Rejecting Hatred is Not Rejecting Free Speech

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Author Alice Walker was invited then disinvited to the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women celebration of its 50th anniversary.  On her blog Walker blamed “removal of funding from…donors, because of…comments regarding Israel”.

Walker has done more than make uncomplimentary “comments regarding Israel”.  In a review of her recent book, The Cushion in the Road, the Anti-Defamation League wrote, “(Walker) devotes 80 pages to a screed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict replete with fervently anti-Jewish ideas and peppered with explicit comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany.”

In 2012, Walker directed her agent not to translate her book, The Color Purple into Hebrew, because, as Haaretz reported, she contended, “Israel is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people, both inside Israel and also in the Occupied Territories.”  More recently, Walker publicly implored singer Alicia Keys not to perform in Tel Aviv.

So much for Alice Walker as the poster-woman for the free exchange of ideas.

Recent reports indicate Walker has been invited again to speak on the U of M campus in another venue. In between the cancellation and the new invitation, Michigan Provost Martha Pollack sent an e-mail letter to her faculty, in which she noted Michigan’s “commitment to free speech and to the expression of diverse viewpoints”.

University administrators face difficulty in confronting issues of freedom of expression. They must encourage free thought and expression if universities are to fulfill their mission of developing new knowledge and educating the next generation of leaders.

Universities also have a recognized role to play in maintaining a non-hostile environment where students can study in a place where they feel safe and free to express their views.  Students are taught that while there is freedom of expression, hate speech is unacceptable and not tolerated.

In fact, the University of Michigan was the defendant in a landmark 1989 case that overturned as overly broad their “Policy on Discrimination and Discriminatory Harassment of Students in the University Environment.”

Today at Michigan, “non-criminal activities that harm another because of that person’s membership in a classification, such as race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, age or religion” are called “bias-related” incidents and are subject to penalty.

If the University vetoed departmental sponsorship of the Ku Klux Klan, it is unlikely anyone on campus would object.

But in regard to Israel and Jews, there appear to be a different set of rules. We see this very same debate today, in a number of variations, on many campuses across the country.

Unfortunately, hate speech directed at Jews and Israel is considered acceptable in many parts of the world, including in some places in the United States.  Over the two millennia since Rome destroyed the last Jewish state, Judea, Jews have been the victims of hatred, persecuted and expelled from many European and Middle Eastern states. The 1940’s witnessed the culmination of two thousand years of hatred that predated the rebirth of Israel, with the murder in Europe of six million men, women and children.

And while each person, including Walker, is free to express their views, they are not automatically entitled to funding to support that expression. I have the right of free speech, but it is not axiomatic that I am also entitled to space on the editorial page of the New York Times. Although I might be happy to address next year’s Michigan commencement, it would not be deemed an abridgement of my rights if the University chose someone else.

University leaders have an obligation to truth and the students and faculty they lead, including to ensure that resources are used wisely. As George Washington similarly observed of our country, universities must “give(s) to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Freedom of expression does not obligate supporting those preaching hatred.


Rejecting Hatred is Not Rejecting Free Speech

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John R. Cohn

John R. Cohn, Thomas Jefferson University, SPME Board of Directors

John R. Cohn, M.D., is a physician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital (TJUH), in Philadelphia, PA, where he is the chief of the adult allergy and immunology section and Professor of Medicine. He is the immediate past president of the medical staff at TJUH.

In his Israel advocacy work he is a prolific letter writer whose letters and columns have been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Jerusalem Post, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Haaretz, the Jewish Exponent, Lancet (an international medical journal based in the UK), and others. He was CAMERA’s “Letter Writer of the year” in 2003. He maintains a large email distribution of the original essays which he authors on various Israel-related topics.

He has spoken for numerous Jewish organizations, including Hadassah, the Philadelphia Jewish Federation and to a student group at Oxford University (UK). He and his wife were honored by Israel Bonds.

He wrote the monograph: “Advocating for Israel: A Resource Guide” for the 2010 CAMERA conference. It is valuable resource for all interested in maximizing their effectiveness in correcting the endless errors of fact and omission in our mainstream media. One piece of very valuable advice that he offers to other letter writers is: “Journalists and media are not our enemies, even those we don't agree with". Particularly for those of us in the academic community he urges a respectful and educational approach to journalists who have taken a wayward course.

In addition to the SPME board, Dr. Cohn is a member of a variety of professional and Jewish organizations, including serving on the boards of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, the CAMERA regional advisory board, and Allergists for Israel (American allergists helping the Israeli allergist community). In the past he served on the board of the Philadelphia ADL. He participated in the 2010 CAMERA conference (“War by Other Means,” Boston University) where he led a panel with students on “Getting the Message Out,” and a break-out session called “Getting Published in the Mainstream Media.”

He is married, has three children and one grandchild. He belongs to two synagogues--he says with a chuckle, "So I always have one not to go to". He has been to Israel many times, including as a visiting professor at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. His first trip was at age 10, when Jerusalem was still a divided city; and he remembers vividly standing before the Mandelbaum Gate, wondering why he could not go through it to the Old City on the other side.

He adroitly balances his wide-ranging volunteer activities on behalf of Israel with his broad and complex medical and teaching practice (including authoring numerous professional publications) while successfully maintaining good relations with a broad spectrum of Jewish community leaders and organizations -- no small feat.

Regarding his involvement with SPME, Dr. Cohn acknowledged first and foremost SPME’s Immediate Past President, Professor Ed Beck. Dr. Cohn has long perceived that under Professor Beck’s guidance, SPME has been doing an essential job on college campuses; so he was honored when Professor Beck invited him to join the board.

He finds it easy to support and be active in SPME because being a Jewish American and a supporter of Israel presents no conflict due to the congruence of both countries’ interests, policies and priorities. It is clear that Israel’s cause is not a parochial issue. It is a just cause and its advocacy is advocacy for justice.

For Dr. Cohn, the need for SPME is clear. The resources of those who speak out on behalf of Israel are dwarfed by the funding sources available to those who seek to denigrate Israel. Israel's supporters don’t have large oil fields to underwrite their work. And the campus is a critical arena for work today on behalf of Israel, because this generation’s students are next generation’s leaders.

For advancing SPME’s work in the future, he would like to see the continued development of academically sound analyses to counter the prevailing anti-Israel ideology of all too much academic research and teaching on campuses and in professional fields today. He points to Lancet’s creation of a “Lancet Palestinian Health Alliance,” which asserts that Israel is to blame for poor health care for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The documented reality, however, is that life expectancy, infant mortality and other measures of health are better for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza than in many of the countries so critical of Israel This is in large part thanks to Israel.

Dr. Cohn asserts that we need more research, analysis and publications to counteract such misleading allegations.

Read all stories by John R. Cohn