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anti-semitism

Anti-Semitic Speech on Campus Is Awful, But Can We Really Ban It?

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This past March, I wrote a post entitled “Why I Won’t Be Sending My Son To UCLA… Or Any Other Anti-Semitic College Campus” after it was suggested a student may be too “biased” to sit on the college’s Judicial Board because she was Jewish and involved in Jewish groups. I’ve also written in the past about my experiences in the 1990s as president of the San Francisco State University Hillel, where Jewish students were routinely banned from all-campus discussions of Middle East politics, our Yom HaShoah commemoration was counter-protested, and we were all accused of being Mossad spies, taking notes on our classmates and professors and passing them on to Israeli intelligence (seriously).

Based on all of the above, you’d think I’d be supportive of the University of California’s recent proposal to implement a policy that would make Jewish students feel more secure on campus by adopting a stricter definition of anti-Semitism and a corresponding speech code. (See varying coverage from Yahoo News, the Forward and The Washington Post.)

READ: What Happened When My Toddler Learned How to Say ‘No’

Is there anti-Semitism on American college campuses? Tons. Does criticism of Israel slide into criticism of Jews in general? Almost always. Are university anti-Israel resolutions such as the ones issued like clockwork by all the UC campuses and the recent UK academic boycott of Israeli universities on the basis of human rights infringement that are apparently worse than anything going on in any other country today hypocritical, inequitable, and, yes, racist? I think so.

But I also think they’re completely within the First Amendment. (I know the UK doesn’t have the same freedom of speech laws, and I’m not suggesting they do, but I nevertheless presume their boycott is within English law. Please someone enlighten me if I’m wrong. Oh, and J.K. Rowling—thanks for your version of support. We’ll take what we can get, I guess.)

Just like I’m against speech codes like Rutgers University’s, which flat out says that there is no such thing as free speech on their campus and encourages students to report bias incidents—not only ones against themselves, but ones they’ve observed, whether or not the “victim” in question was actually offended—and trigger warnings prior to a professor bringing up any topic which might make a student uncomfortable (or one that a given student thinks would make another student uncomfortable), I am against limiting anyone’s right to say anything. Even against me. (Anybody who writes on the internet for a living and has a problem with people saying nasty things about them had probably best find another line of work.)

Note that I’m talking about speech, here. Physical violence is another story. As president of SFSU Hillel, I was occasionally physically manhandled, blocked from entering a room, shoved, etc…That is completely different. That is not speech. And that’s covered by a separate law. It’s called assault.

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But what the UC system is talking about is speech: Anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic rhetoric that makes Jewish students uncomfortable, especially during those delightful moments when not just your entire class but your teacher, too, turn and call you, personally, an oppressor of indigenous people everywhere. However, as a (Jewish) Broadcast Law professor at SFSU used to say, “There’s a reason the founding fathers made that particular amendment the first one. Because they thought it was the most important. It’s the key thing that makes America unique.” (As a fun fact, this professor was also gay, but refused to advise a campus group wanting to protest the controversial “In Living Color” sketch, “Men on Film,” because, you know, free speech and stuff.)

I suppose the argument could be made that as a private entity (while UC universities and Rutgers are, in fact, public, other private colleges have jumped on the Speech Code bandwagon) they have the right to make any laws they like, and those who choose to enter their premises have to obey them. But, if that’s the case, then how can we justify incidents where objecting bakers are required to sell wedding cakes to gay couples or a jeweler who actually went ahead and made rings for a gay couple was pressured to refund their money because the couple later learned he was against gay marriage? What about a politician forced to resign because he used the word “niggardly”—correctly in context—but others interpreted it as a racial slur?

Shouldn’t it be rights for everybody or rights for nobody? It’s either private entities have the right to do whatever they want based on whatever they believe, or private entities have to follow public law and/or public option regardless of their own desires. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t pick and choose contingent on the issues or the group being targeted.

I know where I stand. Like that great anti-Semite Voltaire, I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it (which, for the record, Voltaire didn’t say; it’s actually a pithy summery of his stance from Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s biography).

READ: Why We Need to Stop Using the Term ‘Grammar Nazi’

Jewish students should know what they’re getting into when choosing which college to attend. They can pick one not known for it’s anti-Israel activity and anti-Semitism, or they can step in with their eyes open and either fight or go about their business without comment. The choice is theirs (or, as I said back in March, mine, if I’m the one footing the bill). It just shouldn’t be the university’s.

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