The campus ‘fear’ factor

The campus ‘fear’ factor

Natan Sharansky was in Scotch Plains last week and, according to our report on his talk to Jewish leaders, warned that “Jewish students are being silenced by their fear of growing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment on American campuses.”

“There are no KGB agents on campuses here, but people are afraid to express their minds,” said the Jewish Agency chairman and former Prisoner of Zion, who knows from KGB agents.

But does he know from American college campuses? I have heard him before on this topic, and I am still left wondering: Are the pro-Palestinian forces on campus so numerous and threatening that “fear” is the operative word? Pro-Palestinian speakers and anti-Israel street theater may leave Jewish students feeling uncomfortable and at times lonely — but physically threatened or in fear of retaliation? It’s upsetting when someone interrupts a speech or pickets an event or uses ugly analogies to apartheid and Nazism, but at what point are we saying that free speech itself is a threat?

“Fear” and its flip side — “security” — are common buzz words for many of the efforts forming to fight the pro-Israel battle on campus. The Fellowship for Campus Safety and Integrity, a new organization launched by Rabbi Akiva Tendler, says its goal is to fight “the intimidation Jewish students face” and the “increasing amount of hate crime, harassment, intimidation, and…bias on campus.”

Its website emphasizes legal strategies. There’s a memo with advice on the legal parameters of campus civility codes, student activity fees, free speech, and federal funding. The implication is clear: Is a pro-Hizbullah speaker coming to your campus? You may have a lawsuit.

The Zionist Organization of America similarly invoked the climate of “fear” and “intimidation” in its successful effort to get the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to extend protection to Jews under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. According to the ZOA, the move will “protect Jewish students from harassment, intimidation, and discrimination at federally funded schools.”

ZOA’s campaign was inspired by some ugly and well-publicized incidents at University of California-Irvine. An “Israeli Apartheid Week” there included a rogues’ gallery of anti-Israel speakers; last February, a speech by Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, was interrupted by malicious heckling. But nasty as it is, is the UC-Irvine experience the norm or an aberration on American college campuses?

Last week the New York Jewish Week reported on a new Palestinian Club at Brooklyn College, which staged a mock “Israeli checkpoint” and hosted a talk by the go-to Jew-baiter Norman Finkelstein. The cofounder of the club is a piece of work, an opponent of the two-state solution who says she can’t dialogue with Jewish students on campus because they are “Zionist or pro-Zionist.”

An alumnus who is president of the campus Hillel is critical of the administration and is worried that the school may become a hotbed for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric like UC-Irvine. The article’s headline read, “Anti-Israel Rhetoric Raises Alarms at Brooklyn College.”

But here’s the thing: The campus Hillel’s staff and student leaders interviewed for the article do not use the language of fear and intimidation. Instead, they talk about how they have reached out to the Palestinian club for dialogue and insist the Israeli-Palestinian debate is “below the radar” of most students, including Muslims. They praise the college administration and have decided that the proper response to the Palestinian club is “to educate their peers about Israeli democracy and peace.”

This strikes me as the right balance of caution and utility. I’ve no doubt that a lot of Jewish kids arrive at some campuses and encounter their first real taste of anti-Israel sentiment. But my guess is that they are less silenced by “fear” than they are ill-equipped to argue for what they have always taken for granted: Israel’s right to exist, its moral rectitude, the essentially pro-Israel narrative they’ve grown up on.

Sharansky’s KGB comparison is overblown — worse, it can lead to some really bad policy. Instead of focusing on educating Jewish kids about Israel and giving them a sense of confidence in defending the country, fear leads to efforts by some groups to try to silence the other side. That’s an exceedingly odd position to be advocating at a college campus, which is supposed to be a place for students to encounter different and sometimes uncomfortable ideas.

I’m not arguing that we should ignore physical threats or anti-Semitic graffiti or heckling or vandalism directed at pro-Israel institutions or students. But a big part of addressing a problem is how you label it. If you are going to describe the climate on campus as one of “fear,” you are going to direct your resources to law enforcement and legal action — or, perhaps worse, end up aping the tactics of your opponents.

A better response to a pro-Palestinian event on campus is not to try and shut it down, or sue its organizers, but to counter it with pro-Israel activism and education. You need to trust the cause and believe in it, and feel confident that students, if given the proper tools, can muster strong arguments in defense of Israel.

If you lack this trust or confidence, or doubt your or their ability to defend Israel, then I’m afraid we’ve lost the argument already.

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