Anti-Israel movement exploits concern for academic freedom in order to destroy academic freedom
It’s getting tougher to be a Jew in Britain.
According to a report by the UK’s Community Security Trust, anti-Semitic incidents have skyrocketed in 2014, reaching the highest levels ever recorded.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center reports that British Jews are increasingly afraid to visit Jewish-owned stores.
A recent UK study finds that almost half of those surveyed believe at least one negative stereotype about Jews is true, including such statements as “Jews chase money more than other British people” and “Jews have too much power in the media”.
In March, an angry mob attacked a London synagogue.
And earlier this month, the deputy director of a London-based interfaith organization told The Guardian that:
In the last few months, the tone on my Facebook feed has changed. There’s more fear being expressed, and some friends won’t go to events at a synagogue or Jewish community centre now because of the security aspect…Three Faiths Forum works with about 10,000 young people a year. Over the past few months, their questions have become more pertinent and can lead to very challenging discussions. Questions we’ve had to Jewish speakers include: ‘You said Jews believe in charity—do you also believe in killing Palestinian babies?’ and ‘Why do Jews keep money under their hats?’ We had to explain that the man the student had seen was probably just adjusting his kippah under his hat, and that Jews keep money in pockets just like everyone else.”
It’s a lot of awful.
Which is why for many British Jews the recent cancellation of a blatantly anti-Zionist and BDS-promoted conference at the University of Southampton has been cause for celebration.
A court case has been filed challenging the cancellation. [Update 4-14-2015 by WAJ – The Court challenge was rejected.]
Writing this Sunday in The Times of Israel, Paul Charney, chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, noted that the “drawn-out campaign that found the university caught in the cross-fire between Israel supporters on the one hand, and pro-Palestinians on the other…has prompted the most remarkable victory the British Jewish community has seen in years”.
Titled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility, and Exceptionalism”, critics maintained that the conference’s cryptic name masked the true purpose of the meeting: to delegitimize Israel’s right of existence and to persuade some 150 students and other pre-registered attendees that it’s a monstrous regime worthy of the same isolation that apartheid South Africa once merited.
As noted by the conference’s description, the objective was to consider how Israel’s creation (its “foundation” and the continued “protection of such a state”) is the cause of “suffering and injustice”.
The event’s 50+ speaker line-up included well known Israel haters, like Princeton University professor emeritus and former UN special rapporteur Richard Falk, who once famously compared Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians with the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews.
Sponsored by Southampton University’s Law College, the conference was organized by Israeli-born professor Oren Ben-Dor, whose animosity toward his native land is also legend.
One of the other organizers was University of California-Hastings College of Law Professor George Bisharat, whose lecture tour and emotional op-ed of his family narrative of exile from Jerusalem is contradicted by his own writings in a Palestinian journal.
Now that the conference has been nixed, some Jewish activists have expressed hopes that Southampton’s decision to abandon support for the event, which was scheduled to be held on April 17-19, will deter other UK campuses from planning similar anti-Israel hate fests.
All’s well that ends well? Perhaps.
But, among the 900 British and American professors who joined colleagues worldwide to sign a petition urging Southampton’s administrators not to pull the event, many admitted that the conference promised to be little more than a propaganda event—political advocacy masquerading as a serious academic inquiry—and they still defended it.
What’s so disturbing about this is that UK and US BDS faculty activists managed to garner so much backing for an event that many acknowledged would’ve substituted an educational program for outright agitprop.
Writing for the online Inside Higher Ed, a popular media outlet with a global reach, even University of Illinois’ Cary Nelson—himself a vocal opponent of the BDS effort to impose academic boycotts on Israel—and Karen Stern of the Alliance for Academic Freedom insisted that the show must go on:
While we find the upcoming conference on International Law and the State of Israel disturbing (it questions the right of Israel to exist, it includes panelists who have made gross antisemitic statements, etc.), we are shocked by the report that the university might cancel the conference. Academic freedom requires that scholarly meetings, even ones that can rightly be criticized for promoting bigotry, are permitted to be held”.
But it turns out that, albeit Southampton’s legal obligation to protect freedom of speech, British taxpayers don’t much like it when a public university is hijacked by anti-Semites: 6,500+ of them signed a petition from the Zionist Federation calling for the event to be scrapped.
Andrew Sawczenko, a leading UK pediatrician made headlines by returning his 1987 Bachelor of Medicine degree to Southampton, saying he no longer wanted to be associated with his alma mater.
