A double standard for free speech at Vanderbilt

The cry-bullies—those aggressor activists who transform into victims when their ideological opponents answer back—can’t take criticism but are perfectly willing to dish it out.

Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: Jbaker08 via Wikimedia Commons.
Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: Jbaker08 via Wikimedia Commons.
Richard L. Cravatts
Richard L. Cravatts

Vanderbilt’s Chabad hosted a speaking event on Feb. 23 by Rudy Rochman, who describes himself as a “Jewish and Israel rights activist” who has “the intention,” as Chabad put it, “of creating a productive conversation around the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the history of Judaism and anti-Semitism.”

Rochman, a founder of Columbia University’s chapter of Students Supporting Israel (SSI) when he was a student there, is known to be a pro-Israel activist; thus, his audience would naturally be anticipating such sentiment from him. Additionally, he had recently traveled to Nigeria, where he had been imprisoned for three weeks, and as Chabad explained in an Instagram post after the event, Rochman used “his personal traumatic experience in order to call attention to the systemic antisemitism against the Igbo tribe in Nigeria.”

Normally, if someone is discussing bigotry against minority groups and human-rights violations in Third World countries, he would enjoy commiseration by the virtue-signaling identity groups on campus, but not in Rochman’s case due to his Zionist identity and his vigorous defense of Israel.

To challenge his unforgivable support of what is alleged to be an apartheid, racist regime, some activist students—members of the African Student Union (ASU) and the Indigenous Scholars Organization (ISO)—attended the event, seemingly with the express purpose to challenge and debate Rochman. “A group of roughly 30 students mostly all of color,” the ASU and ISO wrote in a statement after the event, “planned to attend the event and ask Rudy questions during the Q&A section as a form of protest [emphasis added].” So clearly, the students were expecting, and hoping, to be offended by Rochman’s speech—and they were.

Rudy Rochman. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What had inspired their outrage? For one thing, Rochman, they complained, “criticized Palestinian students for weaponizing intersectionality against the black community by convincing them their struggles for freedom were intertwined,” a valid observation about how minority groups on campus regularly share an affinity in their perceived oppression with both Israel and white America being the principal oppressors. He further annoyed these students by pointing out that hatred of Jews by either white or black supremacists was equally as bad, and they claimed, Rochman “equated white power and black power groups by asserting that they both shared a number one enemy: Jewish people.”

Rochman’s alleged racism was further confirmed in these scolds’ minds when he recounted his experiences in Nigeria and told the audience that in his opinion (based at least on his personal recent experience), Nigeria was one of the world’s most dangerous countries, which the insulted audience members interpreted as continued “criticism of black people.”

Even though Rochman’s assessment of the dangers evident in Nigeria is, of course, factually correct and supported by data, the student activists were shocked by his views; “many of the protesting students could hardly believe the wildly prejudiced and racist rhetoric Rochman was putting out. His stereotypical and harmful description of his visit to Nigeria carried on for about half an hour.”

Facts can be troublesome things. Even though the members of the African Student Union found Rochman’s comments to be “stereotypical,” “harmful” and “racist,” reports indicate, for example, that “5,067 Nigerians were reported to have been killed in 2021 owing to insecurity,” and “14 Nigerians died daily in various violent attacks reported in the news media from January to December 2021,” including the murderous “Boko Haram insurgents, bandits, robbers, kidnappers, cultists and gunmen [who] were the non-state actors who killed Nigerians the most in 2021.” Rochman’s analysis may have been gruesome and overstated, but it was certainly close to the truth, especially in light of his own recent experience.

Nevertheless, the ASU and ISO demanded a public apology from Chabad for sponsoring the event, started a petition to denounce Rochman’s racism and insensitivity, and even hung a banner reading: “African students matter. Indigenous students matter. Hold white students accountable for their racism.”

