and bring about a more inclusive campus. Over the last decade, campus communities have rightly become sensitized to racial slurs, stereotypes, and microaggressions that can stoke feelings of exclusion. Even five years ago, reference to the n-word was not unheard of in the college classroom; whether in a quote from literature or illustrate a legal doctrine. In recent years instructors were put on notice that the word, regardless of intent and context, was widely considered deeply offensive. Once alerted, many voluntarily refrained from its use, not wanting to stoke tension or hard feelings. The use of preferred gender pronouns has also come to be more widely accepted on the basis that that people deserve a choice in how they are identified and described. We have begun to adapt to the premise that living together in a diverse, pluralistic society demands a measure of respect for individual difference, even when that extends to what we do or don’t say.  When it comes to language that can be code for genocide or play on antisemitic stereotypes, Jewish students are now drawing attention to how words may land.

For the most part, though, these expectations have been enforced not through rules and punishments but with informal taboos and spreading awareness of heterogeneity and the need to avoid gratuitous offense. Some free speech defenders have rightly pointed out that while increased conscientiousness of difference may be good in theory, it can readily cross over into a climate of censorious in which topics such as affirmative action, immigration, or care for transgender youth become too risky to discuss. The problem intensifies when unofficial awareness raising hardens into institutional mandates policing speech. Formal prohibitions can foster grievances among those who believe that open debate – and specifically their own dissenting opinions – are being muzzled. Universities have exacted reprisals against students and professors for voicing provocative or offensive views and sought to suspend students organizations that challenge prevailing orthodoxies. Yet recent experience attests to the futility of trying to subdue bigotry by quashing speech: official prohibitions are inevitably subject to interpretation and charges of hypocrisy; those who believe their ideas are disfavored become aggrieved and resentful, sometimes grandstanding their way into even more clout; and chilling effects unavoidably reach beyond the narrow parameters of enumerated speech restrictions.

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Now, the tables have been turned. With the upsurge of antisemitism on campuses, some free speech defenders have newfound appreciation of what it means for students to feel deep-seated unease linked to their racial, religious or national identity. When hostile chants, face-to-face confrontations, and rowdy demonstrations  are tied to real-world violence, the boundary-line between psychological and physical safety can blur. The feelings are compounded by gaps noted  between the protections afforded other minorities as compared to Jews. Many campus Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs, including Harvard’s for example, have lacked a mandate to tackle antisemitism, much less expertise on how to do so.

Campus constituencies are right to insist that antisemitism take its place alongside other forms of bigotry as a pervasive scourge that is recognized as inimical to the open and equal learning environment that universities are legally bound to provide. But just as institutional efforts to police speech about race and gender have sometimes bred a chilling campus environment, so could new rules and policies aimed to declare antisemitic rhetoric and tropes out of bounds.

Instead campus leaders have other tools. Several have created antisemitism task forces. Those efforts focus on proven methods to tamp down prejudices regardless of what group they are directed toward: education, awareness-raising, building mutual support and solidarity between diverse campus constituencies, and elevating the visibility and influence of Jewish voices on campus. Equity and student life personnel should be educated about the many forms that antisemitism takes, and that it includes some (though not all) efforts to demonize the State of Israel. They must learn to treat antisemitism as they do other forms of intolerance. Transparent, viewpoint-neutral policy enforcement on protests and postering can prevent aggressive campaigning from interfering unduly with dorm or classroom life.

Augmented security can allay fears of physical confrontation. University leaders can demonstrate solidarity with targeted individuals and institutions – showing up for a meal at a Hillel house or meeting with aggrieved alumni and students. They can use their bully pulpits to repudiate antisemitism outright, ensuring that their message comes across not just to embattled Jews, but to all. Ultimately, the best antidote to antisemitism is a campus that fosters open dialogue across divergent views, and does not let individual identity get in the way of treating all campus constituents as equal members of a shared community.

Whether its Justice Louis Brandeis expounding foundational ideas on free speech from the U.S. Supreme Court bench or Jews leading the ACLU’s defense of Nazi’s right to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1977, Jewish Americans have been prominent in the defense of free speech throughout United States history. They have done so partly on grounds that – as a vulnerable minority – Jews have a special stake in ensuring the protection of their own right to speak out, defend themselves, and argue for change. Amid the clamor to address antisemitism, free speech protections must remain recognized as a shield to protect vulnerable minorities rather than a sword to wound them.


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