The rise of the campus anti-intellectuals

A mock Israeli checkpoint set up during “Israel Apartheid Week” in May 2010 on the campus of University of California, Los Angeles. Credit: AMCHA Initiative.
A mock Israeli checkpoint set up during “Israel Apartheid Week” in May 2010 on the campus of University of California, Los Angeles. Credit: AMCHA Initiative.

By David Brog/

Like bad poker players, history’s crooks and liars have an obvious tell. Since they’re trying to deceive you, they’re desperate to keep you on their ideological reservation.  Start heading for the door and they will show their bad factual hand in their frenzy to stop you.

Whether it’s a communist leader in the Kremlin or a cult leader in his compound, this tell is always the same. Today, the desperate effort to suppress objective inquiry is most prevalent on our college campuses. The new anti-intellectuals typically target conservative and religious ideas. And as is so often the case with such extremists, many of them are obsessed with Jews.

In November, activists at New York University (NYU) proudly launched an effort to block their fellow students from traveling to Israel to learn the facts of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and other student groups announced that they would boycott a fact-finding trip to Israel called the NYU Israel Experience. These groups ominously warned that any student who violated their ban and joined the trip would be suspected of a “conflict of interest” upon their return to campus.

This isn’t the first time that the JVP thought police have tried to boycott a trip to Israel. They’ve invested great energy in a failed effort to convince Jewish students to decline Birthright trips to Israel. Among their complaints about these Jewish heritage trips is that “Birthright trips never expose Jewish participants to Palestinian life or perspectives.”

While this is a most arbitrary travel condition, the NYU Israel Experience actually meets it—the trip does expose its participants to Palestinian life and perspectives. So how does JVP justify a boycott in this instance? Blinded to their own hypocrisy, they assert, “We refuse to go on a trip that includes a visit to illegally occupied land.”

Damned if you don’t. Damned if you do. Let’s be clear, JVP doesn’t care what trip participants see or do. JVP activists will oppose any visit to Israel they don’t control. And they will try to shut down any conversation about Israel that they don’t dominate.

Indeed, JVP, SJP and their allies demonstrate their obsessive need for control not only abroad, but right here at home. They don’t want students to hear from campus speakers who don’t share their extreme views. That’s why they have so often sought to disrupt speeches by pro-Israel figures. And that’s why they’ve so often sought to intimidate students from showing up in the first place.

The contrast is enlightening. When is the last time that pro-Israel groups have presumed to order others not to travel to the Palestinian Authority or any Arab country for that matter? Far from banning such visits, many trips sponsored by pro-Israel groups—like the NYU Israel Experience—include visits with both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

When is the last time that any serious pro-Israel group tried to shout down a speaker with whom it disagrees? In my experience, the most “aggressive” pro-Israel students simply try to engage such individuals in dialogue and ask them tough questions. The goal isn’t to shut down debate, but to actually have a debate.

JVP put this traditional tolerance to the ultimate test in April when it had Rasmeah Odeh address the group’s National Member Meeting in Chicago. Odeh was a member of a terrorist group called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. She was convicted of bombing a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969 and killing two students, Leon Kanner and Eddie Joffe. When she immigrated to the U.S., she failed to disclose her murder conviction and has since pled guilty to immigration fraud.

Jewish groups did not disrupt Odeh or shout her down. Instead, they held a peaceful vigil to honor the memory of Odeh’s slain victims.

It’s just too rich. A group called Jewish Voice for Peace rejects dialogue and debate among students. Instead, the organization honors a woman convicted of murdering students. The analogy to George Orwell’s “1984” is too powerful to resist. For JVP, SJP and their fellow travelers, war is indeed peace.

Most students don’t know much about Israel and the Palestinians. While they’re at college, they should take some time to learn. But they must be wise consumers of information. They should seek out opportunities like the NYU Israel Experience to investigate the facts for themselves. They should run fast and far from JVP, SJP and anyone else who wants to shut down the very free inquiry that’s supposed to characterize their college experience.

David Brog, the executive director of the Maccabee Task Force, is the author of “Reclaiming Israel’s History: Roots, Rights, and the Struggle for Peace” (Regnery 2017). The Maccabee Task Force made a donation in support of the NYU Israel Experience.

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