Even the Muslim Students Association (MSA) issued a statement as part of the chorus of denunciation and offense, writing that “while we were disappointed in Rochman’s lies, we were even more hurt by the fact that our own members and fellow students in the African Student Union and Indiginous [sic] Student Organization were deeply affected by the racist rhetoric perpetuated by Rochman and certain members of the audience during the talk.”

Even the Vanderbilt administration became involved as a result of student complaints, prompting André Churchwell, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, and chief diversity officer, and G.L. Black, vice provost and dean of students, to distribute a comforting email to soothe the tender feelings of any offended students.

Clearly, the student activists who attended the speech with the specific purpose of finding offense ended up being offended. The cry-bullies—the aggressor activists who transform into victims when their ideological opponents answer back—showed themselves again.

In this case, students went to an event voluntarily fully anticipating they would find offense with the ideology of the speaker. They did not have to attend and could have left if they found the ideas to be unpalatable. But they chose to stay and hear the personal opinions of a single speaker.

But perhaps the vicious reaction to the Rochman speech and its sponsorship by Chabad was a type of moral payback for another controversy involving the Israeli/Palestinian debate that took place on the Vanderbilt campus last May. As some 4300 Hamas-fired rockets from Gaza rained down on southern Israeli civilians, Vanderbilt’s student government collectively issued a controversial statement, “In Solidarity With Students,” in which—in the same manner that hundreds of other university student groups, departments, and individuals did at that time—they proclaimed support for the Palestinians and denounced Israel as the criminal aggressor in the latest conflict between those parties. Ignoring Hamas’s continued campaign of terror and the war crimes committed with each rocket fired at Jewish civilians, the statement nevertheless criticized only the behavior of Israel in defending its citizenry from attack, claiming that Israel’s actions “ . . . are inhumane and cruel acts of war, supremacy, and genocide that have and continue to systemically oppress Palestinians.”

No mention was made of Hamas, designated as a terrorist organization, of course. No mention of the lethal 4300 rockets and mortars that had rained down on Israeli towns. No mention of the Palestinians’ own intransigence in never accepting offers of statehood, choosing instead to follow the fantasy of “liberating” Palestine and making it free of Jews.

Instead, the IDF was described as a rogue, ruthless, malign force who “have also been specifically targeting Muslim Palestinians during the holy month of Ramadan,” the statement read, “but, Palestinians of all religions and ethnicities are subject to forced displacement under Israeli state forces. … The Israel government must be held accountable for the violent and inhumane treatment towards victims of these militarized attacks.”

The tendentious students even challenged Israel’s moral and legal right to protect itself from aggression and attempts to murder its citizenry. Empowered by the language of victimization and oppression, these enlightened undergraduates had determined, and spoke for the entire Vanderbilt student body in announcing, that, “What is occurring in Palestine right now is not a ‘clash’ nor a ‘conflict,’ but a persisting example of war crimes and human rights violations rooted in anti-indigenous sentiment and ethnic cleansing” [emphasis added], even though none of those pernicious slanders are factual.

And in case it was not clear where their affection rests, the statement concluded by stating that the student government “will also continue to wholeheartedly advocate for and support the Palestinian community against oppression and capitalism, and stand in solidarity with those directly and indirectly affected.”

Some Jewish students, of course, were outraged at the one-sided statement seemingly issued on behalf of all Vanderbilt students. Chabad chimed in with a rebuke to the student government for issuing it. The administration itself issued a mild statement of condemnation in which they noted that “we are engaging in conversations in this regard with our students to remind them of the importance of civil discourse and of engaging even on difficult issues with an expectation of civility.”

In the end, the Vanderbilt student government issued a libelous, factually incorrect statement in which the Jewish state was slandered, and its supporters made to appear as murderous racists. And even though the administration noted fecklessly that the student government does not speak for the whole Vanderbilt community, of course, by its very function, it does.

On the other hand, a Rudy Rochman speaking alone and expressing his personal opinions about the Middle East and Nigeria at a Chabad event speaks only for himself.

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and president emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of “Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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