columnSchools & Higher Education

Colleges can’t be safe spaces for antisemitism

There is a free-speech right to speak hatred against Jews. But that doesn’t entitle those who do so to jobs, commencement-speaker slots or anonymity.

A “Glory to Gaza” sign held by pro-Palestinian protesters after the Hamas terrorist attacks in southern Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Credit: Phil Pasquini/Shutterstock.
A “Glory to Gaza” sign held by pro-Palestinian protesters after the Hamas terrorist attacks in southern Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Credit: Phil Pasquini/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

For many on the left, Asna Tabassum is America’s latest free-speech martyr. Close behind her are others like Dani Marzouca, Celine Khalife, Malak Afaneh, in addition to Columbia University faculty members Joseph Massad, Katherine Franke and Mohamed Abdou. All are being targeted by the supposedly all-powerful Jewish community for “pro-Palestinian” opinions and “criticizing” Israel.

That’s the narrative we’re hearing in much of the corporate media and from liberal pundits this week as they attempt to change the national conversation about an epidemic of antisemitism in the streets of America’s cities and on college campuses since the Oct. 7 massacres in southern Israel by Hamas terrorist organization. The goal of this effort is to portray the pushback against hate speech directed at Jews as a form of repression that is stifling debate. Those putting forth these claims assert that Jews who speak up about antisemitism are cancel-culture mobs. These pro-Israel vigilantes are, we are told, seeking out innocent people who become the focus of unfair opprobrium that leads to denial of their rights and, in some cases, even costs them their livelihoods.

Those who are denouncing the attacks on these people are being both dishonest and hypocritical. Rather than merely voicing unpopular opinions, these alleged martyrs to freedom are actually voicing hate speech. And far from being denied the right to say what they want, the backlash against them is merely depriving them of the privilege of venting their antisemitic bile in venues like classrooms, private dinners and graduation ceremonies. Those are places where rules against hate speech exist. Yet they are rarely, if ever, enforced against antisemites. However, anyone who voices racism against African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians or any other minority protected by diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) rules are always dealt with harshly and subjected to peremptory punishment.

Others are merely being held accountable by employers for public conduct like tearing down posters of Israeli hostages and posting antisemitism on social media accounts that, like any other form of disreputable behavior, is the sort of thing most businesses understandably want to distance themselves from.

A false narrative

Worst of all, this narrative about “pro-Palestinian” victims is intended to erase and even justify the surge in Jew-hatred that has been felt all across the world but is particularly shocking in the United States, a place where bigotry for Jews has never been officially sanctioned. The Hamas atrocities of Oct. 7—the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust—unleashed a wave of animosity towards Israelis and Jews throughout the globe, including in places, like Western Europe, where antisemitism has been prevalent for some time. But the realization by mainstream American Jews that institutions like elite universities had become bastions of hostility has served as a wake-up call for them and others that this country is undergoing a cultural shift enabling antisemitism.

Each of these cases says something unfortunate about this moment in history. We are now constantly being told that it is “pro-Palestinians” who are under fire from alleged Islamophobes. What is really going on is that hateful speech against Jews has not just been accepted but glamorized by intellectuals who have been indoctrinated in ideas like critical race theory and intersectionality, which grant a permission slip for antisemitism.

Tabassum has gained notoriety because despite being named this spring as a valedictorian at the University of Southern California, she won’t give a commencement speech due to what the school described as “security concerns.” She became controversial after the discovery of social-media posts accusing Zionists of being racists and advocating for the destruction of Israel, as well as making false charges about Arabs being ethnically cleansed by Jews.

A privileged platform for hate

Her defenders claim that all she is doing is expressing sympathy for Palestinian victims and criticizing Israel’s government and military. While her apologists are right that the school isn’t being honest about the reason for their decision, they are being dishonest when they say she has a free-speech right to proclaim such falsities at the school’s graduation ceremonies. That was the argument made by David Meyers, a leftist Jewish history professor at UCLA, who penned a piece about the issue in The Los Angeles Times with Salam al-Maryati, an anti-Israel activist, who has defended Hamas and Hezbollah, blamed the 9/11 attacks on Israel and claims that Jews “weaponize” antisemitism.

Tabussum is free to stand on a street corner and spout her hatred for Israel and Jews, but regardless of her academic record, she isn’t entitled to use the podium at USC’s graduation for that purpose.

The same is true for Malak Afaneh, a University of California at Berkeley Law School student who attempted to hijack a private dinner at the home of dean Erwin Chemerinsky, a prominent legal scholar and teacher who has been attacked on campus for his support for Zionism. When Chemerinsky’s wife, Catherine Fisk, herself a law professor, sought to restrain and take away the microphone Afaneh brought with her, the student fallaciously claimed that she had a free-speech right to speak. Fisk rightly answered, “No, this is my house; the First Amendment doesn’t apply.” Fisk was subsequently lambasted for supposedly “assaulting” the student and denying her rights.

