Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, joined Ursinus President Brock Blomberg for the discussion “Free Speech and Israel Advocacy on Campus” at Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell on Dec. 7.Over the course of 90 minutes, they examined the issues and listened to thought-provoking questions and observations from the roughly 50 people in attendance.
“The latest statistics say 42 percent of American college students experience some anti-Semitism on campus, and in California it’s 71 percent,” said Romirowsky. “Ten years ago, those numbers were in the 20s and 30s.“The BDS movement (boycott, divestment and sanctions) is largely why.”
Romirowsky said an increase in professors disseminating slanted information or espousing anti-Semitic views — especially if they’re tenured and given more leeway — has led to more Jewish college students feeling under siege.And, in many cases, they’re finding the administration looking the other way to avoid confrontation.
That’s the dilemma colleges are facing these days, both Blomberg and Romirowsky said.
They pointed out that among the biggest issues is determining what constitutes freedom of expression — which is generally encouraged on campus — and what crosses the line. “What you see on a lot of college campuses is this notion of what is the right way to educate and also have a conversation,” said Blomberg, who came to Ursinus in 2015 from Claremont McKenna College in California. “The boundaries get blurred, and this creates a challenge.
“At Ursinus, we’re going through right now a ‘freedom of expression’ statement. There should be some limitations, and we’re working on a document to describe what those limitations are.”
By its nature, higher education encourages people with differing viewpoints to express them, but things get complicated in determining where the line should be drawn. “Academic freedom and anti-Semitism fall under protected speech,” said Romirowsky, who is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum. “But anti-Semitism is racist speech, and the BDS movement is the springboard to hatred and vitriol.
“The largest group behind that springboard is the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). They are on about 70-80 campuses throughout the country. They are trained in the same way we send our kids to Jewish overnight camps.
“They go to BDS camps where they’re motivated to come back to campus and radicalize. Over the past few years, there’s been an ongoing flow of money, resources and support.”
Adding to the concern is what he calls “intersectionality.”“It’s people who say, ‘You’re oppressed. I’m oppressed. Our oppression will bring us together,’” he explained. “You see a lot of coalition building. “Case in point is Black Lives Matter. Then there are peace and justice groups and
LGBTQ groups. They’re very comfortable expressing their views. During the  riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, their biggest slogan was ‘From Ferguson to Palestine is a crime.’ They’re making that connection.”
And if they don’t do it directly, often there are college professors leading their cause, Romirowsky said. While a syllabus for each course is supposed be approved by the school before a course is taught, it’s difficult to monitor what actually goes on in the classroom.
“When faculty get tenure, it gives them a right to academic freedom,” Blomberg said. “The purpose of that was to encourage freedom of expression.
“But it’s a challenge at Ursinus and a lot of schools about the dissemination of facts and their accuracy. … Certain things you may or may not say are controversial on a college campus that are acceptable somewhere else.”