When I arrived as a new student at U.C. Berkeley 25 years ago, I was excited by the vibrant political scene. I approached a handful of groups to offer my support; among the first was the Campaign Against Apartheid. At the time, Nelson Mandela was languishing in prison and I wanted to do my part. Imagine my shock and dismay to learn that their focus was not on exposing the racist regime in South Africa, but rather on attacking Israel! As a Zionist, it was a rude awakening to the marketplace of ideas on a college campus.
Two intifadas later, some things have changed, yet campuses look much the same. Opponents of Israel repugnantly invoke comparisons with Nazi Germany and continue to employ the libelous “apartheid” epithet, undaunted by the rejections of that comparison by South Africa’s ambassador to Israel and even by Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who authored the infamous U.N. report on Gaza. And Israel’s enemies promote new strategies including boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) to bolster their fallacious allegations.
Obviously, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. My own agency and other Jewish and Zionist organizations comment on current events or critique policy to help Israel live up to its rich democratic tradition and commitments. These efforts are made out of a respect for the country and concern for all Israeli citizens — Jews, Muslims, Christians and others.
But a simple smell test demonstrates that all-too-many anti-Israel protests and groups do not seek to improve Israel. Instead they utilize BDS or loaded terms like “apartheid” or “Nazi” to demonize or delegitimize the Jewish state. Though anti-Israel activists purport to speak on behalf of human rights, as former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers noted, the result is “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.”
As a Cal alumnus, former student activist and now regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, I was particularly interested in a recent U.C.-commissioned report that studied the campus climate for Jewish students. The results were illuminating and the recommendations worthwhile.
(A clarification: Rick Barton and Alice Huffman were mistakenly identified as representing the ADL and the NAACP, respectively, in compiling the report. In truth, their excellent work was done in their capacities as U.C. President Mark Yudof’s appointees.)
Several of the report’s recommendations are critically important. For example, U.C. needs to address the dietary needs of the Jewish community on campus and develop appropriate accommodations. ADL also endorses the inclusion of Jewish and other minority student representatives on campus climate councils, in the consideration of new protocols for university sponsorship of outside speakers, and in the development and implementation of cultural competency training.
It is also vital to increase awareness of and education about anti-Semitism. It is a complex prejudice, particularly concerning Israel. To assess and respond appropriately, it is important to have a deep understanding of anti-Semitism’s contemporary manifestations.
However, the report’s recommendation to adopt a “hate speech–free campus policy” raises First Amendment concerns. Though well intentioned, any prohibition of speech is problematic. As Alan Dershowitz states, it would be “a very serious mistake. The first victims of the policy would be pro-Israel advocates.” Rather, ADL supports supplementing U.C.’s constitutionally sound procedures protecting expression and assembly with clear guidance to ensure that campuses are free from intimidation and harassment, while not stifling speech.
From our long-standing work addressing bigotry and intergroup strife on campus, we have come to believe that the key to ridding campuses of hate is not to outlaw speech. Rather, campuses should promote positive, constructive speech and anti-bias educaiton, and be prepared to condemn hateful acts publicly and swiftly. University leadership, students, faculty and administrators must speak out firmly and forcefully against hatred and bigotry as contrary to everything for which the university stands.
Exposing and responding to hate speech can also provide important teachable moments. Hate speech exposes true motivations. Armed with the information to respond effectively, students who see anti-Israel activists espousing anti-Semitism (or advocating genocide) can prompt others to reject their extremist offerings. Hate speech also provides pro-Israel students the opportunity to distinguish their cause as compassionate, diverse and principled — in short, democratic. Finally, exposing hate speech can prove instructive to students unfamiliar with the issues.
Sadly, anti-Semitism and racism stubbornly persist in the 21st century. Strong university leadership can afford the opportunity for students to learn how to successfully challenge hate speech as the framers of our Constitution envisioned, not by censorship, but through better speech. These valuable lessons will serve students in the “real world” and help them become better Zionists, better Jews and better citizens.
Seth Brysk is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.