Deplatforming the Campaign to Deplatform the Jews
The news that Zoom has once again denied service to a webinar featuring the infamous Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled following protests from advocacy groups was very welcome, but it also raises an issue — and a tactic — that has become ever more controversial with time: deplatforming.
Deplatforming is a very simple, indeed somewhat simple-minded phenomenon. It is essentially a means of political protest and activism that involves denying specific forums — usually but not always of the prestigious variety — to certain speakers or movements. This means things like disinviting or picketing speakers, disrupting events (sometimes violently), pushing social media companies to ban offensive accounts and, perhaps most effectively, convincing companies and corporations to fire people who engage in offensive speech or espouse offensive ideas.
There are many synonyms for deplatforming — “political correctness” and “cancel culture” likely being the most popular — but they all raise a simple dilemma: what precisely constitutes “offensive” speech or ideas? To a great extent, of course, “offensive” is in the eye of the beholder. For supporters of trans rights, for example, the claim that biological sex is immutable is offensive speech. For opponents, it is simple common sense. Indeed, as many critics have pointed out, the very idea of codifying “offensive” speech for the purposes of deplatforming is in many ways a violation of the right to free speech.
Ironically, Khaled’s leftist and Islamist defenders immediately leapt on the free speech bandwagon once she was threatened with deplatforming. The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which is promoting the terrorist’s webinars, quickly began fulminating an antisemitic conspiracy theory, shrieking in ridiculously overwrought rhetoric that the deplatforming was “emblematic of the corporate takeover of our universities and the influence of Zionist and right-wing organizations and individuals, along with the power of information capital, to set the agenda for what can and cannot be said or taught in a public university.”
The irony of this is that pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist, and antisemitic forces on university campuses have been perhaps the foremost practitioners of deplatforming anywhere in the United States. Pro-Israel events are regularly disrupted, pro-Israel and even simply Jewish speakers are harassed and shut down, and Jewish and pro-Israel students are systematically subjected to campaigns of hate, violence and intimidation.
This has gone so far as to force Jewish students off campus; as was the case with the CUNY law student Rafaella Gunz, whose horrible odyssey was reported by this publication. And often, these acts of violence are enabled and supported by faculty and administrators.
The obvious goal of all this is to violate precisely those principles Khaled’s defenders claim to advocate and thus brutalize Israel and Judaism’s campus defenders into surrender and silence. In other words, they want to deplatform the Jews. The question, then, is whether we ought to do the same to them.
On the one hand, it is an uncomfortable question, given that many of us disapprove of deplatforming itself and oppose attempts to deplatform the Jews on precisely that basis. But that is essentially an argument over ideals, and we do not live in an ideal world. Whether we like it or not, the other side has laid down the rules of the game. When student mobs, faculty and administrators collaborate in an attempt to deplatform the Jews, it is no longer an issue of free speech. It is an issue of power: who has it and who doesn’t. And is only by empowering ourselves that we can fight back, as was successfully done against Khaled and her supporters.
Moreover, if the deplatformers, whether students or faculty, wish to continue using the tactic, they must be consistent. They claim hate speech is an actual threat to life and limb, the moral equivalent of physical violence and even murder. By this definition, groups like Students for Justice in Palestine that incite violence against Israel and Jewish students, and often call for the outright genocide of Israel’s Jewish population, are unquestionably hate groups, and thus certainly qualify for deplatforming according to the deplatformers own standards. Against this, our opponents can simply have no argument. They have chosen to live by that sword, and can hardly complain when they die by it.
Of course, it could be said that if we start to live by that sword, we will also die by it. But we are already dying by it, and it is only by seizing it for ourselves that we can effectively defend ourselves. These are the values, after all, that those who ought to know better have embraced, and it appears that, sadly, it is only by adopting them that we can force them to act according to those values, which they allegedly hold so dear.
Benjamin Kerstein is a columnist and Israel Correspondent for The Algemeiner. His website can be viewed here.