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.