The trio of Columbia faculty members—Massad, Franke and Abdou—were part of the discussion at the hearing on antisemitism held by the U.S. House of Representatives at which Minouche Shafik, that university’s president and other school officials testified. Shafik managed to avoid the same kind of disaster that other university presidents walked into last December when the same committee heard them claim that it depended on “the context” as to whether advocacy for the genocide of Jews violated their school’s policies. Still, Shafik didn’t have any good answers as to why she had permitted a hostile atmosphere for Jewish students to be created on the New York City campus, largely because of people like that trio and the students who mimic their praise for Hamas murderers and voicing of blood libels against Israeli and Jews.

Again, the defenders of those professors, in addition to the students there and elsewhere who march around campuses chanting for the destruction of the one Jewish state on the planet (“from the river to the sea”) and in favor of terrorism against Jews everywhere (“globalize the intifada”), say they are merely exercising their right to free speech.

Would they defend the KKK?

Every school in this country has rules forbidding hate speech. And were a mob of students, aided and abetted by faculty members (as is often the case with anti-Israel protests), to call for violence against African-Americans or any other protected minority group—let alone to demonstrate in favor of known hate groups and terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan—they would be expelled and/or fired from their jobs so fast it would make their heads spin.

The point being that those who think “pro-Palestinian” speech, which in practice means advocacy of hatred against Jews, should be protected would never think of defending anti-black, anti-Hispanic or anti-Asian hate speech, or speak of those doing so as idealists who deserve praise for their courage rather than scorn. They make the exception for antisemitism precisely because of the influence of woke ideology, which divides the world into two groups locked in perpetual conflict: people of color who are victims and their “white” oppressors.

The neo-Marxists behind these ideas and their Islamist allies wrongly define Jews and Israel in this manner, despite the ludicrous nature of any such claim about a conflict that has nothing to do with race. Nor does it make any sense to label the Jews—a small minority group who have been subjected to violence and terrorism worldwide for millennia—in this manner. Nor are Jews “settlers” or colonialists” in their own country; they are the indigenous people of Israel. Yet they are the sole group that is the focus of the only international movement to deny anyone’s indigeneity.

Professors who engage in hate speech against Jews, not to mention introducing antisemitic ideas into their classrooms, aren’t simply exercising academic freedom to discuss controversial topics. They aren’t merely criticizing an Israeli government’s policies; they are advocating for the destruction of Israel and endorsing groups that wish to commit genocide against Jews, as well as applauding acts like the Oct. 7 atrocities, which were merely a trailer for more to come.

This is also why schools must adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which specifically cites this kind of speech as an obvious example of Jew-hatred. Those who oppose this definition do so precisely because they want to grant an exemption to anti-Zionism. But anti-Zionism, whether expressed by academics, students or street mobs, seeks to deny rights to Jews—to live in security and to defend themselves in their ancient homeland—that no one would deny to any other people. And that is antisemitism.

Holding bigots accountable

The cases of Marzouca and Khalife are also instructive. They were the focus of a sympathetic feature in The Washington Post that claimed they were victims of online mobs of pro-Israel bullies. Marzouca, who worked for a marketing firm, and Khalife, a therapist, were outed by the StopAntisemitism group for engaging in anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hate speech.

Marzouca had said in an Instagram Live post that “radical solidarity with Palestine means not apologizing for Hamas,” which the watchdog group not unreasonably said was pro-Hamas. Khalife was filmed tearing down posters of Israeli hostage victims and citing a conspiracy theory that they were kidnapped by Israel, not Hamas. She later told the Post that she had only torn them down because the posters said Hamas was a terrorist group and therefore “minimized the Palestinian struggle,” which is equally false and hardly more defensible. Both instances were highlighted online by StopAntisemitism, along with their places of employment, prompting the group’s followers to write and ask why they had such people working for them. As a result, both were fired.

Some claim that it’s unfair to publicize the activities of non-celebrities this way and that their punishment is too harsh. The Washington Post did its best to depict StopAntisemitism and its financial donors as the villains of the story. But would they feel the same way if the pair were endorsing the KKK or engaging in hate speech against blacks? Not likely. Nor is it unreasonable for employers not to want to be associated with people who do hateful things in public or on social media. If you send appalling posts or engage in public acts of prejudice, you lose the right to anonymity. Contrary to the Post, Marzouca and Khalife are the bigots here, not the activists at StopAntisemitism.

What we are seeing in these efforts to portray hate-mongers as victims and free-speech martyrs is not so much cases of cancel culture as an attempt to sanitize antisemitism and to demonize those who call it out.

Unlike Europe, the United States has a First Amendment to the Constitution that protects the ability of Americans to say what they like so long as it doesn’t involve violence. All of these so-called martyrs are free to go on engaging in hate speech against Jews and Israel. What they and their defenders want is not so much the right to continue speaking in this manner but for their antisemitism to be normalized and treated as something reasonable people should be able to agree to disagree about. Advocacy for the genocide of 7 million Israeli Jews and the destruction of the only Jewish state on the planet, however, isn’t fair comment. Those who wish to normalize these ideas aren’t defending free speech. They are advocating for a society in which Jews are hounded, targeted and subjected to intimidation and violence. And that is an immoral proposal that no decent American can ever accept.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin

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