Why Do We Let Antisemites Define Antisemitism?
In the US, we don’t hear much positive news about how Jews and Israel are treated on college campuses in the United Kingdom. In fact, we mostly hear horror stories.
It was refreshing, therefore, to learn that a “Jewish Equality Act” was adopted by the Students’ Union at the University of London. This measure approved offering kosher dining options, access to multi-faith rooms and the rescheduling of events conflicting with Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. This was an especially impressive decision given that the aforementioned college had just 39 students who identified themselves as Jewish when the act was passed.
Yet, sadly, even this triumph of common sense was marred when one clause was dropped from the final measure.
What was the offending clause?
It said that “Jewish students should be given the right to self-determination and be able to define what constitutes hatred against their group, like all other minority groups.”
The President of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) Jewish Society, Avrahum Sanger, proposed the act. “Removing this line,” he said, “tells me and my Jewish peers that we are not able to define our own oppression, that we are not able to self-determine our identity … that it is one rule for [us] and another for every other minority group.”
This was just the latest example of a type of bias we see on US campuses — where non-Jews tell Jews how they should feel, what offensive language and behavior they should tolerate and what constitutes antisemitism.
This is outrageous. Jews are treated like no other minority. Worse, university officials allow this discriminatory treatment and often defend it.
Imagine if African American students protested statements made on campus that they considered racist, and then the people who made the statements said that African Americans are not the arbiters of what is and is not racist. No one would accept that argument on any campus in America. The same test could be applied to issues of sexism or attacks on gay students.
The situation regarding Jews is the only exception.
This perversion of language and human rights has allowed antisemites to openly criticize Jews and Israel on American campuses, and get away with it. At the same time, hate speech directed against any other group is shut down immediately. If there is the slightest hesitation, protests are mounted until the offensive speech is curtailed and the speaker is punished.
Remember, for example, the uproar when members of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma were filmed singing a racist song on a bus off campus? University President David Boren expelled two students who were involved, an action several law professors called unconstitutional. Even before that incident, the university had created a five-hour course on diversity for faculty and first-year students, apparently in response to rumors of a planned “Cowboys and Indians” themed fraternity party.
Now let’s apply the same standard to the students who will be sponsoring Israel hate weeks on campuses over the next several weeks, and the promoters of the college’s BDS campaign. Jewish students (and Jews around the world) have said many of these programs are antisemitic. In 2015, the heads of more than 60 international Jewish organizations from all sides of the political and religious spectrum agreed that:
The BDS movement is antithetical to principles of academic freedom and discourages freedom of speech. The movement silences voices from across the Israeli political spectrum. By pursuing delegitimization campaigns on campus, proponents have provoked deep divisions among students and have created an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred.
Moreover, the signatories said: “We recognize and accept that individuals and groups may have legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. Criticism becomes antisemitism, however, when it demonizes Israel or its leaders, denies Israel the right to defend its citizens or seeks to denigrate Israel’s right to exist.”
Jews decide what constitutes antisemitism. If Jewish students tell officials that certain statements and acts are antisemitic, then the administration should react the same way it would if African American students complained about peers engaging in race baiting.
One problem is the timidity of Jewish students. Other minorities do not hesitate to organize protests. Yet Jews, for some reason, have never had the fortitude, the interest, or the training to mobilize large numbers of their peers to demonstrate for their rights. Imagine if hundreds of Jews, at campuses like UCLA or NYU, marched and organized themselves. This would force officials to take the antisemitic behavior of groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) seriously.
Jewish students should demand that Israel hate weeks be banned, and that SJP and other groups espousing antisemitic views (typically with student and taxpayer funding) should be banned from campus.
So far, Fordham University is the only campus that has had the courage to do so, despite the howls of protest from defenders of antisemitic speech.
In a statement that should be a model for other universities, Fordham Dean of Students Keith Eldredge explained, “While students are encouraged to promote diverse political points of view, and we encourage conversation and debate on all topics, I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country –(Israel).”
He added, “The call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding.”
First Amendment advocates may object to banning hate speech. Let them. It didn’t stop Oklahoma from expelling students for singing a racist song. If, however, antisemitism is protected speech, then no university should be allowed to prevent other forms of offensive speech by anyone on campus. The Constitution will not win that confrontation.
For too long, universities have been the one place in America where antisemitism is tolerated. It is time that university officials respect Jews’ right to “define our own oppression.”
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel, After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.