With mounting outrage, even a few of Britain’s MPs weighed in.
Southampton’s administrators ended up cancelling the conference on security grounds, while also stipulating a firm commitment to academic freedom.
It’s a bittersweet victory for the UK’s stressed-out Jewish community.
Many would’ve no doubt preferred that the university denounce the event for its “ill conceived” substance, and not promote the idea that “threats from ‘Zionists/ Jews’ have put a stop to free speech”.
Some suggested that the university’s cancellation statement should’ve supported Southampton’s diversity goals by recognizing that even while faculty have a legal right to hold a conference on any topic they wish, academic freedom doesn’t oblige them to give a campus platform to racist ideologues.
Expressing this view, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says:
it would’ve been a lot better if the head of the university said we’re not in business to sit down and have discussions about the disappearance off the face of the earth of democracies…if you can’t take a basic moral stand of where the red line is drawn you have got a problem”.
But canceling the event on account of its offensive premise sets up a dangerous precedent.
After all, academic freedom is what enables pro-Israel faculty and student groups to bring Israeli scholars to campus, despite the fact that critics consider even their very presence on campus deeply offensive.
And academic freedom also protects counter-speech. This includes the many correctives and counter-arguments that pro-Israel critics could’ve brought to bear in exercising their own free speech rights to challenge the multiple historical fabrications and falsehoods that no doubt would’ve been in abundant evidence at Ben-Dor and Bisharat’s conference.
In general, hateful and hurtful speech is best answered with better speech, not suppression.
And college campuses aren’t supposed to be sacrosanct “comfort zones” where students can expect to be coddled and shielded from ideas they may find controversial, irritating, distasteful, or unpleasant.
But the purpose of higher education is to educate, not to stage propaganda events.
Too many universities and colleges fail to appreciate that the BDS movement, and its campus arm, Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP), have exploited academia’s deep commitment to free speech in order to morph campus spaces into arenas given over not to the dissemination of serious scholarship, but to pseudo-academic political advocacy.
Conferences based on rigorous academic inquiry are appropriate for campus; pro-Palestinian (or pro-Israel) agitprop, rallies, and solidarity events—even though lawful—best belong off-campus.
Students and faculty dancing horas with Israeli flags held aloft is great—the time and place for that is at a Jewish community center. Israel-hating shindigs that call for the destruction of the Jewish state should also convene somewhere else.
In fact, convening propaganda events on campus is effectively perpetrating a fraud, presenting as educational something that is nothing of the sort.
Now that Ben-Dor and his collaborators have been told that they have to take their conference somewhere else, they’ve been expressing their fury at this “apparent act of grand censorship” by railing on about academic freedom denied.
In a statement published on the virulently anti-Israel website Electronic Intifada, Ben-Dor protests his university’s decision to withdraw support for his conference by referencing free speech rights no less than 8 times.
Which is really all too rich.
Because Ben-Dor and his fellow “self-styled warriors for academic freedom” have no compunction against discriminating against pro-Israel campus voices.
It’s a classic example of free speech for me, but not for thee.
As Brendan O’Neill recently quips in Britain’s Jewish News about anti-Israel activists:
They bang on endlessly about Israel being an apartheid state, yet through BDS they have created a system of cultural apartheid. In their eyes, culture created by us, or by China, or by Zimbabwe, is fine, but culture produced by them, those nasty Israelis, must be hounded out of theatres and galleries lest it infect us all with its contagious Zionism.
These are activists who cry ‘Censorship!’ when a conference of theirs is pulled…Yet they spend the rest of their time agitating for the No Platforming of Israeli representatives on campus and for the shutting down of pro-Israel university societies. ‘Free speech! (For nice people like me, not for rotters like you)’—that’s their fantastically hypocritical motto”.
BDS activists keep getting away with this double standard.
And that’s what’s got to stop.
In all their self-righteous grousing, Ben-Dor and his fellow BDS travelers have conveniently forgot to mention that last year at Southampton protests by anti-Israel activists resulted in the cancelation of a guest lecture by an Israeli scholar specializing in the (hugely controversial!) subject of optic sensors.
As Oxford University professor Ben Gidley notes, “When protests can effectively make a university a hostile environment for Israelis, even when they are there to talk about something as harmless as optoelectronics, this makes Jewish students feel vulnerable”.
[Featured Image: Paris Protest Summer 2014]
Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse UniversityDONATE
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