‘Safe’ and unsound

‘Safe’ and unsound

Pundits and comedians had a field day with the Oberlin College students who declared that the ethnic food served in their cafeterias was “inauthentic” and thus culturally insensitive. How could they serve an ersatz version of, say, a Vietnamese sandwich and “and label it as another country’s traditional food?” asked one aggrieved student. 

The students’ complaints were taken as an outrageous parody of political correctness and a sign of the depths to which the national debate over culturally “safe” spaces on campus had sunk.

Me? At first I thought that the students were way off base, but then I remembered whatever it is they serve at Einstein Bagels and similar chains outside the metropolitan area. If that is not a hate crime against Jewish cuisine, I don’t know what is.

I also thought about the ways that, once again, Jews are in the vanguard of a social and political movement on campus — in this case, creating “safe spaces” on campus for minorities, for women, for any individual or group who feels threatened or underrepresented by the majority campus culture. 

In an article on the trend, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick catalogued a number of incidents that have been framed as a “fight between the right to safe spaces versus the right to offend.” They include the Smith College incident in which reporters were blocked from a student protest unless they stated support for the students’ demands, the controversy at Yale over ethnic-themed Halloween costumes, and the cancellation of a yoga class at the University of Ottawa because of complaints that it “misappropriated” the religious tradition from which it sprang. 

“These new seekers of ‘safe spaces’ don’t want safety or empathy,” complained Christine Rosen in Commentary magazine. “They want immunity — from ideas they don’t agree with, from reasonable debate, from experiences that don’t suit their narrative, from a past that includes leaders who accomplished a great deal but were also deeply flawed human beings.”

Rosen, writing for a conservative, pro-Israel magazine, could also be describing an effort by many pro-Israel groups to demand or enforce this kind of “immunity” when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian debate. 

Faced with an energized pro-Palestinian movement and aggressive calls for boycotts of Israel, many groups have made campus advocacy a top priority. Often they air legitimate complaints about intimidation and violence — physical and verbal — on the part of anti-Israel protesters.

And yet some of these campus advocacy efforts have tried to inject themselves into the campus debate in ways that threaten free speech or exaggerate the threats to Jewish students. The very presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus is painted as “hostile”; ugly anti-Israel rhetoric is described as a hate crime. Most of all, Jewish students are portrayed as frail and vulnerable.

No doubt, there are anti-Israel protests that make Jewish students feel unsafe, in the simplest, least-trendy meaning of the word. But often the impulse to “protect” Jewish students becomes an effort to make sure they don’t hear ideas they — or their adult protectors — don’t agree with. Pro-Israel advocacy can also become a way to enforce an “acceptable” narrative about Israel. If pro-Israel students air their own disagreements with and about Israel, such thinking has it, Israel’s enemies will exploit their “disunity.”

The best campus advocacy efforts, however, don’t set out to “protect” Jewish students, but to empower them. We want Jewish kids to care deeply about Israel. The biggest threat to this goal is not a leaflet from a BDS supporter, but apathy and ignorance. Instead of trying to shut down the other side, we should be educating Jewish students about the reality of Israel and introducing them to the people and country of Israel in ways that make both worth defending.

And because we are talking about college kids, this demands a sophisticated approach. Young people know when they are being patronized or being fed propaganda or kitsch. They also don’t want to be told what opinions are acceptable and what opinions are “outside the tent.” They realize that some of the biggest critics of “political correctness” are themselves the most zealous defenders of a political orthodoxy. 

The demand for “safe spaces” on campus is often portrayed as a crusade by the Left. But the Right too demands immunity from criticism or discomfort. Both sides seem to fear the ideas of others. As Lithwick writes, “The fact is that we can either have real discourse, or we can ban real discourse, but we cannot demand discourse that only validates our views.”

The stakes in the Israel debate are much higher than who gets to make a banh mi sandwich or who gets to perform a downward-facing dog pose. Which just means we have to be much better at it than our opponents. We have to trust our students as thinkers and doers and give them the resources — and respect — they need to be both. 

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