Free speech belongs on campus

It’s not hyperbole to say that the college campus is America’s front line in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nowhere else is the rhetoric as heated, mendacious and potentially dangerous.

Few campuses have seen as much anti-Israel vitriol as those in the University of California system. The problem has persisted for so long, we felt the time had come to ask U.C.’s Jewish students their opinions about the campus climate.

Our reports from U.C. campuses in Berkeley, Davis and Santa Cruz paint a picture of relative calm punctuated by flare-ups of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity.

For the most part, Jewish students thrive in these intellectually stimulating institutions. They are free to opt in on campus Jewish life, with its Jewish Studies programs, clubs, Greek houses, Hillels and Chabad centers. They are just as free to opt out, if they choose.

At the same time, student-sponsored BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) efforts against Israel and “Israel Apartheid Week” events have made many Jewish students feel unwelcome, even afraid. Hecklers and protesters have done their best to make campuses unfriendly territory for visiting Israeli speakers.

Some students have accused the university of tolerating a hostile, at times anti-Semitic environment. These charges have morphed into lawsuits and federal investigations.

No one can deny that carving a swastika into a dormitory bathroom door is an anti-Jewish act. Certainly direct threats and physical assaults constitute hate crimes and must never be tolerated.

However, as so many thoughtful students profiled in our stories this week point out, free speech is as close to a sacred right as we have in this country. Subsumed under the First Amendment is the right to say hurtful, hateful and even untrue things.

None of the students interviewed, even the most ardently pro-Israel, wanted any infringement of free speech enforced on their campuses.

It’s only natural that parents try to protect their children, and that we, the collective Jewish community, would likewise strive to spare Jewish students the discomfort of hateful speech.

Let us remember, once they reach college age, they are not children anymore. We do Jewish students a disservice if we patronize them, infantilize them and try to spare them from every insult.

Jewish students are tough enough to take the slings and arrows, and smart enough to fight back with their own free speech. Our job is to support them when they ask for it.