HR 35 & the Boundaries of Academic Free Speech

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No sooner had the California State Assembly voted on and passed House Resolution 35 (HR 35) that calls upon California public universities to “increase their efforts to swiftly and unequivocally condemn acts of anti-Semitism” than the University of California Students Association (UCSA), a system-wide student organization with representatives from each campus, hastily passed a resolution denouncing the resolution, contending that it compels educational institutions “to directly suppress legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and Palestine solidarity activism, and stifles robust political debate on public university campuses.”

Scheduled to be voted on the day before the Jewish holidays, and allowing no debate from pro-Israel students or those with opposing views, the UCSA resolution suggested that  “While HR 35 purports to oppose anti-Semitism, much of HR 35 is written to unfairly and falsely smear as ‘anti-Semites’ those who do human rights advocacy focusing on Israel’s illegal occupation, alleging that the UC faculty and staff involved in such work are motivated by anti-Semitism rather than by the political ideals of equality and respect for universal human rights they affirm, ideals UCSA and most California students share.”

Campus radicals who promote the Palestinian cause may purport to be guided by “political ideals of equality and respect for universal human rights,” but it will come as a surprise to no one that they are less than willing to extend those same rights and ideals of equality for Israelis or Jews, and for anyone on North American campuses—Jewish or not—who wishes to articulate his or her own support for the Middle East’s only democracy.

In fact, the problem on campuses across the country is that pro-Palestinian activists, in their zeal to seek self-affirmation, statehood, and social justice for the ever-aggrieved Palestinians, have waged a very caustic cognitive war against Israel and Jews as their tactic in achieving those ends—part of a larger, more invidious intellectual jihad against Israel led by some Western elites and those in the Muslim world who also wish to weaken, and eventually destroy, the Jewish state.

A central part of that cognitive war involves the speech and behavior that HR 35 specific sought to address, namely, the demonization and venomous intellectual attacks on the character, moral standing, legality, and social behavior of Israel, and its role as colonial occupier, brutal oppressor, and racist state. Where that anti-Israel speech and behavior has seemingly crossed the line of civil discourse, and why the California lawmakers passed their resolution in the first place, is in those frequently, and ever increasing, instances when what is described as activists as criticism of Israel has devolved into speech, representations, and tropes that can be considered raw anti-Semitism, not the political discourse or academic inquiry it is said to be by those who perpetrate it.

HR 35 was very specific in relying on working definitions of anti-Semitism used by, among others, the U.S. Department of State, Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, which, as the Bill states, observe “that in context certain language or behavior demonizes and delegitimizes Israel or attacks Israel with classic anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli police to that of the Nazis, and accusing the Jewish people, or Israel, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust”—exactly the type of expressed attitudes and accusations regularly seen in academia.

In fact, being pro-Palestinian on campuses today does not mean that one is committed to helping the Palestinians productively nation-build, or creating a civil society with transparent government, a free press, human rights, and a representative government. Being pro-Palestinian on campuses involves very little which actually benefits or makes more likely the birth of a new Palestinian state, living side by side in peace with Israel. What being pro-Palestinian unfortunately has come to mean is continually denigrating and attacking Israel with a false historical narrative and the misused language of human rights.

The moral uprightness that anti-Israel activists feel in denouncing what they perceive to be Israel’s racist, apartheid character, combined with its role as the illegal occupier of stolen Muslim land, has manifested itself in paroxysms of ideological assaults against Zionism, Israel, and, by extension, Jews in general. And of great concern to those who have observed the invidious byproduct of this radicalism, including the California legislature, is the frequent appearance of anti-Israel sentiment that often rises to the level of raw anti-Semitism, when virulent criticism of Israel bleeds into a darker, more sinister level of hatred –enough to make Jewish students, whether or not they support or care about Israel at all, uncomfortable, unsafe, or hated on their own campuses. In fact, a recent study commissioned by UC President Mark G. Yudof to measure the climate faced by Jewish students found that anti-Israel activism and on-campus attacks on Israel and Zionism regularly “engender a feeling of isolation, and undermine Jewish students’ sense of belonging and engagement with outside communities.”

