Battle over free speech on campus illuminated

Battle over free speech on campus illuminated

We were deeply disturbed to learn that Princeton University’s Hillel canceled an address planned by Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, last week the day before she was set to speak. While the event ultimately proceeded as planned, and Hillel reconsidered its position and demonstrated contrition, the episode demonstrated an unwillingness to allow those whose opinions differ from their own to make their case. 

According to a report in The Jerusalem Post, the decision to withdraw the invitation came in response to a petition from the Alliance of Jewish Progressives, a student group that accused Hotovely of being a racist. Hotovely, a self-described “religious right-winger,” is opposed to a Palestinian state and cites religious texts in asserting Israel’s claim to disputed land.

The critics cited a pamphlet Hotovely has been distributing during her current campus tour, alleging it shows “blatant disregard to any Palestinian claim to the land and amounts to little more than propaganda.” The argument for canceling the talk was based on Hillel’s programming policy, no doubt written primarily with anti-Israel groups in mind, which states that it will not sponsor speakers “who promote racism or hatred of any kind.”

Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the Princeton Hillel, issued a statement expressing appreciation for “the students who pushed us to make sure we are consistent in the application of our process for program sponsorship.” It added that the program will be reviewed by the group’s Israel Advisory Committee “and we will refine our procedures to learn from this experience.”

What we have learned from this experience is that the Jewish tradition of pursuing truth through vigorous discussion and debate, as exemplified by the sages of the Talmud, has been abandoned here. Too many students are unwilling to listen to views that run counter their own. Just last month, in an address sponsored by the NYU Hillel, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asserted that “you can’t have justice unless you hear the other side.”

In a letter to Roth, Hotovely said she was “shocked” by the cancellation, noting that Roth had been “infringing on the fundamental academic freedom of the students,” and not allowing them to “hear different points of view, to question, challenge, and think for themselves.”

Fortunately, Princeton Chabad stepped in and sponsored the event, and Hillel International and Roth issued an apology to Hotovely. Still, it’s difficult to overlook Roth’s initial statement announcing the decision to cancel the event, in which he said: “We look forward to continued robust and healthy debate around Israel in our community.”

Because there is nothing healthy about Jewish censorship — from the left or the right. 

A personal apology: In an Editorial I wrote in these pages “Elie Wiesel, all too human” (Oct. 31), I sought to honor the voice and emotional pain of Jenny Listman, a woman who accused Elie Wiesel of touching her inappropriately almost 28 years ago, and to note as well the remarkable accomplishments and honorable reputation of the Nobel Peace laureate, author, and teacher who was a personal mentor for me for more than 40 years.

On reflection, with no way of knowing definitively what happened that day, and with the accused no longer alive to defend himself, I believe two truths can stand on their own: a man who was the conscience and voice of his generation, with a lifetime of human rights leadership and wise teaching, and a woman with an allegation of a wrongful touch.

I am painfully reminded of the chasidic tale of the man who, after speaking ill of someone in public, asks his rabbi how he can make amends. The rabbi instructs him to tear up a feather pillow, scatter the feathers in the wind, and then collect them all.

His point, well taken, is that we cannot retrieve hurtful words, once spoken. Or published. I can only acknowledge my error, and want to believe that if Elie Wiesel were alive, he would display the depth of his compassion and hold out the opportunity for forgiveness.Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week.

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