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Does Academic Freedom Enable Antisemitism?

June 07, 2024

Ever since the House passed a bipartisan proposal to expand the definition of antisemitism in the wake of the pro-Palestinian protests taking place on college campuses throughout the country, a narrative has emerged that, should the bill become law, it would stifle an already-muffled voice of the Palestinian cause in academia. In actuality, the “Antisemitism Awareness” bill would be a step toward ensuring that criticism of Israel is limited to differences over political, historical, or policy decisions.

The Palestinian voice is well-represented in Western academic circles and enjoys the support of much of the intellectual elite in the fields of humanities and social studies. Consider the letter signed last month by 503 members of the University of California faculty to the UC Board of Regents urging them to resist pressure from a huge swath of the faculty advocating the institution of a number of anti-Israel policies. The letter states that these efforts are “nothing less than an attempt to completely purge UC campuses of Zionism and Zionists.” It notes that the entire UC San Diego Ethnic Studies department supports these anti-Israel measures.

It’s no coincidence: The Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP) published a report that shed light on the web of financial ties between the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, other similar actors, and American higher learning institutions. The investigation found “the existence of substantial Middle Eastern funding (primarily from Qatar) to U.S. universities that had not been reported to the Department of Education (DoED), as required by law.” The report uncovered “illicit funding of United States universities by foreign governments, foundations and corporations that adhere to and promote anti-democratic and antisemitic ideologies, with connections to terrorism and terror financing,” according to ISGAP founder Dr. Charles Small, who held a closed-door briefing this week with the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Accountability regarding antisemitism on college campuses. 

The Western academics who function as Palestinian advocates aren’t subtle. One outspoken academic wrote on October 7 that the Hamas attacks that killed more than a thousand civilians warmed “every fiber of my soul.” Not to be outdone, Russell Rickford, a native-born Cornell University history professor, said he was “exhilarated” by the atrocities committed by Hamas. Not only is there a scarcity of organic Israel-related academic content, but some Israeli scholars are disheartened to find they no longer have a place in the academic world.

Advocating for Palestinian rights is certainly an acceptable form of dialogue and perhaps laudable, provided it does not promote hate or violence and does not devolve into antisemitism. Unfortunately, in 2024 it often does. But, at its core, calling to dismantle Israel is antisemitic. There’s nothing wrong with arguing over Israeli policy, as many proud Zionists do every day, but campaigning for the country’s destruction is beyond the pale, and particularly suspect as there is no similar support for actors with far worse behavior, like Saudi Arabia, China, or Syria. How can the discriminatory singling-out of the only Jewish state be seen as anything other than antisemitism, the oldest manifestation of racism, and how can college administrators allow such viewpoints to be disseminated within their classrooms?

Pro-Palestinian advocates claim that they should be allowed to criticize Israel with aplomb, that whatever they say about the Jewish state is protected by the First Amendment or falls under the category of academic freedom. The Antisemitism Awareness bill would make that argument more difficult for Palestinian activists on and off campus. The bill, supported by 390 representatives from both parties, clearly defines the difference between legitimate debate and hate speech, though opponents fear that it will meld criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

The Antisemitism Awareness bill does not violate the tenets of academic freedom. No one believes that educators, or anyone else for that matter, are completely objective, and professors must be permitted to express their views and personal beliefs, even if there are limits (and calling for the annihilation of a people clearly falls outside them). But academic freedom requires intellectual honesty; it should enlighten students and expose them to other reasonable viewpoints with which they can choose to agree or disagree, and holding Israel to standards not required of any other nation is not reasonable, it’s antisemitic.

The Antisemitism Awareness legislation does not step on the First Amendment, either. Though frequently used interchangeably, academic freedom is not synonymous with the freedom of speech, which allows a wider latitude of speech and expression. Even so, the First Amendment does not include the right to incite actions that would harm others. One need not look further than the Columbia University protest organizer recently recorded proclaiming his desire to do away with all Zionists, or the fact that the rabbi of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel and Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life instructed Jewish students to go home for the remainder of the semester because the university could not guarantee their safety to know that this threshold has been long since crossed. 

The First Amendment does not create an unlimited right to protest. Courts have ruled that restricting the time, place, and methods of a protest are all legitimate actions of government or private individuals. These provisions serve to preserve free expression while protecting the rights of other citizens to their privileges under the Bill of Rights. The pro-Palestinian demonstrators have repeatedly ignored these sensible restrictions and that has served to further create a hostile environment for Jewish students.

Even though lies and hate speech may be protected under the Constitution, neither should be tolerated in an environment where academic freedom reigns. No one should be allowed to stand behind the cloak of academic freedom to espouse and promulgate destructive ideas, and that should be obvious with any definition of antisemitism, whether or not the definition has been codified into law. It is incumbent on educational institutions to promote understanding among diverse groups while creating a forum for mind-expanding discourse that is based on honesty and truth, above all.

This article was originally published by RealClearEducation and made available via RealClearWire.
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