Those findings aside, critics of HR 35 were quick to denounce the resolution as an attempt to suppress academic free speech, that instead of a measure to protect Jewish students and others from having to endure a hostile campus climate the resolution was actually a way of “chilling” expression and, more specifically, of suppressing what some believe to be legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and its policies. Universities continually give lip service to how much they embrace the notion of “academic free speech,” using it as a license to permit both professors and outside speakers to hurl invectives at activists’ favorite targets, while simultaneously sheltering designated victim groups from any kind of critique or examination.

In the Israel/Palestinian debate this has had the pernicious effect in which outrageous extremists and academic cranks are regularly invited to speak against Israel, Jews, and the United States, but when conservative or pro-Israel speakers are invited to defend Israel, their speeches are interrupted or cancelled entirely because the speakers are accused of being Islamophobes, racists, or purveyors of “hate speech.” So while administrators and faculty have never had any difficulty in identifying so-called hate speech on campus when it is aimed at African Americans, Hispanics, GLBTs, Muslims, or other victim groups, when the discussion is about Israel and the Palestinians, and the target of the virulent speech and demonstrations is Zionism, the Jewish state, or Jews in general, both administrators and campus radicals conveniently inoculate themselves from responsibility for what they would otherwise deem hate speech by invoking the protection of academic free speech.

Pro-Palestinian activists have successfully hijacked the narrative about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on campuses, but in elevating the Palestinian cause by degrading Israel they have unleashed an ideological tsunami replete with virulent language, slanders, blood libels, inversions of history and fact, and, often, as former Harvard president Laurence Summers put it, have unleashed forms of expression that are “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.” That is the issue here, and why it is necessary and important that, in the effort to promote the Palestinian cause and help them to achieve statehood, another group—Jewish students on American campuses—do not become victims themselves in a struggle for another group’s self-determination.

Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, author of Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel & Jews, is President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

HR 35 & the Boundaries of Academic Free Speech

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Richard L. Cravatts

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., author of six books, including Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews, Jew Hatred Rising: The Perversities of the Campus War Against Israel & Jews, and Weaponizing Our Schools: Critical Race Theory and the Racist Assault on America’s Students is President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).

He is currently a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech.

The creator and founding director of Boston University's Program in Publishing & Digital Media at BU’s Center for Professional Education and former Professor of Practice and Director of the master’s program in Communications Management at Simmons College’s School of Management, Dr. Cravatts has also taught more than 20 courses in advertising, marketing, consumer behavior, advertising, and other areas at Tufts University, UMass/ Boston, Suffolk University, Babson College, Boston University, Wentworth Institute, Emerson College, Northeastern University, Florida Atlantic University, Emmanuel College, and others.

Dr. Cravatts has published over 550 articles and book chapters on campus anti-Semitism, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, campus free speech, terrorism, Constitutional law, Middle East politics, and social policy in the Boston Globe, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, Palm Beach Post, Baltimore Sun, Boston Herald, Orange County Register, American Thinker, Jewish Press, Human Events, Harvard Crimson, FrontPage Magazine, Times of Israel, and many others.

He also lectures nationally on the topic of higher education, academic freedom, and the Middle East, and has spoken at, among others, Columbia University, UCLA Law School, Harvard University, Brandeis University, University of Toronto, Stanford University, UC Berkeley, University of Haifa, NYU Law School, Tel Aviv University, and University of Miami.

In addition to serving as a member of the board of directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Dr. Cravatts is also a board member of The Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, The AMCHA Initiative, The Israel Group, The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, Alliance for Israel, and the Florida chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, an advisory board member of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, the Abraham Global Peace Initiative, and The Gross Family Center for the Study of Antisemitism and the Holocaust, and a member of SPME’s Council of Scholars.

Read all stories by Richard L. Cravatts